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A few wins in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t necessarily erase roughly two years of embarrassments and frustrations for any conference.
For the Pac-12, though, the past few days have granted a momentary reprieve for a conference that has absorbed one bad headline after another pretty much since the news first broke in late September 2017 that four Division I assistant basketball coaches — including USC’s Tony Bland and Arizona’s Book Richardson — had been arrested by the FBI on various fraud and corruption charges.
Since then, the tent pole sports of football and men’s basketball have struggled so thoroughly in the Pac-12 it was easy to coax snickers when referring to the league as one of the nation’s power conferences. Pac-12 football has twice been shut out of the College Football Playoff while being forced to play damage control from the self-inflicted wound of a video replay controversy last fall. In men’s basketball, the Pac-12’s three entrants to the 2018 NCAA Tournament were sent home almost immediately. Other than a one-week cameo by regular season champ Washington, no Pac-12 team enjoyed a national ranking in the weekly AP poll over the final two months of this season.
Arizona State escaping the First Four round of 68, followed by first-round wins by Washington and Oregon on Friday and even a first-round NIT win by the Colorado Buffaloes, has dulled a little of the sting from what was widely regarded as a mediocre basketball season.
“We beat each other up in league play, you try to beat each other up in the tournament, you recruit against each other, but this time of year and the preseason is when we’ve got to root for each other,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “You want your league to be respected, and right now we don’t have a lot of respect nationally. The only way you get it is by winning games.”
Last week, during his annual state-of-the-league press conference ahead of the Pac-12 championship game, commissioner Larry Scott made the point that some of the league’s basketball struggles have been cyclical. Rarely do I agree with the commish, but there is some truth to this.
It was just three years ago the Pac-12 sent a league-record seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, in the same 2015-16 season that saw the SEC endure questions about its national relevancy in men’s basketball. A year later, the Pac-12 set another league record with 14 selections in the two-round NBA draft. Reaching that sort of collective peak, while simultaneously losing that immense pool of talent, is difficult for any conference to withstand.
After three quick exits in the NCAA Tournament last year — ASU and UCLA lost in the First Four, just before regular season and tournament champ Arizona was routed in the first round by Buffalo — the league has acquitted itself far more respectably thus far in the 2019 tournament. While Buffalo struck again, this time eliminating ASU in the first round, Oregon and Washington remain alive going into the final day of the second round Sunday. Never mind how those NCAA Tournament wins, three and counting so far, will add about $900,000 to CU’s athletic coffers over the next six years (league allotments for NCAA Tournament appearances and wins are doled out incrementally in annual sums).
While the myriad financial and off-field issues dogging the league aren’t going to disappear with a little postseason success, the belief here is the on-court product will soon improve for the Pac-12. Washington will lose its core due to graduation, but two-time Coach of the Year Mike Hopkins has one of the top recruits in the nation coming to Seattle in Isaiah Stewart. Bobby Hurley has built ASU into a perennial contender and Oregon, like the Buffs, should be in position to build on its stellar finish next fall. And that’s even without the possibility of the league’s marquee basketball programs, Arizona and UCLA, successfully navigating its respective transition phases to once again become national powers.
It’s too soon to say Pac-12 basketball is back. But the rest of the league can thank Washington and Oregon for at least reversing the Pac-12’s basketball momentum.