To say that its been a difficult stretch for Pac-12 basketball is an understatement. The conference suffered the embarrassment of being the first BCS conference to not have its conference champion, Washington, even sniff the NCAA Tournament despite a 14-4 conference. Ditto Oregon, its second place team at 13-5. In 2006-07, an 11-7 conference record propelled Oregon to a 3-seed. By last season, 11-7 was a CBI resume. I guess that's to be expected when an entire conference can't muster up a top-25 win. That's right--nobody in the Pac-12 beat a ranked team last season.
That's not to say that the league was particularly strong even before it bottomed out spectacularly last year. Jordan Brenner at ESPN had an excellent article on this yesterday, highlighting the reasons for the league's decline. Egress of talent to the NBA is usually cited as a key factor, but Brenner rightly asserts that the conference has been no more afflicted with early entries than other conferences. However, there are two reasons that stand out above all others, and both have been largely unique to the recent Pac-12 as opposed to other power conferences.
The first is lack of exposure. We often gripe about how damaging the Pac-10 television contracts under former commissioner Tom Hansen were. We usually complain about this in regards to football, where many league games were nowhere to be found on any kind of television, and the league consistently made less money than any other power conference. While this is true, at least football was on ESPN, and got the benefit of having some games in time slots where the east coast wasn't completely asleep.
Counter that situation with that of Pac-12 basketball. The league was stuck with FSN as their only national broadcast partner. There was often only a single game starting at 7:00 Pacific--10:00 Eastern, and these games were often pre-empted in local markets to show whatever professional team the local FSN affiliate had a contract with. Many teams had more than ten non televised games on their schedules. ESPN never talked about the Pac-12 because it was pretty much the only conference that the network didn't have any broadcast rights to. Furthermore, the WCC was allowed to fill in that West Coast niche for ESPN as Gonzaga and, to a lesser extent, St. Mary's became national programs, with the addition of Brigham Young only adding to the WCC's appeal. We've been in a situation the last couple of years where the WCC has both been more accessible nationally, and had a better product on the court than the Pac-12.
The second is sheer coaching turnover. There has not been a power conference who has seen more turmoil in the coaching ranks than the Pac-12 in recent seasons. It has been four seasons since Oregon's last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007-08, a first round loss to Mississippi State (and it feels like longer). Including newcomers Colorado and Utah, there are only three coaches in the conference who were coaching at their current schools that season: Washington's Lorenzo Romar, UCLA's Ben Howland, and Arizona State's Herb Sendek. The effect on schools of those changes were tremendous.
Following Ernie Kent's last season at Oregon, the roster was decimated by transfers who followed him out the door, a situation that Dana Altman is still struggling to rectify as he copes with transfer issues of his own. Lute Olson's retirement at Arizona led to an ugly year behind the scenes with Kevin O'Neill. They now have the right coach in Tucson in Sean Miller, but it takes some time to stabilize the ship. Stanford has struggled to find consistency under Johnny Dawkins. Washington State's program hasn't been the same since Tony Bennett moved on. USC was left in a heap in the wake of the Tim Floyd scandal. Craig Robinson has elevated Oregon State from the days of being winless in conference, but he hasn't been able to elevate that program above the CBI, even in a down conference. Utah may be the worst major college team in the country. Mike Montgomery at Cal and Tad Boyle at Colorado have been the only two new coaches who have been able to turn their programs around in short order. Not coincidentally, those were the only two schools from the conference to make it into the tournament last season.
This isn't rocket science. UCLA, Arizona, and Washington, the three top dogs in the conference over the last decade or so, had down years last year. You can survive a year of that when you have a deep conference. When you don't, it is devastating, and it showed last season.
These two factors, coaching turnover and exposure, play into recruiting as well. Teams can come into Pac-12 territory and pick players. The opposite isn't nearly as true, because the level of play and exposure of the conference have been lacking. Take Oregon as an example. Between them, Oregon and Oregon State have only two scholarship players between them who played high school basketball in the state of Oregon: EJ Singler and Austin Kuemper. In EJ's case, his only other BCS level offer was from Washington State. In Kuemper's case, it was Iowa State. Anybody with options, whether it be Landen Lucas (Kansas), Terrance Jones (Kentucky), Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Terrance Ross (Washington), Kyle Singler (Duke), Kevin Love (UCLA), Brad Tinsley (Vanderbilt), Andrew Andrews (Washington), Mike Moser (UNLV). Of all that elite talent coming out of the State of Oregon, very little of it considered Oregon, none of it considered Oregon State, and only three players out of that group (Ross, Andrews, and Love) remained within the conference. Nobody wants to play in a bad conference with coaches they don't know where nobody can see them.
The good news is that the structure is now in place to get out of this long malaise. No coaches were fired after last season, and only two coaches, Howland and Sendek, enter this season on the hot seat, and Howland has all the pieces in place with the #1 recruiting class in the country to be a factor again this season. That relative coaching stability can be added to the new Pac-12 TV contract ensures every game is televised, and has a substantial ESPN package, ensuring recruits actually see the games. These two factors help recruiting immensely, which will help restore the conference to its former grandeur. The pressing question, of course, is how long will it take?
UCLA and Arizona were able to nail down great recruiting classes last season, and should be able to compete nationally right away. However, that was supposed to be the case last season as well, and it didn't work out. If those two can be the marquee programs and have big seasons, it will help the national profile of the conference immediately. That leaves you with three other teams who are talented enough to expect to contend for an NCAA berth in Cal, Colorado, and Washington. But each of those teams have questions. Washington lost Terrance Ross and Tony Wroten with no significant additions after under-performing last year. Pac-12 Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez is out at Cal. Colorado was improved last season, but it was only a conference tournament that pushed them into the NCAAs. If everything goes right, you could have a five bid league, but what if one or two of those five teams slips up? Has the league built up enough depth that an Oregon or a Stanford could jump up and be a surprise contender for an NCAA bid? I just don't think those programs are there yet. And that's the challenge for where this conference needs to get back to--that you have 3-4 programs that you can count on to get bids pretty much every year, and another 4-6 that are going to be in consistently enough to get to seven total bids in any given year.
This conference has been there before, and can get there again. Arizona, UCLA, Cal, Washington, and Colorado seem to have the right pieces in place. Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona State may or may not have the right pieces in place, but they have the facilities and resources to be aggressive if need be. And we forget that Utah and Oregon State are historical powers, the latter with rapidly improving facilities, who have done it before and have no reason why they can't do it again.
This season will give us an idea of how long that recovery will take. Arizona and UCLA need to live up to potential and be a consistent league presence in the top-25. The league needs to cobble together four bids to the tournament, which isn't good enough as the ultimate destination, but is a good first step. The league needs some significant non-league scalps in the preseason. They need at least one team to make a significant tourney run. The second tier teams needs to make runs in the secondary tournaments. And this improved success, combined with the coaching stability, needs to result in a couple of those schools who are not in the top five getting a significant enough talent upgrade via recruiting that they can compete for a tourney bid next season and start to rebuild the league's depth.
We'll look at the individual teams in the coming days, and there is still a lot of ugliness when you look at roster construction in this conference. But the bottom falling out has allowed the rubble to be cleared, and a new foundation is being built. Its a better, more structurally sound foundation, one that will be able to bear a bigger, more successful basketball conference.