Season of woes in Pac-12 basketball
From its heyday of a few years ago, when it boasted more than its share of NCAA berths, top draft picks and superstars, the conference has taken a steep decline in both talent and stability.
Seattle Times colleges reporter
NCAA tournament outlookESPN's Joe Lunardi, in his "Bracketology" feature, predicts just three Pac-12 teams making it into the NCAA tournament this year. His picks, by conference:
- 9: Big East
- 7: Big Ten
- 6: Big 12
- 6: ACC
- 5: SEC
- 3: Mountain West
- 3: West Coast
- 3: Pac-12
- 2: Missouri Valley
- 2: Conference USA
- 2: Atlantic 10
It wasn't so long ago that Pac-12 basketball elicited respect from television's talking heads. The league was so good that it demanded attention.
In three consecutive seasons, from 2007 to 2009, the league hogged a total of 18 berths in the NCAA tournament. UCLA was finishing a run of three straight Final Fours.
The talent level was ridiculous. In the 2008 NBA draft, the league had five of the first 11 players taken, people like O.J. Mayo and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.
That year the league had 12 players drafted. Another bountiful haul in the 2009 draft — including James Harden, Demar Derozan and Jrue Holiday — meant that in a span of two drafts, the league had 13 first-round picks and 21 players taken overall.
When players weren't headliners, coaches were. Washington State's Tony Bennett, building from the foundation of his father, Dick, won 24 league games in two years. The bar was so high that Oregon ran Ernie Kent out after he took teams to the Elite Eight twice since 2002.
Those were the days.
Today, the Pac-12 warrants snickers from national columnists and TV analysts. For the first time in history, the West Coast Conference might get more bids to the NCAA than the Pac-12. With virtually no nonconference wins of significance, the Pac-12 hasn't had a team ranked in the AP top 25 since the week of Nov. 28.
The fall has been dramatic, illustrated no more graphically than by the 15-player 2008 Best in the West list of high-school prospects compiled annually by The Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Ten of those 15 opted for colleges outside the Pac-12, including Peyton Siva, the Franklin High guard who chose Louisville. The five others — Abdul Gaddy, Tyler Honeycutt, Solomon Hill, Mike Moser and Reeves Nelson — reflect the turmoil then at Arizona, and the missteps at UCLA and the cloud over USC, all elements in the Pac-12's malaise.
It's a complicated mosaic. It's not easy to fall so far.
The UCLA puzzler
On the regional cover of Sports Illustrated's 2011-12 college basketball issue was UCLA forward Reeves Nelson. A few weeks later, Nelson was suspended and then booted from the team, breaking new territory for the famed SI jinx.
Of all the aspects in the Pac-12's fall, UCLA's slide seems most mysterious. The overarching theme is that the Bruins have made multiple misjudgments in recruiting, and some trace Kerry Keating's departure from the Bruins' staff in 2007 to become coach at Santa Clara as the turning point.
Ben Howland, the UCLA coach, says the program didn't do enough to recognize that Drew Gordon, a forward who transferred and is playing well at New Mexico, wouldn't fit at UCLA. The school passed on forwards Derrick Williams and Kawhi Leonard, who starred at Arizona and San Diego State.
The Bruins offered a scholarship early to guard Tyler Lamb, bypassing Allen Crabbe, and Crabbe is outpacing Lamb at California.
Some believe Howland's rugged defensive style wears on players, and indeed, some of their departures for the NBA have caught Howland by surprise. Holiday's did, and last year, Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee went in the second round.
Asked recently if he underwent any soul-searching because of the attrition, Howland said, "I don't think we could have done anything different to retain some of these kids. It's part of the culture that is college basketball right now. You have a lot of people getting to these kids and encouraging them.
"When Tyler Honeycutt left last year, his people weren't telling him, 'You're going to be a second-round pick.' He did not get good advice. You don't leave early to go in the second round."
It's the drain of draft picks that Pac-12 coaches cite most when discussing the state of the league. The reality is that the talent boom of the 2007-08 period was unusual, and it contributed to unprecedented strength of the league.
"It's almost comical, the number of lottery picks there were," said Frank Burlison, a longtime college basketball writer and scout in Southern California. "No other region in the country had that kind of talent. That was a real rare thing. The talent level in the (Western) states just hasn't been quite as good."
The Arizona, USC sagas
In the fall of 2007, Arizona coaching icon Lute Olson announced he was taking a leave of absence. Soon, it grew into a year away from the game, and assistant Kevin O'Neill took over.
Olson grew disenchanted with the way O'Neill was running things, announced O'Neill's departure for him in the spring of 2008, and later that fall, after saying he was ready to return, abruptly announced his retirement. That augured the appointment of assistant coach Russ Pennell for a year.
The chaos was palpable. Gaddy, from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, had committed to Arizona under Olson but reopened his recruiting and chose Washington. Moser, a highly touted forward from Portland, also backed off and picked UCLA. Freshman forward Jeff Withey practiced under Olson for about 10 days in October 2008 and decided to transfer to Kansas.
By the time the Wildcats could hire Sean Miller from Xavier, the turmoil had cost the program its 25-year streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Arizona did get a gift, though, from USC. Three key recruits headed for the Trojans — Williams, Hill and MoMo Jones — rerouted their destinations to Tucson during the NCAA investigation of improper agent activity with USC's Mayo and the subsequent firing of coach Tim Floyd.
O'Neill, a year out of Arizona, was hired by USC. He maintains that the NCAA probe effectively torched two recruiting classes.
The sum total of the twin melodramas: more erosion of the Pac-12 profile.
This is the age of the disgruntled player moving on, but the league has seen an uncommon number of standouts transfer. Withey recently had 25 points against Baylor and followed with a 18-point, 20-rebound game against Oklahoma State.
Matt Carlino, one of several transfers from UCLA, just had 30 points for Brigham Young against San Francisco. Moser leads UNLV in scoring and is fourth in the nation in rebounding. The Rebels' second-leading scorer is Chace Stanback, another UCLA expatriate.
Tenth on the national rebound list is Gordon at New Mexico. Others of note are Jones, who recently had a 43-point game for Iona after leaving Arizona; Xavier Thames, who opted out of a point-guard logjam at Washington State to start for 13th-ranked San Diego State; Elston Turner, leading Texas A&M in scoring after departing Washington; and Bryce Jones, who had a couple of altercations at USC and left for UNLV.
Occasionally, players have transferred seemingly on a whim. Touted guard Gary Franklin left Cal, telling the Bears he needed to be a full-time point guard after starting 11 of his first 13 games in Berkeley. He's averaging 11 minutes a game at Baylor.
Jabari Brown, one of last year's most highly sought players on the West Coast, played two games at Oregon and didn't find it to his liking. He's now at Missouri.
Will it improve?
It's even more complicated. A couple of coaches from those golden days of 2007-08, Bennett and Trent Johnson, left for Virginia and Louisiana State, respectively, and WSU and Stanford haven't yet recovered.
USC has been tagged by an unheard-of rash of injuries this year, diminishing a team that would have been competitive to one that's unwatchable.
And those early departures for the pros include some illogical ones last spring, not only those at UCLA but DeAngelo Casto of WSU and Jeremy Green of Stanford, each of whom went undrafted.
"The league will get back up," insists USC's O'Neill. "It always does."
There are signs that will happen. Arizona has signed what some recruiting analysts are calling the top-ranked class, and UCLA's is highly rated as well.
But it's more than acquisition of talent. The message of the past few years is clear: The league needs stability as badly as stars.
About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-12.
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