O Pac-10, Where Art Thou?
Has anybody been keeping up with college basketball?
Still too busy with football happenings, college and pro?
Well, when your mind finally begins to wander away from the pigskin, you might be surprised by what you see in college basketball this season. Or more accurately, by what you don't see.
Take a look here at the current rankings. Notice anything missing?
Okay, so I probably killed the suspense in that question with the title of this post, but that's right, you won't find any Pac-10 teams ranked in the top 25 of either poll. Arizona State is the only Pac-10 team receiving votes in both polls. An 11-6 California team coming off a fifteen point loss on the road to Washington is also receiving a solitary vote in the Coaches poll. Good to know somebody really believes in the Golden Bears. Maybe it's Cal Coach Mike Montgomery.
Regardless, it's going to be a while before a Pac-10 team sees the light of day of a top 25 poll. Meanwhile, some other conferences that have top 25 teams? Outside of the other power conferences and of course the West Coast Conference with its perennially ranked Gonzaga team, the Mountain West, A-10, Horizon, and Missouri Valley conferences are all host to a top 25 team.
Meanwhile, the Pac-10, home to four separate programs with a national championship banner hanging from its rafters, will do well to get two teams into the NCAA tournament. Two! UCLA, home to Wooden and holders of a record eleven NCAA championships, are now (at 7-10) the whipping boys of the conference just two years removed from a run of three straight appearances in the Final Four.
They're not even reeling from recruiting violations either. That would be crosstown rivals USC. With a winning record early on in conference play and a double digit dismantling of eighth ranked Tennessee, the Trojans may just be best team in the league. Too bad it doesn't count. In a bid to beat the NCAA to the punch, USC has already suspended itself from post-season play this year, including participation in the Pac-10 Conference Tournament.
Okay, you say. You're thinking, "Didn't this USC team win the conference tourney last year and punch its ticket to the Big Dance, making it to the second round before narrowly falling to eventual NCAA Championship runner-up Michigan State?"
Well...yes, they did, and that was a relatively young team. But once Tim Floyd resigned and the writing was on the wall concerning possible NCAA rules violations, much of last year's team bolted.
Credit to much maligned Kevin O'Neill for rallying his undermanned team, but it does not reflect well upon the Pac-10 that such an understrength team with nothing to play for is holding its own. Both Cal and Washington began the season with some expectations, but have been inconsistent at best. The whole league has. Each team has lost at least six times overall (bar Arizona State who has five losses) and twice in conference play.
So where did this sudden decline come from? Generally speaking, the Pac-10 hasn't been at its best the past few years anyway, but it could still hang its hat on UCLA's run of three straight Final Four appearances. Even that was deceiving, though. UCLA did make it to the Championship game in 2006, but was run off the court by Florida. Same thing happened the next year when they met the Gators in the Final Four. A year later, it was Memphis having its way with the Bruins in a national semi-final game. Throw in Lute Olsen's drawn out departure at Arizona and the Pac-10's power base has been in some flux since.
Beyond that, the Pac-10 has been crippled by early departures. Over the past couple of years, the Pac-10 has had fourteen underclassmen taken in the NBA draft, more than any other conference including the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten combined.
But not only are Pac-10 teams having trouble keeping their talent enrolled, they're having trouble getting it there in the first place. The region, especially California, is a hotbed of basketball talent, but more than a few of its best players have left the area to play their collegiate ball. Some of those players this year are suiting up for the likes of Florida State, North Carolina, and Texas.
Over the long term, a season this bad for the Pac-10 is probably just a blip. After all, the SEC only sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, and one of those was a Mississippi State team that had only got in by virtue of winning the SEC Tournament. Yet in just a few days, Kentucky will be the number one ranked team in the country if they beat Arkansas in Lexington this weekend. Then there is a top ten Tennessee team that just knocked off the top ranked Kansas Jayhawks a couple of weeks ago. What a difference year makes.
But it's hard to see that dramatic of a renaissance coming for the Pac-10 next year. Kentucky went from a non-tourney team to a top five program in the blink of an eye. You might think that UCLA, a program of a similar ilk to Kentucky, might be capable of the same thing, but I have trouble seeing it with Ben Howland there. And I'm not sure there's a Calipari type hire waiting in the wings if the Bruins decide that one terrible season is enough to fire Howland.
Maybe it's just a question of style over substance, though. How much has the SEC actually improved from last year? In the West, Mississippi State and Ole Miss look like Tourney teams, but the division's two best teams a year ago, Auburn and LSU, are now arguably its two worst. Alabama and Arkansas aren't much better. Things do look a bit better in the East with Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vandy, but Florida continues its post-championship haze of mediocrity while for Georgia and South Carolina, better days are in the future, not the present.
But the SEC is perceived to be a stronger conference this year because Kentucky, with one recruiting class and an unbeaten start to the season, has already reestablished itself under Calipari as one of the preeminent programs in the country. And when Kentucky is perceived to be strong, the SEC generally benefits perception wise, right or wrong.
The parallels for UCLA and Arizona and the Pac-10 are similar to that of Kentucky and the SEC. Both of these schools need to be competing at a high level for the Pac-10 to maximize its credibility. Failing that, the Pac-10 would expect at least one of them to be one of its upper tier teams, but UCLA is 7-10 and coming off a double digit home loss to USC while Zona is the epitome of mediocrity at 9-9. That's not what the Pac-10 needs.
Besides losing its players to the NBA, to other conferences, and having its two historically power programs struggle at the moment, something else that works against the Pac-10 is the media, and I'm not just talking about the East Coast bias. The Pac-10 is the only power conference that doesn't have a contract with ESPN to show conference games. The ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, and SEC all have games shown throughout the week on the ESPN family of networks. Even the West Coast Conference is good for a game or two, and not all them exclusively showing the Zags.
The Pac-10, meanwhile, has its weeknight games shown on Fox Sports. The time difference will always work against the Pac-10, and only hardcore college basketball fans like myself are going to stay up late in the East to watch these games.
But that's only if I can find them on my television. It's hard for the Pac-10 and Fox to market the midweek games because nobody is watching Fox Sports on a consistent enough basis to see the games being built up. That's not even getting into the issue of the broadcast being regional. For instance, there are Pac-10 games this week being televised by Fox Sports, but my local cable company will not be showing them on any of my standard Fox Sports channels. You have to subscribe to a special cable package to be able to watch them.
Sorry Pac-10, I think I'll just watch college basketball where I know I can find it: ESPN. Might want to sign a television contract with them soon. In the meantime, you better hope that UCLA and Arizona turn it around in soon before the Pac-10 slides further into the abyss of irrelevance. Even the Big Ten is laughing at you.
To be clear. I hope that the Pac-10 does turn it around so that people will care about it. Having already mentioned the fact the Pac-10 has sent more underclassmen to the NBA in the last couple of years than the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC combined, it's clear there has been some talent in the league. But the conference has always been fighting a losing battle in the arena of perception, and this year the hits just keep on coming with its on-court play and off-court issues (I'm looking at you USC).
Even if this year is a blip of mediocrity, there's no denying that the Pac-10 has its work cut out for it in trying to level out the playing field with the other power conferences.