Marching to Vegas: Let the Pac-12 Standard-Bearers Be Our Guiding LightPosted by rtmsf on October 26th, 2012
From the moment it was first rumored, the relocation of the conference tournament to Las Vegas has created quite a buzz among Pac-12 basketball fans. Adam Butler (@pachoopsAB) of PacHoops will be here every week as he offers his unique perspective along our March to Vegas.
Bear with me a moment as I beat the dead horse that was the 2011-12 Pac-12 basketball season. I need to preface it that way as we dive into why the conference is back. Or will be sustainably back, and it all stems from the top. You see, the world works in such a way that leaders drive innovation. There’s a reason Samsung infringed on Apple. There’s a reason the spread offense is everywhere in college football. If this works for them, by all means it can work for me. When one climbs to the top – and the top is usually achieved by recreating the mold – others will follow that path. And when those at the top begin to falter, the next tier has two choices: collapse or recreate the mold again. Unfortunately, we’ve found ourselves with a group struggling with the mold and a leaderless conference. As of recently, the Pac-12 bar has been set low. Which hasn’t always been the case.
For years – since the mid-80’s – the Pac-12 horses were Arizona and UCLA. Stanford squeezed in to make it interesting, but between 1985 and 2008, 19 times the conference champions were Bruins or Wildcats. Meanwhile the conference as a whole was pumping out NBA talent. Take a peek at this study and you’ll find that the Pac-10 between 1988 and 2008 produced the most talented draft picks among all major conferences. They sit behind a number of mid-majors on the list but that’s indicative of the wee sample set produced from the smaller leagues and the major NBA contributions from those draftees. But, point being, the Conference of Champions while championed by the likes of Arizona and UCLA, was good. And now it isn’t. Historically bad last year, so much so that the conference champion wasn’t even invited to dance. That’s like the prom queen not getting asked to prom. The headless conference can only be as good as its best team and if their best team is an unimpressive 21-9, then yikes. But that will be it for picking on 2011-12. Because the story of the Pac-12’s crumminess began long before Washington lost to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Ben Howland was hired to restore the UCLA basketball brand. A brand we’re easily familiar with to the tune of 40 conference titles, 99 draft picks, 44 NCAA tournament appearances, 18 Final Fours, and 11 National Titles. He took over a staggering program from Steve Lavin and, in just two years, had them in the first of three consecutive Final Fours. He did such as Arizona fell apart during the awkward departure of Lute Olson. As the co-head of the conference struggled (Arizona), Howland and UCLA were there to carry the Pac-12 torch. Following Howland’s best year at UCLA – the 2007-08 squad that went 35-4 – the Pac-10 produced six tournament teams. Sixty percent of the conference was dancing because they had no other choice but to chase a program that was going to three straight Final Fours while beating up on everyone. And then UCLA fell apart. The conference had a progressive downturn culminating in just two teams dancing (one in the play-in game) and neither Arizona nor UCLA were invited.
Sean Miller was hired to restore the Arizona basketball brand. A brand we’re easily familiar with to the tune of 25 conference titles, 63 draft picks, 29 NCAA tournament appearances, 4 Final Fours, and the 1997 National Championship. He took over a staggering program from Lute Olson/Kevin O’Neill/Russ Pennell and, in one season, had them in the Elite Eight (complete anomaly). He’s done such as UCLA has struggled, as has the whole conference because the blue bloods and anyone else trying to raise the bar just haven’t done it. Miller’s quick appearance in the Elite Eight and now his 2012 recruiting class (that for a good chunk of last summer owned the nation’s top billing) has been the first step to recreating an elite bar out west. It’s been the leadership the conference needed and the jolt to action for, say, the downtrodden Bruins – the ultimate owners of the top 2012 class. Does Howland do that if he isn’t feeling the heat around him? The pressure put on him by the resurgent Wildcats? I don’t know but I can tell you it didn’t hurt.
Because sure, anyone can win as the underdog, but greatness is winning when you’re supposed to. For 24 years, Arizona and UCLA were supposed to win and they did. They were great. Today they’re above average and so too is everyone else, at best. It was that sustained greatness, the fact that the road to XYZ passed through Westwood or Tucson – just as other roads to great places pass through Durham or Chapel Hill or Lawrence – that drove others to be successful. And note, it’s not exclusive to these two schools. The conference has been up for grabs for a while now and been juggled around. There have been four different champions in five years, one of whom did not make it to the NCAA Tournament (have I mentioned that before? I still can’t get over it).
Now that I’ve pointed fingers and done everything short of telling everyone they suck, what can be done about this? I’ve outlined the fact that I think UCLA and Arizona need to carry the torch but that’s not good enough. It’s not even a realistic proposition. If it were that easy then I’d just point at all sorts of things and shout, “BE BETTER,” and it would be (myself notwithstanding and I also do think that’s what Bruce Bochy has done with Barry Zito). But it is getting better. Look at what Tad Boyle is swiftly doing in Boulder and what Johnny Dawkins has his group poised to do in Palo Alto. Dana Altman has this mystical group in Eugene that I still cannot get my mind around why people are so high on but I too am high on them (I just wrote “high” twice while referencing Eugene and wasn’t referencing illicit drug use). Things have to be looking up if people are calling a team that was 1-17 in conference a year ago – a team that our very own Andrew Murawa compared to Keith Richards’ drug issues – is considered a sleeping contender. Hell, even the worst team in the conference has a Coach K! Ultimately this conference needs a shot of good and an excuse to not be mediocre. Can Arizona be that shot? Are they even the answer?
Look, people still hike in the footsteps of Sir Edmond Hillary so if the Pac-12 is looking for direction, aim for the tried and true. Let’s just hope they’re all up to the challenge.