Ever since the Pac-12 announced that it was moving its conference tournament from the regularly church-quiet Staples Center in Los Angeles to Las Vegas beginning this season, fans from around the conference have been marking their calendars. But the fact that the host venue — the MGM Grand Hotel — had never before hosted a basketball event, was somewhat concerning. However, never let it be said that Larry Scott and company do things without putting in the proper diligence. This weekend the MGM Grand held the first dry run for a basketball game, as Oregon State and San Diego broke the seal on that place. And it was a real dry run, in part because the final announced attendance for the game was a whopping 840 people in a building with a capacity of 16,800. Even after seeing a boatload of empty seats at the Staples Center in recent years, I would bet the farm on the fact that there will be significantly more people in the venue when the conference tourney rolls around (although such a bet is probably less impressive when you consider that I don’t own a farm). But, there weren’t many complaints about the arena, which is good considering there were only 840 people there to possibly complain. Oh, and OSU won but they looked terrible.
Speaking of terrible, USC fell at Georgia on Saturday, slipping back to 4-8 on the year and any “yeah, buts” about their tough schedule need to get put on the back burner until the Trojans beat somebody of importance. Evan Barnes of Rant Sports is more or less on the same page as me. Both of us, apparently, have just been waiting for this talented bunch to turn the corner and play up to their ability, but we’ve both sort of given up on that. And, we’ve both come to the conclusion that Kevin O’Neillbears the full brunt of the blame. At some point, as rosters get completely remade and the team continues to run much of the same stuff to largely the same effect, you’ve got to come to the conclusion that this issue isn’t entirely with the players on the court but may partially be tied back to the guy in the lead chair on the sideline. I’m a fan of O’Neill’s blunt, honest-to-a-fault style off the court, but I no longer have any faith in his ability to get his team, no matter who is out there, to run anything approaching a good offense. While Trojan athletic director Pat Haden has kicked the task of replacing head football coach Lane Kiffin down the line a year, odds are very good that, barring a drastic turnaround, there will be another coaching search in South L.A. this spring.
Meanwhile, up the road a stretch, there may be another, slightly more attractive job opening in Los Angeles come spring. Last week Tracy Pierson of Bruin Report Online referenced anonymous sources who claimed that UCLA head coach Ben Howland’s job may be in jeopardy prior to the end of the season. Howland shrugged off such claims, noting “I can’t help you with substantiating anything that’s written on the boards.” Given that Howland’s got his team starting to click, at least on one end of the floor, and the fact that finding a prime replacement while the season is still in full swing, would be next to impossible, I’m in the camp that thinks it would be safe to just ignore this report. Sure, if UCLA’s season ends at any point prior to Atlanta on the weekend of April 6, you can start tracking the movements of your friendly neighborhood hatchet man, but there’s not a chance this side of Phil Jackson that Howland’s UCLA career ends at any point prior to the end of the season.
Last week, just before we all headed off to wrap up our Christmas shopping, a couple of my colleagues pointed to Utah as the conference’s biggest pleasant surprise. Well, sorry Connor and Adam, but I’ll be passing along your information to Larry Krystkowiak and he’ll be getting in touch with you to personally thank you both for jinxing his team. Because Friday night, after playing a sparklingly good first half, the Utes were outscored by 26 points in laying an egg in the second half, losing to Cal State Northridge and seemingly going out of their way to make sure that they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, you gotta remind yourself that this is a Utah team that has already won more games this season than they did all of last year and is still getting used to the idea of actually winning games. But man, that had to put a serious hurting on the beginning of a holiday break. One other note tangentially related to the Pac-12: One of the chief architects in putting that hurting into the Utah basketball program was CSUN freshman point guard Landon Drew, who had a career-high 19 points, including 14 in the second. Landon’s brother is Larry Drew II, the UCLA senior point guard.
As a fan and follower of both the Pac-12 and Mountain West, I’ve had Decembr 25 circled on my calendar for months, not for silly things like Santa Claus and eggnog and jingle bells, but for the possibility of an Arizona vs. San Diego State match-up in the finals of the Diamond Head Classic. And, after both teams have more or less cruised through the opening rounds of that tournament, that game is finally set in stone. While teams like Gonzaga, UNLV and New Mexico will have something to say about it, this may be a match-up to determine the best team west of the Rockies. Merry Christmas, hoops fans.
Last week we invited Pachoops’ Adam Butler to chime in with his thoughts on our Burning Question. He did such a fine job, we’ve asked him back to reprise his appearance during Arizona week with a cameo during USC week. As for this week’s question, here goes:
In the big picture of the USC athletic program, it is no secret that the football program is the favorite son while the basketball program has historically been an afterthought. But when the Galen Center was opened in 2006, there was talk of a newfound commitment to making USC basketball respectable. Between the scandal surrounding the Tim Floyd/O.J. Mayo era and last year’s awful season, that momentum has stalled out. What do athletic director Pat Haden and the USC athletic department need to do to turn around the culture of USC basketball?
USC Basketball Program Is In Dire Need Of A Glamour Upgrade
Andrew Murawa: When you think of the University of Southern California, sure, you think of those red helmets and those classic jerseys, you think of Reggie Bush and Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson, you think of the Los Angeles Coliseum and Traveler and that damn song the band plays over and over and over. And, you think of the song girls and those sweaters. Really, it’s all about image and glamour and style. And yet, when you think of USC basketball (if, that is, you ever think of USC basketball) you think of drudgery. You think of games played in the 50s (at best). You think of defense-first and a slow-it-down and ugly-it-up approach to what should be a beautiful game. In Los Angeles, winning will always garner some sort of support. But one way to fast-track your way to that support is to pretty things up. Make USC basketball the equivalent of those song girls: glamour and style, first and foremost. Recruit elite-level athletes, make the transition game a priority and earn a reputation for playing an appealing style of basketball. Couple that with recruiting visits to sunny Southern California and there is no reason that USC can’t compete with any program in the conference for any recruit. Now, is Kevin O’Neill the right man to change the culture of the program? While he can certainly coach the game, style and glamour are not words that immediately come to mind to describe him, and if he can’t get the Trojans back into the NCAA Tournament this season, March would be a good time to begin remaking the USC basketball program.
Once again this morning, since we have got a couple other correspondents writing about the actual games at the Pac-12 Tournament, we will be focusing just on some off-the-court stuff in the Morning Five. For instance, in the wake of Josiah Turner’s indefinite suspension at Arizona, the question needs to be asked: is he ever going to be invited back? Turner picked up a first strike early in the season for being late to a team walkthrough, then was suspended for a single game and left behind from the Wildcats’ trip to Florida in December for strike two. With strike three coming at such an important time for the team, there’s a strong chance that head coach Sean Miller will find that it is time to cut bait on the talented young point guard. And if Miller doesn’t make that decision, maybe Turner, who played at multiple high schools, might make it himself.
One guy who is coming back, apparently, is UCLA sophomore center Joshua Smith. Smith told reporters after the Bruins’ quarterfinal loss to Arizona that he would be returning to the school for next year rather than entertain thoughts about the NBA Draft. While some have made fun of Smith for making this statement, since he is unlikely to draw much interest from NBA scouts due to his inability to get in shape and his limited production as a result, it seems to me that the blame lies more with whichever reporter had the audacity to suggest that Smith might be in a position to leave for the professional ranks. However, Smith seems to recognize that in order to live up to his potential, he needs to shed significant weight and get into prime physical condition. Whether or not he does it remains to be seen, but he has been speaking with former Bruin Kevin Love, who drastically reshaped his doughy body since his high school days.
Kevin O’Neill is also coming back. It hasn’t exactly been a secret, but USC athletic director Pat Haden made it clear on Thursday that O’Neill, whose team endured a 6-26 season, would still be the school’s head basketball coach going forward. With loads of players due back from injury next year and a couple of newly eligible Division I transfers, expect the Trojans to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid next season.
In the wake of Washington’s quarterfinal loss to Oregon State on Thursday, Lorenzo Romar and his squad are left to play the “waiting game,” needing to wait until Sunday’s Section Show to find out if they make the final NCAA Tournament bracket or not. Despite winning the Pac-12 regular season title, the Huskies have a sub-par RPI of 57 and just one win over a top 50 RPI team (Oregon – a team who is currently ranked #49 and may drop out of the RPI top 50). Meanwhile, Tony Wroten, who missed four free throws down the stretch in that loss to Oregon State, deleted his Twitter account in the wake of the loss, after retweeting multiple terrible messages that he received after the game. The fact that supposed “fans” would do this kind of stuff to any 18-year-old kid is just sick. But it should also be noted that the Huskies would never have even been in position to lose that close of a game without Wroten’s career-high 29 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. I have been a critic of Wroten’s game throughout the season, but the kind of hateful, negative comments directed at him in the wake of a heartbreaking loss are disgusting.
Yesterday was the first day of the Pac-12 Tournament, and we’ll have plenty of separate coverage of the games throughout the weekend, so in the Morning Fives, we’ll focus on more of the “newsy” side of things, both at the tournament and elsewhere. For instance, likely the biggest news of the day yesterday was the news that Arizonahad left point guard Josiah Turner behind on their trip to Los Angeles, and that Turner would be suspended indefinitely. Turner had previously been suspended for a game against Florida on December 7 and had also been benched at the start of a game against Duquesne on November 9. The loss of their starting point guard doesn’t help the Wildcats’ chances this weekend, especially in what seems to be a must-win scenario for UA’s NCAA Tournament chances. In Turner’s absence, Nick Johnson is expected to take over the bulk of the minutes at the point, with Brandon Lavender potentially moving into the starting lineup. Sophomore Jordin Mayes, who has only played eight total minutes in the last eight games, in part due to a foot injury, will also be counted on to cover some of Turner’s minutes. In Sean Miller’s comments on the suspension, he noted that “the standards of our program will not be compromised under any circumstances,” a comment that seems particularly meaningful in the wake of the recent UCLA story.
Speaking of UCLA, in one of the oddest stories I’ve heard recently, sophomore center Joshua Smithwas benched for the first half after missing the team bus from the team hotel to the Staples Center. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, consider that the team is staying in a hotel across the street from the Staples Center, and that Smith actually walked from the hotel to the arena (as every other team participating in the event does) and was at the arena and in the locker room prior to everybody else on his team. Given that Smith could use all the cardiovascular exercise available (even if it is just walking a block), this seems like a case of head coach Ben Howland going out of his way to lay down the law in the wake of last week’s article, even in a situation that may well not have called for it.
UCLA wound up winning its opening game over crosstown rival USC, mercifully ending the Trojans horrific 6-26 season. Normally, when a coach suffers through a season like that, it’s curtains. USC head coach Kevin O’Neill, however, expects to back. Athletic director Pat Haden has repeatedly made it clear that the combination of O’Neill trying to dig out from under the turmoil that previous head coach Tim Floyd left the program in and the astounding number of injuries the Trojans have suffered this year makes for extenuating circumstances. With everybody on the team returning next year and a handful of reinforcements on the way, the Trojans could be primed for a big turnaround next year.
Stanford associate head coach Dick Davey announced on Tuesday that he will be retiring from coaching at the end of the year. Davey, the former head coach at Santa Clara and a four-time Coach of the Year in the West Coast Conference, plans to spend more time doing things like “fishing in Hawaii.” Yeah, that’s a no-brainer, coach. We think you’ve earned it.
In other assistant coaching news, Oregon State associate head coach Doug Stewartis expected to be among the candidates to replace Jesse Agel, who was fired on Monday, as head coach at Brown. Stewart played at Brown from 1991-94 and was a captain there, and he and Agel were both assistants to current Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson when he was the head man at that school. If Stewart does leave, Robinson will need to rework his staff in advance of next year, a season that could be a make-or-break year for him in Corvallis, a season in which just about everybody from this year’s team returns.
Craig Robinson will never complain about officiating. Except when he does. Robinson called Oregon State’s loss Sunday night against Oregon a “poorly officiated game,” taking particular exception to a foul called on Eric Moreland during a struggle for a rebound with 10 seconds left and the general lack of fouls called in favor of Jared Cunningham. Robinson called for Cunningham to “get treated like one of the best players,” seemingly meaning that his star player should get calls that other players in the league don’t necessarily get. We all know that this type of subjective officiating goes on, and we know that coaches certainly want their players to get calls whenever possible, but the idea of a coach calling for referees to adjust their officiating to reward a star player? Please. Leave that nonsense to the NBA.
Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena is a gleaming new state-of-the-art facility that makes an already appealing Oregon basketball program that much more of a force in the Pac-12. That doesn’t mean that everything is going along without a hitch in Eugene. A report issued on Monday showed that financial revenue projections for the arena have been drastically cut, dropping by as much as 30% in some revenue categories, and that the athletic department will likely show annual net deficits for as many as five years beginning in 2013. As is usually the case with these types of projects, the revenue projections may have been purposefully inflated in order to increase the appeal of the building, and now that the project is complete, those projections are free to return to reality. Case in point, while the revenue for men’s basketball ticketing looks like it will hit about $2.4 million for this year, that number is down $400,000 from previous projections.
Most of the talk around the conference Coach of the Year award has centered around names like Tad Boyle, Mike Montgomery and even Dana Altman – all fine choices, to be sure. But what about Lorenzo Romar? He’s taken a team that was projected to finish fourth in the conference prior to the season and turned them into a team on the verge of a regular season title with a 22-8 overall record that features close losses to Duke and Marquette along with some other less palatable losses. He’s taken a team that had some chemistry problems early in the year and built a coherent squad that has significantly improved as the year has gone on. For me, it comes down to Romar or Boyle, and while I agree that Romar’s coaching job is looking better and better by the week, I’m still blown away by Boyle’s success in his first year in the conference.
The flip side of the COY discussion is the hot seat discussion, and The Husky Haul took a crack at that yesterday, ranking Kevin O’Neill, Herb Sendek, Craig Robinson, Johnny Dawkins and Larry Krystkowiak as the five most likely to be swept aside. There are serious problems with this list, beginning with the inclusion of Krystkowiak here; if anything, the Utes have overachieved this season given the dearth of talent in Salt Lake City. Sendek and Dawkins have both recently received contract extensions as well, and seem unlikely to be going anywhere (although their seats are both definitely warming), while USC athletic director Pat Haden has made it very clear that O’Neill will get a pass for this season’s failures. And while Oregon State’s season will go down as a disappointment, it seems like Robinson at least has his team moving in the right direction. Odds are, none of those schools will be looking for new coaches this offseason. In fact, if there was to be a coaching change this year, Ben Howland at UCLA or Ken Bone at Washington State would be more likely to be relieved of their duties than any of the five on this list. In the end, my guess is that we’ll have the same 12 coaches back in this conference next season.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
We have heard it all before. The Pac-12 is down. The Pac-12 is terrible. The Pac-12 is a one-bid league. The Pac-12 sucks. There’s some relative truth in some of those and in others, not so much, but one thing is for sure as we sit here with three weeks remaining the regular season and five teams within a game of the regular season title. The Pac-12 is tight. Going into this week, California and Washington are tied for first (with the Golden Bears holding the tiebreaker between the two teams on the strength of their win in Seattle a couple of weeks back), while Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona are all lurking just one game back. We have got a race.
Cal, Currently In First Place, May Have The Best Chance At An At-Large Bid To The NCAA Tournament (George Nikitin/AP)
Aside from a couple of games between top five teams last Thursday night, when Oregon throttled Washington and Arizona took care of Colorado, every other team in the top grouping took care of business against lesser opponents. In fact, looking at the standings right now, the top six teams in the conference are all riding winning streaks while the bottom six are all headed in the wrong direction. At least it now appears that the top of the conference is gaining some separation from the bottom. California, Washington, and Oregon all saw their RPIs improve this week, while Colorado and Arizona saw their number drop a bit, but at least now all five of those teams are at least in the at-large conversation. Our own Zach Hayes has California and Arizona in the tournament in his latest bracket, while Colorado, Washington and Oregon are all among the first eight out. Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket has the Bears and the ‘Cats in as well, with the Huskies and Ducks among the first eight out. Andy Glockner, however, is a bit more pessimistic about the conference’s chances, putting just California in the field with Arizona among the first four out and teams like Seton Hall, North Carolina State, Northwestern, and Xavier all currently higher in the pecking order than the Pac-12 schools.
What to Watch For
With all of the above in mind, every game is going to be critical from here on out for those five teams at the top of the standings. They all need to not only beat up on teams 6-12, but it is time for a couple or three of them to differentiate themselves from the others. We thought last week that Washington might be on the verge of doing that, and then they went out and got blown out by Oregon. Meanwhile, California, and Arizona are the hot teams this week with the Golden Bears on a three-game streak and the Wildcats on a four-game run. Both will find significant tests awaiting them this week, but Cal has the benefit of facing their tests in the comfort of Haas Pavilion, against Oregon Thursday night and then Oregon State on Saturday night. Arizona has to go on the road, and they head to Washington State tomorrow night before a Saturday afternoon marquee matchup with Washington.
Washington, meanwhile, will also have to take care of business against tenth-place Arizona State on Thursday while Oregon travels to Stanford on Sunday afternoon. The Palo Alto trip could be a problem for the Ducks, especially coming off of the big game Thursday night. The other game involving one of the top five schools comes Saturday afternoon, when Colorado travels to Utah. The Buffaloes have won just two conference games on the road thus far, and those came against the teams currently holding down two of the bottom three spots in the standings; if they can handle the Utes, it will become three wins against the three bottom teams in the standings.
Arizona State came out of Saturday’s action with a big win over Oregon State, but along the way they took a loss as well, as junior guard Trent Lockett sprained his ankle with ten minutes left and did not return. Lockett, who had taken over as the team’s point guard in the wake of the dismissal of Keala King, is currently questionable for ASU’s games next week. But Herb Sendek hopes that Chris Colvin, who handed out five assists in the ten minutes that Lockett missed on Saturday, can use his performance against OSU as a springboard to better things. Colvin began the season as the team’s point guard in the wake of Jahii Carson’s eligibility issues, but struggled early and often, eventually losing his starting spot, getting suspended on two different occasions and being relegated to a minor role in the three conference games he has played in.
Elsewhere in the infirmary, California’s junior point guard Brandon Smith has missed the Bears’ last three games after suffering a concussion against Oregon State on January 5, but could be due for a return soon. Head coach Mike Montgomery said that Smith will returns once he can pass his concussion battery tests, and currently his reaction times are not quite up to snuff. Justin Cobbs, in particular, has been excellent in Smith’s absence, handing out a career-high 11 assists in the Bears’ win over Utah on Saturday.
The Pac-12 handed out its Player of the Week award on Monday morning, and Terrence Ross of Washington was this week’s recipient. We here at RTC opted for Josh Huestis of Stanford, but Ross’ 30-point outburst Sunday night in helping the Huskies come back from a second-half deficit against Washington State was certainly deserving. Ross became the third Husky to win the award this season; he was preceded in the honor by teammates C.J. Wilcox and Tony Wroten.
At this time last week, Colorado was the talk of the conference, having jumped out to a 3-0 start in conference play. But, this week the Buffaloes set out on the road for the first time and were treated rather rudely in the Bay Area, losing both their contests. Head coach Tad Boyle said that he was pleased with CU’s effort in a seven-point loss at California, but that Saturday’s 20-point defeat to Stanford was something of a step back. Senior guard Carlon Brown noted that the Buffs let the road environment get them out of their game, but teammate Austin Dufault thinks the Buffs will improve on the road as the season progresses.
Lastly, in the wake of USC’s 0-5 conference start and, most recently, a 19-point home loss to cross-town rival UCLA, some Trojans fans are beginning to talk about needing a new coach. But athletic director Pat Haden promises that he’ll show patience with head coach Kevin O’Neill, blaming some of SC current troubles on the mess that Tim Floyd left this program in. But even Haden admits that there is some frustration with the team’s complete inability to produce any type of offense. Nevertheless, for those Trojan fans hoping for a new basketball coach: Don’t expect any changes any time soon.
The biggest news in the world of college athletics came out of South Central today as USC announced that its longtime athletic director Mike Garrett will step down in the wake of probation for both the football and men’s basketball programs on his watch. Pat Haden, another former USC quarterback, will take over for Garrett in that capacity. New USC president Max Nikias, still weeks away from formally taking over, also decreed that the school will remove all athletic references (photos, murals and the like) to Reggie Bush and OJ Mayo prior to the arrival of incoming students next month. They’re even sending Bush’s Heisman Trophy back! Former head coach Tim Floyd, currently whiling his time away in El Paso, had little to say about the matter.
Notre Dame’s Mike Brey to his irresponsible players Tim Abromaitis and Eric Atkins: “A lot of sweating will be involved.” Here’s hoping that they have to run a mile for every beer imbibed. Y’know, because of the extra calories.
Some coaching news from yesterday. UIC’s Jimmy Collinsannounced his retirement effective at the end of August after fourteen seasons at the school — including three NCAA Tournament appearances and six other winning campaigns. As Goodman reports, the timing of this is odd given that it’s currently the height of recruiting season, but Collins has had medical issues in the past. We hope he’s ok.
One piece of player news that slipped past us over the weekend — Gonzaga (ok, RTC) fan favorite Bol Kong is leaving Spokane for personal reasons. Kong averaged 4.5 PPG in his only season for the Zags, but showed promise with a solid three-point stroke (43%) and a nose for the ball. We hope to see him re-surface somewhere soon.
Jeff Goodman and Matt Norlander did a cool thing to get ready for this weekend’s recruiting extravaganza in Vegas. They polled the top recruits to see whom they would choose as the best in several categories, and the results were interesting. Austin Rivers was named the top player, Michael Gilchrist the best defender and hardest worker, Brad Beal the best shooter, Marquis Teague the best shooter, and Anthony Davis the best rebounder. Oh, and best trash-talker: Quincy Miller (no surprise if you read his tweets). It should be a fun weekend sorting through all of these players out in the desert.