Has Pac-12 men’s college basketball returned back to national relevance?
In a recent Summer Shootaround video, ESPN’s Andy Katz declared, “The Pac-12 is back. The Pac-12 will be relevant in November and December, not just for the little spurt in March.”
Even with an expanded conference membership last season, Pac-12 basketball failed to pull off any regular season wins against ranked non-conference opponents. Granted, five out of the dozen games Pac-12 teams had against AP Top 25 teams in the 2011-12 regular season were lost by two possessions or less. Additionally, Colorado went on to beat No. 23 UNLV in the 2012 NCAA tournament, and Stanford won the 2012 postseason NIT. Washington, which won the Pac-12 regular season, had two players go in the first round of the NBA Draft, and Oregon State had one.
That same Washington team became the first regular season conference champion from a power conference to not receive an NCAA tournament bid in the modern era. It was a move that made a clear statement against the Pac-12 Conference by the NCAA selection committee, which didn’t even have the Huskies in their last six out.
If failing to win big games and not having a major presence in the 2012 NCAA tournament wasn't enough, there was also a scathing article on the UCLA men's basketball program in Sports Illustrated this year. However, with UCLA and Arizona bringing in two of the best basketball recruiting classes in the NCAA this year, most of that appears to be in the past for the Pac-12 Conference.
While it’s too early to say for certain that the Pac-12 Conference will be viewed as relevant on a national level during the upcoming 2012-13 season, there is an excellent chance it will be. The obvious and easiest path to that is with UCLA and Arizona pulling off big wins in November and December. These two programs, with a long-standing basketball history, are media darlings when playing well, even if for only a single big game. Simply put, the conference needs UCLA and Arizona to live up their expectations this coming season.
UCLA will have several chances to get the needed wins, starting with their opening game. While far from being a basketball powerhouse, Indiana State will prove to be the first major challenge for UCLA. The game is not only the Bruins season opener, but also their first in the renovated Pauley Pavilion and has ties to the late legendary coach John Wooden. It will be a game that the Bruins will not only be expected to win, but to win big.
Shortly after the Indiana State game UCLA will play in the Legends Classic, which also features Georgia, Indiana and Georgetown as host teams. UCLA will face Georgetown in the Legends Classic semifinals. This event could also possibly have the Bruins taking on the team that is almost unanimously seen as the No. 1 team in the NCAA this coming season, the Indiana Hoosiers.
In December, UCLA will face three other teams that have been mentioned in preseason Top 25 rankings: SDSU, Texas and Missouri.
The Arizona Wildcats’ non-conference schedule is lighter than the Bruins' this coming season, which is not an entirely bad thing if Arizona can pull off a long string of wins against not highly ranked, but still solid programs.
Arizona does get one big chance when they take on Florida at home in December, which is a must-win game for the Wildcats. Arizona will also be in the Diamond Head Classic that month along with SDSU.
All of this is not to say that UCLA and Arizona shouldn't be held accountable for their actions both on and off the court, or other Pac-12 teams don’t have a shot at making waves on a national level during non-conference play. Neither is it to say that the Bruins and the Wildcats must always be on their top game and running the conference. Other programs can, will and should step up.
One lesson from last season that the Pac-12 must learn from, is that for the conference schedule to count toward post-season invites, there has to be signature non-conference wins. The more notable non-conference wins that there are will help with RPI rankings, thus making conference play in January and February relevant, and ultimately helping come tournament time in March.
To name just a few notable examples of where other Pac-12 programs have a shot at helping the conference as a whole this coming season:
Washington will face Saint Louis and Nevada, and play Seton Hall in the Hall of Fame Classic where Ohio State will also be present. USC will be playing SDSU, and will be in the Maui Invitational with Butler, UNC, Texas and Marquette among others. The Trojans will play Illinois in the invitational. Stanford will play N.C. State and be at the Battle for Atlantis along with teams like Duke, Missouri, Louisville, VCU, Memphis and Minnesota. Cal faces UNLV and Wisconsin in December. Oregon will take on UNLV in the Global Sports Classic. Colorado, WSU and Oregon State will all play Kansas.
Will November and December truly mark the rise of the Pac-12 from the depths of last season? Like Katz, I believe so. And if not, at least the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament will be in Las Vegas this coming March.