Pac-10 out to restore reputation
LOS ANGELES – The Pac-10 gave its annual basketball media day a makeover this year, eschewing its traditional location in the ballroom of a sterile airport hotel in favor of the glitz and glamour of the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Each coach addressed reporters from a concert stage illuminated by powerful spotlights. A giant movie theater-esque screen flashing each school’s logo provided the backdrop and flags representing every Pac-10 program bracketed the stage to the left and right.
Superficial changes such as these certainly won’t hurt the national perception of Pac-10 hoops, but substantive ones are also necessary to repair the damage a disastrous 2009-10 season did to the conference’s reputation. An exodus of underclassmen to the NBA the previous two years stripped the Pac-10 of its usual supply of talent last season, resulting in the league winning just 2 of 16 matchups against Top 25 opponents, finishing eighth in conference RPI and producing just two NCAA tournament teams.
“We had some coaching turnover and we lost a lot of guys to the NBA, so I think right now we’re in the process of growing as a league again,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “It remains to be seen how much better we’ll be this year, but I’d be shocked if we weren’t better. I don’t think we’ll be hearing about the Pac-10 only receiving one or two NCAA tournament bids again this March.”
Although the Pac-10 produced three top 25 recruiting classes in 2010 and didn’t lose a single underclassman to the NBA draft, the national consensus remains that the conference will still be by far the worst of the six BCS leagues next season. Washington is the Pac-10’s lone ranked team in the newly released preseason AP top 25 poll and fellow league title contenders Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State aren’t regarded as anything close to NCAA tournament locks.
What irks Pac-10 coaches most about the league’s battered reputation is that they don’t believe the conference was as punchless as it might have seemed by the end of the season. They point to Washington’s Sweet 16 run and Cal’s first-round NCAA tournament demolition of Louisville as proof the Pac-10 improved considerably from November to March.
“We did take it on the chin in the non-conference, but then all of a sudden those teams got their footing and the level of play really improved,” Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said “By that point we were only playing each other and it couldn’t erase what happened in November and December. Fast forward to the NCAA tournament and you see how well Cal and Washington performed and it shines light on the fact that it may not have been the best Pac-10 in history but the coverage might have been a little harsh.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint just one reason for the Pac-10’s recent regression, but it’s clear that the amount of young talent leaving for the NBA in 2008 and 2009 played a significant role. An amazing 13 Pac-10 players were selected in the first round of those two drafts, 10 of whom were either freshmen or sophomores.
Any conference would have taken a step backward after being gutted like that, but Pac-10 schools were especially ill-equipped to replenish their talent-starved rosters. Not only has the West Coast not produced as much elite high school basketball talent the past few years, seven of the league’s 10 programs also have endured coaching changes since 2008, creating instability that hampered efforts to draw what few prospects were available or keep them happy once they arrived.
Of the 21 players hailing from West Coast states in Rivals.com’s top 150 for the Class of 2008, only four of them currently play for Pac-10 programs. Six initially signed with schools in other leagues, six more transferred out of Pac-10 programs, four have turned pro and one medically retired, leaving only Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee of UCLA, Klay Thompson of Washington State and Isaiah Thomas of Washington.
The numbers aren’t much more encouraging for the Pac-10 when considering West Coast-born talent in the Rivals 150 for 2009 either. Seventeen of those 31 prospects snubbed the league and signed elsewhere and four other players have since left Pac-10 programs, meaning only 10 remain on Pac-10 rosters.
“What is tough for the Pac-10 is that there is a smaller pool of top prospects out west than there is in the midwest, east and south,” Rivals.com recruiting expert Jerry Meyer said via e-mail. “And it seems that it is much easier to get prospects to come east to play than to go west and play.”
If Washington is the team that has navigated the Pac-10’s rough patch the best, that doesn’t mean the rest of the league is completely threadbare.
Arizona missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a quarter century last March, but a talented sophomore class led by forward Derrick Williams is intent on leading a sudden revival. UCLA suffered through an embarrassing 14-18 season a year ago, but improved talent and renewed commitment to Ben Howland’s signature man-to-man defense provide hope for a quick turnaround. And Arizona State’s three-point shooting, USC’s formidable frontcourt and Washington State’s high-scoring guards encourage optimism on those campuses as well.
“Any of the guys in this league are as good as any player in the country, so I think we’re better than we’re given credit for,” all-conference Arizona State guard Ty Abbott said. “I think it’s very important the conference wins more games in November and December to give ourselves that good publicity. It’s going to come down to those games to determine how many teams we get in the NCAA tournament.”
Even if the Pac-10 fails to achieve Abbott’s goal and again takes a beating this season, the good news for the conference is that help is on the way. Six of the league’s 10 programs have landed Class of 2011 recruits ranked in Rivals.com’s top 75, with Arizona coach Sean Miller leading the way with a trio of elite committed prospects.
“We’re on our way back,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “Last year this conference was down, but it won’t be down for long.”