Pac-12's NCAA tournament flop caps worst-ever season from a power conference

The Dagger

Having already built a 25-point lead, crushed Arizona’s spirit and neutralized college basketball’s best NBA prospect, Buffalo coach Nate Oats twisted the knife one final time.

Oats inserted his benchwarmers into the game en masse Thursday night with just over a minute remaining in the Bison’s 89-68 first-round NCAA tournament upset.

Thirteenth-seeded Buffalo emptying its bench against talent-laden Arizona was a fitting conclusion to a disastrous 2017-18 basketball season for the Pac-12 conference. Not only did the Pac-12 secure the fewest NCAA tournament bids of any major conference this season, none of the three teams selected will advance to the round of 32.

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St. Bonaventure ousted UCLA on the opening night of the First Four. Syracuse sent Arizona State packing one night later. That left Pac-12 champion Arizona as the league’s lone representative in the round of 64, and the fourth-seeded Wildcats did not survive the tournament’s opening night.

Arizona coach Sean Miller kneels by the bench during the first half of a first-round game against Buffalo in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Arizona coach Sean Miller kneels by the bench during the first half of a first-round game against Buffalo in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

This year’s Pac-12 becomes only the fifth league to produce an NCAA tournament record of 0-3 or worse since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. No other Power Six conference has failed to send a team to the round of 32 since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996.

From the putrid on-court performance alone, you could make a compelling argument the Pac-12 just produced the worst basketball season ever from a power conference. Throw in the scandals that ensnared three of the conference’s most high-profile programs, and it becomes even more difficult to argue otherwise.

The FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball waylaid the top two programs in the Pac-12 preseason poll and cast a pall over the league’s entire season. Arizona and USC both had assistant coaches arrested for allegedly accepting bribes and providing impermissible benefits to recruits, leading to a barrage of questions for Sean Miller and Andy Enfield about what they both knew or should have known.

Administrators at Arizona and USC stuck with Miller and Enfield, but their teams never fully lived up to expectations. The Wildcats (27-8) swept the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles yet settled for a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Trojans finished second in the Pac-12 and reached the conference title game yet landed in the NIT because their only wins over NCAA tournament teams came against New Mexico State and Cal State Fullerton.

No other Pac-12 school has been implicated in the FBI investigation so far, but UCLA endured a crippling scandal of its own. Three UCLA freshmen were detained in China for eight days after being arrested for shoplifting in November, an international incident that grabbed headlines worldwide because of the involvement of LiAngelo Ball.

The ensuing season-long suspensions for Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley left UCLA shorthanded the rest of the season. The Bruins rode veterans Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh to the NCAA tournament, but they lacked the defense or depth to be nationally relevant.

With Arizona, USC and UCLA more vulnerable than anticipated, there was an opportunity for the rest of the league to capitalize. That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.

Arizona State stunned Kansas and Xavier in non-league play and entered the conference season 12-0, but the Sun Devils rocketed back to earth the past eight weeks as their lack of rebounding and rim protection began to catch up with them.

Washington also exceeded expectations much of the season under new coach Mike Hopkins, but the Huskies faded down the stretch with losses to five non-NCAA tournament teams in their last eight games.

Injury-plagued Stanford underachieved early in the season and dug too deep a hole from which to recover. Depleted Oregon lost six of its top seven players from last year’s Final Four team and endured a rare rebuilding season. The rest of the league ranged from mediocre (Utah, Colorado and Oregon State), to bad (Washington State), to downright miserable (Cal).

When Arizona surged to the Pac-12 tournament title last weekend behind back-to-back dominant performances from freshman Deandre Ayton, some were fooled into thinking the Wildcats might be poised to reemerge as a title contender in March. That was never going to happen because this Arizona team was too flawed defensively, too erratic shooting from the perimeter and too unwilling to feed Ayton in the post as often as it should.

Buffalo outplayed the Wildcats from start to finish Thursday night, taking a two-point lead into halftime and increasing it throughout the second half. Long before Oats emptied his bench, it was clear that Arizona’s season was over and so, mercifully, was its league’s.

In 2012, the Pac-12 sent its outright regular season champion to the NIT, produced only two NCAA bids and failed to advance a single team beyond the round of 32.

Against all odds, this season was much, much worse.

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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