Pac-10 envious of success involving Brigham Young and Mountain Westby Javier Morales on Dec. 09, 2010, under Sports
Blame the NBA, Lute Olson, Ben Howland and Mike Montgomery (to a degree) if you must: The Pac-10 looks more like a mid-major these days than its neighboring conference — the Mountain West.
Credit is also due for the Mountain West rather than only blaming those affiliated with the Pac-10.
The Mountain West, which had a record four teams in the NCAA tournament last season while the Pac-10 had only two, features Final Four coaches such as San Diego State’s Steve Fisher and UNLV’s Lon Kruger. The conference also has Bob Knight disciple Steve Alford at New Mexico and an All-American player — Brigham Young prolific-scoring guard Jimmer Fredette.
The Wildcats will try to contain Fredette Saturday night in Salt Lake City. Fredette, among the nation’s leaders at 22.7 points per game, humbled the UA with a BYU-record 49 points (also a McKale Center record) last season in Sean Miller‘s first season with the Wildcats.
Miller is attempting to restore Arizona back to the prominence of Olson’s glory years. Olson’s leave of absence in 2007-08 and abrupt retirement a few weeks before the 2008-09 season set Arizona (and the Pac-10) back a couple of years. Olson spearheaded the Pac-10 out of the depths of college basketball in the mid- to late-1980s by making Arizona a model program.
When Olson left, Arizona’s recruits scattered elsewhere about as fast as Pac-10 players bolted to the NBA — another reason for the conference’s recent demise.
The league is still feeling the effects of seven players leaving the Pac-10 for the NBA after the 2008-09 season. One other player selected in the 2009 NBA draft, Brandon Jennings, the No. 1-rated high school player in his class, did not enroll at Arizona out of high school when he failed to qualify academically.
He chased his pro dreams (and money) in Italy and is now in his second season with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Howland’s UCLA team, once a Final Four fixture, has stumbled on hard times after the early defections of players such as Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday to the NBA. Howland, essentially caught with his pants down, admitted he did not believe Holiday would leave after his freshman season.
Other unsettling high-profile player defections — namely Chase Stanback to UNLV and Drew Gordon to New Mexico (two Mountain West teams) — have also rocked Howland’s program. The Bruins (3-4) have lost four straight games, including an embarrassing 66-57 loss to Montana at Pauley Pavilion Sunday.
History suggests as UCLA goes, so goes the Pac-10. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1984-85, the Bruins have failed to qualify six times, including last season. In those six years, the average number of Pac-10 teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament is only three, the lowest figure among conference teams.
Montgomery, although still coaching in the Pac-10 at Cal, bears some responsibility for the conference falling off the map a bit. He left Stanford, which he built into a Final Four-caliber program, for the NBA and was unemployed within two years. Had he stayed at Stanford, the Cardinal would certainly be better off than averaging almost 14 losses a season under Trent Johnson and Johnny Dawkins the last seven years.
Overall, seven Pac-10 schools have endured coaching changes in the last three years, which has contributed to the conference working its way from the ground up.
The problem is most of the schools remain closer to the ground rather than lifting off it like Arizona under a fiery Miller and Washington State with future NBA player Klay Thompson leading the way.
The Pac-10 has suffered embarrassing losses to Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) killers such as San Jose State, Seattle University, Texas Southern, Rider, Utah Valley State and Tulsa. UCLA lost to Virginia Commonwealth in Madison Square Garden — for all the East-based media to see — in addition to its monumental setback against Montana at home.
The conference, ranked a woeful No. 11 by one RPI service, also has an 0-5 record vs. top 10 RPI teams Kansas (which defeated Arizona in Las Vegas and UCLA in Lawrence), Kentucky (defeated Washington in the Maui Invitational), Duke (beat Oregon in Eugene), and San Diego State (won at Cal Wednesday night).
The conference has played 25 games against top 100 RPI teams. Its record is 8-17. In terms of RPI rankings, the league’s best wins are USC over No. 33 Texas last week and — don’t laugh — Washington and Washington State against No. 54 Portland. Just a notch below those is Oregon’s upset of No. 57 North Dakota State.
The Mountain West, which features three 9-0 teams (BYU, San Diego State and UNLV), is 3-1 against the Pac-10 this season. The Mountain West is rated No. 6 with four teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI — No. 9 San Diego State, No. 12 BYU, No. 13 UNLV and No. 93 New Mexico.
BYU will undoubtedly be favored to improve the Mountain West’s record against Pac-10 teams to 4-1 Saturday. The following weekend, the Cougars face UCLA in Anaheim for the John R. Wooden Classic. No other games are scheduled between the conferences.
Arizona was originally scheduled to face San Diego State, and likely NBA first-round draft pick Kawhi Leonard, this season at McKale Center. The Aztecs, however, requested to reschedule the game to next season because of a conflict. That could be the most promising move for the Pac-10 between the two conferences, other than Cal’s victory over New Mexico earlier this season in Berkeley.
San Diego State, a legitimate Sweet 16 team that has beaten Gonzaga on the road and St. Mary’s at home, snapped a 20-game road losing streak to Pac-10 opponents with its 77-57 rout of defending Pac-10 champ Cal at Berkeley on Wednesday.
That streak of futility lasted 28 years against the once-proud Pac-10, whose teams have now taken a back seat to BYU, UNLV and San Diego State of the Mountain West.
Fisher told Sports Illustrated that San Diego State’s unprecedented success this year “means we haven’t fallen on our face.”
The same can’t be said about the Pac-10.