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.