Pac-12 powers aim for return to glory
Fair or not, perception of the league rests with the success of Arizona and UCLA
SAN FRANCISCO -- At Pac-12 media day in San Francisco last week, Arizona coach Sean Miller was asked to explain why the league has taken such a publicity hit over the past 12 months.
Only two conference teams (Colorado and Cal) earned NCAA tournament bids in 2012, which led to a flurry of jokes that carried over into the offseason.
"When I name a conference," he said, "I always think of two teams. The ACC has North Carolina and Duke. You've got Michigan State and Ohio State in the Big Ten and Kentucky and Florida in the SEC."
Miller paused and smiled.
"In the Pac-12, it's all about Arizona and UCLA," he said. "We have the most storied traditions. Relative to college basketball, they're among the greatest ever."
Just not lately.
The Bruins and Wildcats have each missed two of the past three NCAA tournaments, and their mediocrity has hampered the rest of the conference.
Washington is a strong program, but while the Huskies' consecutive regular-season titles may be a big deal in Seattle, the feat doesn't exactly trigger the excite-o-meters of college basketball fans across the country. Neither does Colorado's Pac-12 tournament crown or Stanford's NIT championship.
No, in its quest to regain relevancy, the Pac-12's two flagship programs must lead the charge. That's why Arizona forward Solomon Hill couldn't help but smile last week upon hearing the preseason predictions for the conference race.
The Wildcats were first while the Bruins checked in at No. 2.
"It's nice to see the league getting back to its roots," Hill said. "The resurgence of UCLA and Arizona motivates everyone else to step up. It pushes everyone to do better."
Arizona and UCLA have each been among the country's top programs over the past few decades. The Cats won the national title in 1997 and finished second in 2001. UCLA won it all in 1995 and appeared in three straight Final Fours from 2006 to '08.
But only one time since 1996 have the two schools finished first and second in the conference standings. That happened two seasons ago, when Arizona reached the Elite Eight. Last year, UA placed fourth in the Pac-12 and lost to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT. UCLA tied for fifth and missed the postseason altogether.
"We don't have other traditional powers in the national media's eyes," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "So when they're not good, no one thinks our league is very strong. It does so much for our conference when they're both good. It gives us credibility. It gets people all over the country excited about Pac-12 basketball."
Indeed, if the predictions hold true, it will be difficult to poke fun at Pac-12 hoops this season. The conference may not be ready to overtake the Big Ten or Big East, but it certainly won't be the laughingstock it was a year ago, when most league teams squelched their NCAA tournament hopes before January by losing literally every key nonconference game.
Arizona and UCLA are ranked 12th and 13th in the AP preseason Top 25, and the Bruins would almost certainly be listed higher if not for the eligibility questions surrounding prized recruit Shabazz Muhammad, a guard who is projected as a top-five pick in next summer's NBA draft. UCLA coach Ben Howland said he's confident the NCAA will clear Muhammad just as it did with Kyle Anderson, another top-five signee.
Howland is hoping Muhammad, Anderson and freshman Tony Parker mesh well with returning players such as forwards David and Travis Wear, center Josh Smith and point guard Larry Drew II, who sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina.
"We have a good blend," said Howland, whose squad finished 19-14 last season. "Experience is important and it's a nice thing to have. But it's also important to have some talented players."
As for the bigger picture, Howland said he doesn't feel any pressure to "carry the torch" for the rest of the league.
"We feel it for ourselves," he said. "We want to be good for the sake of UCLA."
In many ways, Arizona's situation mirrors the one at UCLA. Xavier transfer Mark Lyons will assume the starting point guard duties while veterans such as Hill (12.9 points, 7.7 rebounds as a junior last season), Jordin Mayes and Kevin Parrom act as role models and stabilizing forces for the newcomers. Post players Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are all top-20 prospects who are expected to impact the Wildcats immediately.
UCLA's recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN.com. Arizona's came in third.
"Our frontcourt is talented, but we're really young," Miller said, "so their continued development is crucial. Team chemistry is going to be important, too, because we've got nine or 10 guys who can play. We've got some guys who are going to have to accept lesser roles for the greater purpose of winning. That's not easy."
As much as they hated to admit it, opposing players at Pac-12 media day said the preseason hype surrounding UCLA and Arizona has them extra-juiced for the 2012-13 season.
"It definitely makes it better when they're good," Washington guard Abdul Gaddy said. "We're all kids. We all see the rankings and want to beat the teams ahead of us."
Pac-12 officials hope the national spotlight shining on the Wildcats and Bruins will generate exposure for some of its other schools. The conference certainly seems to have a lot to offer.
Stanford returns almost every key piece of last year's NIT championship squad. Colorado, fresh off its Pac-12 tournament title and NCAA tourney upset of UNLV in the NCAA tournament, touts one of the top players in the country in All-American candidate Andre Roberson. Cal and Washington will be competitive as always, and Kevin O'Neill's USC squad could potentially have the biggest turnaround of the season after winning just six games a year ago.
"From top to bottom, we're all better," Miller said. "During my four years here, this is the strongest conference I've been a part of."
Miller points out that in 2011 -- the final year of the Pac-10 -- four conference teams went to the NCAA tournament. Three of them won their first-round games, with the Wildcats advancing to the Elite Eight. So it's not as if the league is all that far removed from success.
But to enhance its reputation, the Pac-12 needs its members to beat some of those teams during nonconference play to enhance their résumés for the NCAA tournament, the ultimate measurement for success.
"Winning in November and December is just as important as winning in conference play," Miller said. "We all have to win those gams to help [the Pac-12].
"I know that Arizona and UCLA are important and that us winning could uplift a lot of people, but the days of two teams carrying a conference are over. We have to have success as a group. Once we do that, we'll get the respect we deserve as a league."
Editor's Note: For ESPN.com's full coverage from Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco, click here.
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