Can the Pac-12 be saved?

Key pieces at key programs might finally be in place to end the dark days out West

Updated: October 22, 2012, 5:10 PM ET
By Jordan Brenner | ESPN The Magazine

IN A CORNER of UCLA's athletic Hall of Fame, across a narrow corridor from aisles overflowing with trophies, jerseys and portraits, rests John Wooden's den. Encased in glass, the room is arranged exactly as it was the day he died two summers ago. A weathered armchair is angled toward a TV, which projects baseball highlights on a loop. A lone apple rests on the corner of the coach's desk. And framed black-and-white team photos are arranged on the far wall in the shape of Wooden's Pyramid of Success. Westwood will always belong to its Wizard.

Still, times change, even in the land of 11 national titles. And on a blistering Indian summer morning in early October, one transformation is nearly complete. Just a half-court heave from the Hall of Fame, Pauley Pavilion, the building Wooden immortalized, is hardly recognizable. For the past 32 months, workers have dug and built around the structure itself, adding a glass exterior to forge a more intimate connection with the rest of campus, wide concourses to sell merchandise and spacious and carpeted locker rooms to entice future prospects. Inside, though, much remains the same. A new scoreboard hangs over the freshly painted court, and padding has been added to the seats. But by and large, the refurbished arena is a lesson in restraint and respect for the past.

The biggest change, rather, will come on the court itself. Pauley finally will open to the public this weekend and, if all goes according to plan, the basketball product will be monumentally different this winter. The Bruins, led by the nation's top recruiting class, will dazzle newly energized fans. Wins will mount. The nation will watch. One school's renovation will be complete.

But given the sorry state of the Pac-12, UCLA's changes alone could be nothing more than a fresh coat of paint on a house built on a landfill. To compete with the rest of the country requires a reconstruction project much more massive in scale and stakes. And for the Pac-12, that work has only just begun.


PROJECTING THE FUTURE of Pac-12 basketball is a complex equation, but quantifying its recent past couldn't be simpler. The conference has struggled mightily, and last season was its nadir. The Pac-12 became the first of the six traditional power leagues to fail to send its regular-season champ (Washington) to the NCAA tournament. Colorado, a perennial anchor of the Big 12, moved west and won the conference tourney. California got the league's only at-large invite and lost in the play-in, err, "first-round" game, scoring all of 13 points in the first half against South Florida. The Pac-12 finished 10th in the country in RPI, and not one team defeated a ranked nonconference foe.

[+] EnlargeJesse Perry
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe Pac-12 tourney has had some thrillers over the years, but few in L.A. bothered to notice.

So the fact that the Pac-12 stinks is apparent to anyone who followed college basketball closely last season. What isn't obvious, though, is the extent of the problem. This is not a short-term slump. Since 1997, when Arizona won the conference's last national championship, the league ranks dead last among its BCS mates. Pick any measurement -- conference RPI, NCAA bids, Final Fours -- and it tells the same story. The Pac-12 is at the bottom. In fact, over the past four seasons, even the Mountain West, previously a second-class citizen on the Left Coast, has been more successful than the Pac-12.

Make no mistake: This is not an obituary. Far from it. Just as last season was an extreme example of Western weakness, this season offers the opportunity for a rapid turnaround. UCLA could vault back into the nation's elite on the backs of its freshmen, provided wings Shabazz Muhammad (No. 2 in the Class of 2012) and Kyle Anderson (No. 5) are cleared to play. Arizona's frosh are nearly as good, and with quality returning talent and the addition of transfer Mark Lyons, the Wildcats have Final Four potential. And that's fortunate for everyone in the Pac-12. There's a theory that even some rival coaches subscribe to that is basically college basketball's version of trickle-down economics: When UCLA and Arizona are good, the rest of the conference rises with them. Conversely, when the two biggest national brands struggle, the perception of the whole league suffers, both in the minds of recruits and NCAA tournament selection committee members.

Still, a gifted group of frosh may only serve as a one-year solution. Deeper issues remain. From coaching instability and recruiting woes to a lack of exposure and even the time zone itself, myriad cracks in the Pac-12's foundation have allowed the league's status to erode. Long-term growth will require healing of such long-festering wounds.


THE GREENROOM AT the 2008 NBA draft could have passed for a Pac-12 reunion. At one table, Kevin Love and his family awaited his future destination. Nearby, his UCLA teammate, Russell Westbook, held court. The Lopez twins repped Stanford, while O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless were in the house too, fresh off one-and-done years at USC and Arizona, respectively. Those six players would all go in the top 15 picks. And to this day, Pac-12 coaches won't let you forget that fact.

Of all the factors that have hurt Pac-12 hoops, early entry is the coaches' favorite target -- and also the least legitimate. When they whine about the exodus of top players, they sound as if they are two decades behind the times, not three time zones behind the East. UCLA coach Ben Howland repeatedly laments the loss before last season of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, two underclassmen who "weren't ready," he says, and ended up as second-round picks. Pac-12 coaches Sean Miller (Arizona), Kevin O'Neill (USC), Lorenzo Romar (Washington) and Mike Montgomery (Cal) all mentioned the departure of eight underclassmen following the 2009-10 season, conveniently forgetting that not a single conference player declared early for the 2009 draft. What do they think is happening elsewhere?

The same thing, obviously. In fact, the talent drain has been more severe in other leagues. Over the past 10 seasons, 43 players left the Pac-12 early for the draft. During that same period, the SEC lost 51 underclassmen, followed by the Big 12 (48) and Big East (44). The ACC lost 42, leaving only the Big Ten (19) in a different realm. But the myth endures through the coaches' words. Talking to Howland, it seems as if the world is united in an effort to prevent UCLA from retaining its best players. "We are in the land of agents," he says. "If you come over here in the summer, there's 30 pros here every day."

Yeah, because there aren't agents in DC, New York and Chicago. Or, as O'Neill says, "believe me, agents are the least of our problems. They can reach a guy whether he's in Anchorage, Coral Gables or Los Angeles."

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesSince a run of three straight Final Fours (2006-08), Ben Howland and UCLA have had a host of issues.

It's also tough to take Howland's gripes seriously when you consider UCLA's recruiting profile. Muhammad, a smooth, muscular wing with a knack for putting the ball in the basket, is one of the top two players on any list of freshmen. The NCAA is still deciding whether he compromised his eligibility by reportedly allowing financial advisers -- who were also family friends -- to pay for two unofficial visits to schools. But if he takes the court, he is sure to be an impact player. And he is just as likely to bolt for the NBA after a season.

Anderson is in a similar position. At 6'9" with a point guard's vision and handle, the New Jersey native is already an enticing pro prospect. The NCAA is investigating his connection to an agent, but his presence would be a game changer for UCLA as well. (Good luck finding another 6'9" point guard in college hoops.) Again, though, there is little expectation that Anderson will spend much time in college. So Howland can't feign surprise if and when he leaves early. Instead, he and the other coaches might want to look closer to home in assigning blame for the conference's struggles.


THE CALIFORNIA SUN cascades through six two-story windows, spilling light on the Galen Center floor. The view outside is enticing. The LA skyline beckons, certainly more than the action inside USC's arena. Beyond the glass, there are beaches to walk and steaks to grill and Tebows leading overtime playoff victories. Inside Galen, though, Kevin O'Neill paces, roars and tugs at the frizzled crown of hair that surrounds his balding scalp.

Five minutes into USC's game against visiting Arizona last January, O'Neill's Trojans trail 6-2. With the students on winter break, Galen's corners are empty and other rows are dotted with only a spectator or two. The absentees aren't missing much. With 2 seconds left in the first half, the Trojans have scored just 12 points. Yet Arizona lets them hang around by throwing passes off feet, stepping on the sideline or barreling into defenders on the fast break.

O'Neill shows all the signs of a coach struggling through a 6-26 season. USC has been decimated by injuries, early departures and NCAA sanctions. But his old school isn't in great shape either; Arizona will go on to miss the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons after 25 straight bids. O'Neill, of course, was an unfortunate part of the fiasco that left Arizona in this mess: Lute Olson's sabbatical, O'Neill's run as interim coach and the tension between the two men that ended with O'Neill getting pushed out of Tucson and Olson's eventual retirement. Since he resurfaced at USC in 2009, O'Neill has been tasked with cleaning up Tim Floyd's mess.

His travails speak to a stunning statistic. Only three coaches remain from the 2007-08 season: Howland, Romar and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). At a time when the best players rarely stay on campus for more than a season or two, continuity on the bench is more important than ever, which makes so much coaching turnover devastating to the conference. It is a coach's job to maintain stability, from the style of play to recruiting connections to details as small as the travel schedule. And the Pac-12 has been as volatile as the San Andreas Fault. "The newness of coaches is incredible," Miller says. "We've completely restarted." He has only now reinvigorated Arizona, and Miller is hardly alone in facing a challenging rebuilding project. Johnny Dawkins inherited a bare cupboard at Stanford from Trent Johnson. Washington State's progress stalled when Tony Bennett bolted for Virginia. From Dana Altman at Oregon to Larry Krystkowiak at Utah, coaches throughout the Pac-12 are still remaking programs in their image. And when 75 percent of a league is going through a face-lift, mediocre results shouldn't be surprising.

Of course, if someone gets Botox and there's no one there to gawk at the leathery product, does it really happen? That question, even more than the coaching turnover, has dogged the Pac-12 since it was the Pac-10 and even the Pac-8. A day before USC hosted Arizona and 904 miles to the north, Stanford took on Oregon State in Corvallis. With the score tied at 76, Stanford's Josh Owens intercepted a desperation outlet pass and appeared to lay the ball in just before the horn. But the refs ruled that the basket occurred after the buzzer, and off we went. From one overtime to a second, to Anthony Brown's tying three-pointer with 15 seconds left in the third extra session. Exhaustion tangled with intensity as the score ticked into triple digits. Only after Roberto Nelson's buzzer-beating trey rimmed out at the end of the fourth overtime did Stanford crawl away with a 103-101 victory. Who could forget such an epic battle?

[+] EnlargeLarry Scott
Chris Williams/Icon SMIThe Pac-12 hasn't exactly flourished on the court lately. Larry Scott is out to change that fact.

Pretty much everyone, that's who. After all, the game began at 10 p.m. ET on a Saturday and aired on Root Sports. Folks out west like to complain about East Coast bias, which is sort of like bitching about snow in Siberia. Fact is, less than 20 percent of the country lives outside the Eastern and Central time zones. As O'Neill says, "We're in a geographical area where the East Coast is in bed before we play." That reality affects every aspect of running a Pac-12 program. And it's why the coaches talk about Larry Scott with such reverence.

The Pac-12 commissioner was once a professional tennis player, albeit one with a 2-20 career singles record. The Harvard grad has enjoyed considerably more success ever since, and the Pac-12 is his current project. Scott led the expansion from 10 to 12 schools by adding Colorado and Utah and ushered in equal revenue sharing among member institutions. But his latest move is what could most drastically alter the DNA of Pac-12 basketball. By reaching a 12-year, $3 billion agreement with ESPN and Fox and launching the Pac-12 Network, Scott assured there won't be any Stanford-Oregon State situations going forward. The conference is suddenly ultranational. "It's hard to overstate the significance," Scott says, ticking off statistics -- 47 games on ESPN networks, 22 on FSN and every other men's basketball game on the Pac-12 Network. "It's going to be a complete game changer."

That's an understatement. In 2010-11, the Pac-10 didn't even crack $60 million in media deals, and basketball was relegated to FSN. Now some games will start in the coveted 9 p.m. ET slot, and highlights and studio-show chatter should be plentiful. Says Miller, "At this time next year, we will have the opportunity to be in front of people who have seen us in a different light."


AT THE CENTER of a long, black folding table, a 6'9", 275-pound teenager commands the attention of an entire auditorium, not to mention countless college hoops fanatics watching live online. For 57 minutes, teachers, coaches and relatives gush over Tony Parker as if he were a returning war hero instead of a senior at Miller Grove High School just outside Atlanta.

Parker too has plenty to say. He always does, and it's usually filled with humor. So it isn't surprising that when he finally, mercifully, decides to announce his college destination, he can barely keep a straight face. He fiddles with an Ohio State cap, then one from Georgia, before unbuttoning his dress shirt to reveal a UCLA T-shirt. Suddenly the Bruins have another elite prospect in tow, including their third East Coast star.

That is the Pac-12 Scott envisions, one where every school can swoop into any region to land top players. UCLA's current class notwithstanding, that hasn't been the case for the conference. Even the Bruins and Arizona, with their legacies of success, struggle to convince kids to head to the Left Coast. Only 15 Top 100-rated recruits in the past five classes have joined Pac-12 schools from outside the region. The distance from home plays an obvious role, but so, again, does the lack of TV exposure. Miller played at Pittsburgh and coached at Xavier, so he's familiar with the way Eastern recruits view the Pac-12. "You're kind of the conference that comes on late at night on a network that doesn't show as many highlights," Miller says.

That is why this season is so important. Not only will the Pac-12 get a chance to make a greater impression on much of the country, UCLA will do so with Anderson, Parker and Jordan Adams, another Atlanta-area standout and the first of the quartet to commit. If they produce, dig the LA scene and spread Howland's gospel back home, they could spur the kind of westward expansion that would have made Lewis and Clark proud.

And this is where the sea change could happen. Word of mouth and relationships are absolutely crucial in recruiting. Just look at Adams. UCLA wasn't even on his list until the summer of 2011, when the Bruins hired Korey McCray as an assistant coach. McCray had run the Atlanta Celtics, one of the nation's premier AAU teams. His former player committed to UCLA shortly after McCray took the job, and Parker joined Adams, a pal since age 9, last spring.

Connections didn't matter to Anderson, though. The Bruins had been chasing him for years, and he fell in love with the campus on his visit. It didn't hurt that Howland has produced stellar NBA guards, including Westbrook, Aaron Afflalo and Darren Collison. But Anderson, the most introspective member of UCLA's freshman foursome, saw more than just an opportunity to run the show. "Back home, I'm used to having a lot done for me," he says. "I wanted to come out here and be on my own and learn how to fend for myself."

[+] EnlargeTravis Wear
AP Photo/Jae C. HongCan Travis Wear and UCLA fulfill expectations in 2012-13?

David and Travis Wear tried that once. The twin bigs from Huntington Beach, Calif., were widely expected to stay home to play for UCLA. But then they visited North Carolina for Midnight Madness early in their junior season and were smitten. The atmosphere, passion and legacy of UNC hoops was too alluring to ignore, and they committed to Roy Williams. They lasted all of a season. "Midnight Madness was a crazy experience, and I thought it would be really neat to have a chance to play there," David Wear says. "Once I got there, I saw what college basketball life was like away from home -- the whole atmosphere and the environment. It was good and everything, but I kind of missed home a little bit."

Now the Wears are juniors at UCLA, where they have been reunited with their former point guard at UNC, Larry Drew II. All three could start this season. And all three were once McDonald's All-Americans, which exemplifies the Pac-12's struggles to recruit hometown kids. Among the past five classes, only about half of the Top 100 prospects from Pac-12 territory have stayed home to play college ball. Making matters worse, the level of talent in the West has been as low as anyone can recall. "Recruiting West Coast guys and being a top-10 team wasn't possible," says Dave Telep, ESPN's senior national recruiting analyst. The dip is cyclical, but that doesn't lessen its impact. Just imagine what the conference would have been like if players such as Kyle Singler, Terrence Jones, Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton hadn't gone elsewhere. "Teams maybe have more of a following out east than they do on the West Coast," says Travis Wear. "Maybe that's because there's more to do out here on the West Coast. On the East Coast, when your college is playing, the arena is always full."

Pauley Pavilion should be full this season, which will be another welcome change. Attendance for UCLA games dipped without an on-campus home; reportedly, only 34 students made the trip to the LA Sports Arena for a game against Pepperdine. The refurbished arena should take care of that issue.

For the conference, though, change won't be so simple. It will take time, which is only right, because progress is rarely linear. Instead, it is a series of small gains and occasional setbacks. What matters is that there is finally a plan in place, a blueprint for long-term stability that every school can follow. As the new Pauley shows, years of digging can eventually build an entrance to the future. The Pac-12 has dug its hole. Now the upward climb begins.

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Jordan Brenner | email

ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
Brenner writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. He covers the NBA and college basketball.