- Dana O'Neil, College Basketball Reporter
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When Sean Miller was an assistant at Xavier, a guy by the name of David West had little trouble capturing the nation's attention.
Forget that his team played in an off-Broadway league; West was the real deal, and he was treated as such, garnering National Player of the Year honors and enough trophies to break his back.
Not many years later, Miller had the pleasure of coaching another phenomenal talent. His name was Derrick Williams. He played for a team that theoretically enjoyed a higher profile thanks to its conference affiliation. Yet there was Miller, practically begging people to pay attention to his phenom.
"He went through a stretch like I'd never seen before, a six-week run where he just dominated," Miller said. "He got the national player of the week once, after we played Washington State, and I'd say that was maybe his 10th- or 15th-best performance. He had a couple that were off the charts but the national player of the week came after we were on national television."
For years, that was the Pac-12's complaint -- people judge us without really seeing us.
But now, aided in part by an ESPN television deal that puts it front and center weekly, the league can be seen by plenty.
And it's still trying to forge its identity and to an extent, explain itself.
The Pac-12 is like the crazy uncle at the family party; far more entertaining this season but no one quite knows what to make of it.
"For whatever reason, the Pac-12 is still caught trying to prove itself, to say 'Look at us,'" Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "The TV contract will help and does help, but with that, you have to put out the product. I think we have the product. We just have to convince everyone else."
In a lot of ways, the league is not unlike every other conference in the country -- cannibalistic to the extent that it muddies its own image.
Arizona beats Stanford but loses to Cal; Stanford in turn beats Arizona State. Oregon beats Arizona and UCLA but then loses point guard Dominic Artis and drops three of four; and $20 if you can figure out UCLA.
In the Big Ten, we call that a great league.
In the Pac-12, we call it ugly.
Fair or unfair?
"What's happening in our league is what's happening everywhere in college basketball this year," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "I know it's a low bar as compared to last year, but I think by any measure we are significantly stronger this season."
He's right on both points. It is better, and the bar was as high as a caterpillar.
Scott challenged, if not all but mandated, his teams to schedule harder nonconference games, to take risks that may hurt initially but will help collectively. Some did -- Arizona's schedule is rated 10th in the country, Colorado's 13th -- and some didn't. Oregon hovers at 101, Arizona State at 102.
But the commissioner also did what he could to help. He can't recruit. He can't schedule. He can't coach. But he can inject life into the conference.
Invigorating the league with a more solid infrastructure has been Scott's top priority for the hoops side. Along with the television deal, he decided to move the conference tournament to Las Vegas for the next three years.
The Staples Center, he felt, offered some pizzazz but he believed the product had grown stale, in part because the building was sometimes too cavernous. The MGM Grand Arena holds 15,000.
"If you're looking only to generate revenue, you go bigger, but if you're worried about the look and the feel of the event, you go smaller," Scott said. "We wanted there to be vibrancy and energy to the venue and we felt with Vegas, fans can enjoy going there."
Coaches, though, think the TV deal is even more critical. For too long the Pac-12 played in virtual anonymity to folks from the Eastern and Central time zones who liked to get a good night's sleep -- unknown to poll voters and worse, unknown to recruits.
Before the latest deal and the evolution of the Pac-12 Network, 90 Pac-12 games weren't on TV anywhere, Scott said.
As in total blackout everywhere -- not just nationally.
"It helps with everything," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Jordan Adams' mom is sitting in Atlanta and now she can see every game. That's sweet."
Of course, you can put a game on television, you can invite fans to party in Vegas, but that doesn't make it good.
The Big East is king in New York City, but no one is trying to argue that the conference's Tuesday slate of games is must-watch TV or must-watch live hoops.
In the end it's up to the product on the court, not the bells and whistles surrounding it, and that's where the Pac-12 remains a sort of show-me league.
Some of the numbers aren't awful: four teams are in the top 50 RPI (Arizona Colorado, UCLA, Oregon), and in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, those four are in the tournament with three more on the bubble. Arizona State and Stanford are among his first four out, and rising Cal is in the next four.
But some numbers are still pretty awful: The league is 12-29 against teams in the top 25 RPI and the only Wildcats and Ducks have a winning record against the top 50.
And then there's the eyeball test, thoroughly subjective but not entirely inaccurate. It's not hard to watch a Big Ten game and think a solid three or four teams have Final Four abilities -- Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.
It's a little trickier to do that with a Pac-12 team.
But at least one coach isn't sure it's fair to compare league to league, or even possible.
Sendek has coached in the Big East (as an assistant at Providence), in the SEC (as an assistant at Kentucky), in the ACC (head caoch at NC State) and now in the Pac-12.
"It's fun to talk about and rank conferences, but I'm not sure how easy that is to do," Sendek said. "To me, it's an illusion. You can't know unless you're in the league. It's just something that's fun to talk about. For us, there's still an awful lot of basketball to be played, so I don't think you can predict or determine anything yet."
The Pac-12 is trying to gain credibility on the national stage. A TV deal helps. But in the end, it's about the product on the court, which shows the conference still has something to prove.