Pac-12 basketball climbed a steep grade back to relevance over the past half-decade, only to slide back to its starting point in the course of two weeks to start the 2017-18 season.
- Arizona, touted as the conference’s best hope for a national championship since it last claimed one in 1997, lost three games in three nights at the Battle 4 Atlantis to drop from the No. 2 to out of the Top 25 altogether.
- UCLA — which needed overtime to beat Central Arkansas and gave up 100 points for a second time in its loss to Creighton — has drawn headlines for who’s not playing.
- USC remains in the Top 25, but gave up a 19-3 run in the second half to Texas A&M to fall from the ranks of unbeaten.
- Cal squandered a big halftime lead over Wichita State at the Maui Invitational. Two days later, the Golden Bears were blown out in a loss to Div. II Chaminade.
- Stanford was manhandled at the PK80, going winless. Oregon finished 1-2 during the Thanksgiving tournament held in the Ducks’ backyard.
- Utah was routed on Thanksgiving eve by UNLV.
It’s the worst Pac-12 basketball has looked since 2011-12, when automatic qualifier Colorado landed an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the conference’s sole at-large entrant, Cal, played in the First Four. Regular-season champion Washington was left out of the Big Dance altogether.
The subsequent five years were a march back to respectability, and it’s all but evaporated in two weeks.
The quickness with which this happened is dizzying. Pac-12 basketball’s nadir earlier in the decade marked the natural order of talent leaving for the NBA draft and going without replacement. Ernie Kent, who elevated Oregon to national relevance in the 2000s with a pair of Elite Eight runs; Ben Howland, coach of three Final Four teams from 2006 through 2008; and Lorenzo Romar, an excellent recruiter who tapped into Washington’s lofty potential, all failed to maintain the high standard they set in the previous decade.
Meanwhile, Washington State lost Tony Bennett to Virginia and Hall of Famer Lute Olson retired after a tumultuous few years.
Plenty of talent left the Pac-12 in the past year; names like T.J. Leaf, Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks. However, enough talent remained, with an influx of new potential stars, to suggest the conference would remain strong. Sure, 2017 Final Four participant Oregon might understandably take a step back, ditto UCLA, but Arizona and USC were supposed to be built to take the reins.
Both the Wildcats and Trojans being embroiled in the ongoing FBI investigation into recruiting improprieties cast a pall on this season that seems to have had lingering and immediate effect on the game-day product.
Arizona State and Washington State have emerged as surprise banner-carriers amid all the turmoil. The Sun Devils’ high-scoring style culminated with a 102-point effort, paced by breakout star Tra Holder, in a blowout win over Xavier. The aforementioned Ernie Kent suggests perhaps the game has not passed him by, coaching Washington State to a surprise Wooden Legacy championship, which included wins over Saint Mary’s and San Diego State.
Arizona State and Washington State lacking brand-name appeal may not wow pundits — Washington State’s play in Orange County would have landed a bigger “brand” a spot in the Top 25, for example — but these teams overachieving while the preseason favorites underachieve should buoy the conference in the thick of the season, assuming Arizona, UCLA and USC figure it out.
The Silver State is Golden
Heading into Wednesday’s night Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge games against Illinois State and Northern Iowa, both Nevada and UNLV are undefeated. Much like Washington State, Nevada has the kind of resume that would earn a bigger name program a spot in the Top 25, with the Wolf Pack boasting wins over Rhode Island and Davidson. Preseason Missouri Valley favorite Illinois State is the first in a series of marquee matchups upcoming for Eric Musselman’s Pack, however. Beat the Redbirds, as well as Texas Tech and TCU next week, and Nevada can look forward to the holidays with a shiny, new ranking.
UNLV’s start lacks the quality of rival Nevada’s, the blowout of a middling Utah team being the centerpiece thus far. However, a win at Northern Iowa — which reached the Battle 4 Atlantis championship — would kick off a huge stretch for the Runnin’ Rebels impressively enough.
UNLV hosts a very vulnerable Arizona Saturday night, then takes on Brad Underwood’s Illinois Fighting Illini one week later at MGM Grand Garden Arena. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Runnin’ Rebels will open Mountain West Conference play undefeated on Dec. 30 when Boise State comes to Las Vegas.
Marvin Menzies succeeded recruiting off the beaten path at New Mexico State, and found NBA-caliber gems like Pascal Siakam. He’s already upped the athleticism at UNLV with the addition of Brandon McCoy this season, but also instilled a tough-nosed defensive and rebounding approach.
I contend college basketball benefits from a good and fun UNLV basketball program. Add that its in-state rival is the clear benchmark in the Mountain West this season, and that only ups the ante.