Gold: How has it been 25 years since the Pac-12 won it all?
SAN FRANCISCO — The last time a Pac-12 team won the NCAA championship, Bill Clinton was still in office and we still hadn’t even heard the name “Monica Lewinsky.” The internet was still in its infancy and Seinfeld was the No. 1 show on television, Jim Carrey’s “Liar, Liar” was the top movie in theatres and Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” dominated the airwaves.
Ever since Arizona’s impressive run to the 1997 NCAA men’s championship, the Pac-12 has gotten knocked down but proven unable to get up again. And they can’t blame it on the whiskey drink nor the vodka drink, nor the lager drink nor the cider drink.
So, what can you blame it on?
I polled nearly a dozen of the league’s top coaches, players, and media members for their thoughts on a quarter-century of misery.
One thing is clear: It’s not any one thing.
Close, but no cigar
From a player’s perspective, getting so close and falling short is a regret that never quite goes away.
UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. was the other side of one of the great disappointments in Pac-12 history. In 2021, the Bruins went on the most improbable tournament run in recent Pac-12 history. After finishing the regular season with losses in three of their four final regular season games and losing in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament to Oregon State, UCLA reeled off five straight wins to advance to their first Final Four since 2008. They squared off with No. 1 seed Gonzaga in one of the great national semifinal games of all time, only succumbing to the Bulldogs on a Jalen Suggs miracle heave as time expired in overtime.
It was a loss as heartbreaking as it confounding. Just like Jaquez can’t reconcile that loss nearly 18 months ago, he’s lost when it comes to diagnosing the Pac-12’s long title layoff.
“That’s a good question,” Jaquez said. “To tell you why the Pac-12 is in this drought, I don’t know. I know we’ve had a lot of opportunities to make deep runs. Ourselves, Oregon before us, Arizona. I can tell you the Pac-12 is tremendously underrated. Historically, we’ve done pretty well. When we made our run, who else was in the Elite Eight? Two other Pac-12 teams (USC and Oregon State).
“The reason we haven’t gotten over that hump, I don’t have the answer. If someone did, we’d be over that hump by now. I’m going into this season trying to find that answer and trying to bring a title to the UCLA Bruins and to represent the Pac-12.”
Hamstrung by December
There have been some seasons in recent memory when the Pac-12 was out of the title hunt before the calendar hit January. Non-conference play has not been altogether favorable for the conference. For every cupcake schedule that builds little muscle there’s been a gauntlet that led to a half-dozen early losses.
“November and December matter,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “And they matter for us as a program, but it also matters to the league. The way the league performed last November on the court killed us in March when it came to Selection Sunday. It’s that credibility – or lack of credibility – that you earn as a league and we didn’t earn it. Going 7-1 down the stretch doesn’t hold as much weight because people say our league’s no good.”
Last season, the Pac-12 went 7-15 against Power 5 teams in non-conference play, including 0-5 against the SEC and 0-5 against the Big Ten. The conference was 2-11 against ranked non-conference teams.
“We’ve got to control what we can control and take care of business,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “Look, I didn’t help Colorado with how we played in non-conference and then we get good late in the year and we win there. We have to handle our own business. The year we did that was the year they cancelled the tournament.”
It’s random, but it’s not just luck
Head coach Mick Cronin knows how important it was for things to fall UCLA’s way during the run, from drawing a 14-seed in Abilene Christian in the second round to a favorable matchup with Michigan in the Elite Eight to getting to play every game in the bubble in Indianapolis. Ultimately, the Bruins simply ran into one terrific team in Gonzaga and came a shot short. Is that bad luck? No, but it feels like it.
“There’s a reason it’s ‘Madness,’” Cronin said. “It’s the most exciting event in sports, in the world. You’ve got a bunch of kids who are maybe playing in the tournament for the only time they’re gonna play in it. It’s become such an event. It’s just riveting theatre, because of the randomness of it.
“Random? South Carolina gets to play Duke in a 2-7 game in South Carolina because the game gets moved because of the bathroom law out of North Carolina. That first/second round was supposed to be in North Carolina. Last year, Houston plays Arizona in San Antonio. Arizona is the 1-seed, Houston is the 5-seed, and Houston won the game, and it was a pro-Houston crowd. Sometimes what is ‘neutral’ is not neutral.”
That particularly stings Lloyd, on the losing end of that matchup with the Cougars. It’s random to draw one of the best 5 seeds in recent memory.
“The biggest crime was Houston being a 5-seed,” Lloyd said. “That team was closer to being the 5th best team in the tournament than 25.”
Cronin holds out hope that the randomness tilts back in the conference’s favor, and in a hurry.
“Hopefully it pops in the next 10 years and three Pac-12 teams win it…just as long as one of them is UCLA.”
It’s not just the cream of the crop
We can place all the blame on the UCLA and Arizonas of the world, but Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd pointed out that it’s about all three thirds of the league – the top third, middle third, and bottom third – all raising their games simultaneously.
“The main thing is the more competitive the conference is overall, the better teams you have, the better chance you have to win the championship,” Lloyd said. “Overall, the conference needs to continue to strengthen — the top, the middle, and bottom. These teams aren’t going through their conference season unscathed. They’re losing some games and I think there’s something to be said for that. Hopefully as a conference we can tighten the screws a little bit.”
Controlling the narrative
Every coach and media member I spoke with said plainly: The East Coast bias is real. Whether it be more favorable tip-off times, a lack of prime-time nationwide matchups or something as simple as having media partners that push narratives and hype hot starts.
“It’s important as a conference to go out and play well, but a lot of this is perception and narrative,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “If you get in front of that narrative — hey, we’re a six-, seven-, eight-bid league — that can carry you to the finish line. Sometimes you look, these conferences get these early narratives, and they get teams in. And in the end you’ve got Colorado and Oregon and they don’t. We have to do a better job overall at promoting that and helping create that narrative.
The buy-in isn’t there
“I’ve coached in the Big 8, the Big 12, the Pac-10, the Pac-12, the SEC,” Cal head coach Mark Fox said. “Obviously it takes a tremendous commitment from each institution and the conference to basketball. The Big East doesn’t have football, so the commitment is there. The ACC is a tremendous basketball league. Have all these other leagues matched their commitment? I don’t know. That’s something to evaluate.”
Fox has a point: The ACC and Big East have combined to win 15 of the last 25 men’s basketball titles.
But then he immediately clarified that commitment does not always translate to cash.
“Commitment doesn’t have to mean resources,” Fox said. “When I was at Nevada, we had none of the resources and all the commitment.”
One Pac-12 coach was willing to deal in hard truths.
“We need to make a commitment to basketball, and I mean each individual school and not just the conference,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said. “I’ve said this at our meetings — we don’t have great atmospheres. McKale (only). I’ve been to Cal when they’re good, and it’s great. Wazzu, it’s been a while. Washington does a good job. UCLA? USC is a ghost town. You probably have to market it better and invest in it. That’s symptomatic of the whole thing. We’ve got to go for it. This should be a basketball conference.”
Bigger, badder, better players
If one person in the Pac-12 universe can talk about the 25-year drought, it’s Ernie Kent. Kent became the Oregon head coach in 1997 — AKA: Year 1.
He played against a handful of eventual Final Four squads – including three straight UCLA Final Four finishers – and he led the Ducks to a pair of Elite Eights. He later coached Washington State from 2014-19 and saw the powerful Arizona squads that landed on fate’s doorstep, only to be denied twice by Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin.
He believes the talent gap in many years between basketball’s elite in the Midwest and East and that in the West has been tough to overcome, stressing that talent comes in many forms, including size and strength.
“You run into bigger, better talent at some point down the line,” Kent said. “You knew you had to get by a Kentucky at some point, a Duke at some point, and the consistency of talent is there. But that gap has closed considerably. I don’t know if NIL changes all that. It’s not the coaching, it’s the players when you get that far, and those kids are big and strong and deep. I thought Ben (Howland’s) two teams, a little more offensive-minded, they could’ve gotten it.”