Pac-12 Basketball has Turned the Corner
May 7, 2020
The Pac-12 Conference has been known as the conference of champions and for the most part, has lived up to the nickname. Well, except in football and basketball, where the conference has struggled in the past decade. But some recent developments in the Pac-12 have given supporters of Pac-12 basketball some hope that the conference may have turned the corner.
The 2019-2020 Pac-12 basketball season was a success for the Pac-12, even though the conference was unable to finish the season due to the coronavirus outbreak. Based on the bracketology models from Joe Lunardi with ESPN, the Pac-12 would have had seven schools in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. UCLA, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, USC, Stanford, and Arizona State would all have made the tournament, according to Lunardi's bracketology.
The Pac-12 had struggled recently just getting teams in the men's NCAA basketball tournament, a single-elimination tournament of 68 men's basketball teams. The Pac-12 had three teams make the tournament in both 2018 & 2019. As a comparison, the Big Ten had eight teams make the tourney in 2019. The Big 12, with only ten teams in their conference, had six teams in the tourney in 2019 and seven teams in 2018.
UCLA, the blueblood program of Pac-12 men's basketball with 11 national championships, finished second in the regular season standings with a 12-6 record in conference play this pass season. First year head coach Mick Cronin was named the 2020 Pac-12 Coach of the Year. UCLA was predicted to finish eighth in a preseason media poll, but the team played surprisingly well and finished just one game behind Pac-12 regular season champion Oregon.
The difference with Cronin at head coach was noticeable. Cronin's teams at Cincinnati were known as tough and physical, something UCLA has lacked in recent years. It took about half the season, but the team came together in conference play. By the time conference play rolled around, UCLA was winning the 50-50 balls and making hustle plays on defense. As Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after their loss to UCLA in Tucson, "They [UCLA] were the bigger, stronger and more physical team. You know, I coached against Cincinnati (then coached by Cronin). And that's who we played tonight."
Recent recruiting successes have added to the feeling that the league is turning it around. In the last week, Stanford and Arizona State have landed two of their highest rated recruits ever. Stanford landed five-star recruit Ziaire Williams, a 6-foot-7 small forward out of Chatsworth Sierra Canyon. According to 247sports.com, Williams is the No. 5 rated recruit in the nation and the highest rated recruit in the modern history of Stanford basketball.
Arizona State landed five-star recruit Josh Christopher, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Mayfair high school in Lakewood. Christopher is the No. 7 ranked recruit in the nation according to the 247sports rankings, the highest rated recruit since James Harden in 2007. Along with Williams and Christopher, USC landed the No. 1 ranked recruit in Evan Mobley, a 7-foot-tall center out of Rancho Christian high school in Temecula.
Mobley is the No.1 ranked prospect in the 2020 class in the nation. USC is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation in the team basketball recruiting rankings for 2021. The Trojans landed two 4-Star recruits from Southern California in the 2021 class, with 6'5" guard Reese Dixon-Waters of St. Bernard (Playa Del Rey, CA) and 6'3" guard Malik Thomas of Damien high school in La Verne both committing to USC in March.
The No. 15 recruit in the nation, five-star point guard Daishen Nix out of Las Vegas, initially committed to UCLA, but last week decided to turn pro and will be joining the NBA G league. The Bruins are adding a couple of four-star recruits to their 2020-2021 roster, but the loss of Nix was a huge blow to UCLA heading into the 2020-2021 season.
From top to bottom, a strong case can be made that Pac-12 basketball was the best in the country. The Washington Huskies ended up in last place in the Pac-12 regular season standings with a 5-13 record. But this team was talented. Washington defeated Baylor, a team that ended up 26-4 and the No. 5 ranked team nation in the Associated Press basketball rankings.
The Huskies have two players, Isaiah Stewart, and Jaden McDaniels, that are both projected to be first round picks in the 2020 NBA draft. Both were five-star recruits in the 2019 class. Utah finished 7-11 in the Pac-12, but knocked off Kentucky, the No. 8 ranked team in the nation. Colorado finished 10-8 in conference play, tied with Arizona for 5th place. In non-conference play, they defeated No. 3 ranked Dayton (29-2). Three victories over top ten teams in non-conference play by Pac-12 schools. None of these teams were in the top four in the conference this past season.
But for the Pac-12 to be a consistent top conference in the nation in men's college basketball, UCLA basketball needs to return to greatness. It is the same in college football with USC. The two traditional powers, located in talent rich Southern California, need to be great again. That will make the conference stronger and help keep the top local players closer to home. Under head coach Mick Cronin, UCLA has the look of a team that will recruit and develop talent plus play tough, a welcome site in Westwood.