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Fear and Loathing in the Pac-12 Tournament

The Pac’s great journey for multiple bids

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

I was somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the Big Gulp began to take hold.

I thought about stopping at any number of the truck stops on my way to Las Vegas, but my shoulder-Bill Walton wouldn’t let me (It was later in the week the real Bill told me he relieves himself “whenever he can.”) And so I continued onward toward T-Mobile Arena, in search of the American Dream and the Pac-12’s second bid.

“THERE’S NO WAY TO GET OUT,” screamed the kid in the room next to mine in Excalibur. It’s like he took the words out of my mouth; that’s the state of the Pac in a nutshell.

I went to Commissioner Larry Scott’s annual press conference before the title game, where he gave upbeat updates on their equity offering. I pushed him on numbers because for some reason he seems to be seeking a valuation far greater than any peer conference. “The amount of money that we raise and the valuation are very important details, but they actually are secondary ... to the strategic value that a partner would bring side by side,” replied Scott.

I can understand wanting a strategic partner in the ever-changing media and streaming landscape. But this is the same man drawing a significantly higher salary than the commissioners of peer conferences, yet for some reason he needs to trade equity for expertise when his peers do not. In the same press conference, he and Chancellor Philip DiStefano dismissed the recent basketball struggles as “cyclical.”

As the distraught tot banged on the dividing door between our hotel rooms at 6 a.m., I decided to pound back. At least he didn’t have to listen to mediocrity being hand-waved away.

In a normal “Power Conference,” the tournament is a showcase of the league’s great talents. It’s a chance for teams to jockey for seeding in the field of 68, and maybe for the lower teams to work their way off the bubble. It shouldn’t be the case that 10+ teams are playing for their seasons, and the seniors playing for their careers. The Pac-12 tournament shouldn’t be this somber.

“It’s one of the worst days for me as a coach when the season comes to an end like this,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. That’s the conference’s third seed, already resigned to the fact that there’s no postseason for his squad. The careers of All-Conference Sedrick Barefield, six-year veteran Parker Van Dyke, and others, are over.

Wayne Tinkle, coach of fourth-seed Oregon State, talked about “maybe getting a chance in the NIT or something.” They didn’t. There were tears in the Stanford presser, as the reality of Josh Sharma’s career ending hung over the room like a thick cloud. UCLA’s Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, legitimate NBA prospects, were listless in theirs.

Bennie Boatwright’s spectacular USC career came to an end in a tough loss to Washington. A Trojan fan near me kept yelling “what’s going on?!” throughout that one. Andy Enfield did a decent job explaining what went wrong: “That’s called a five-man special. We want our worst ball handler and slowest guy handling the ball and throwing it out of bounds. We called that play in timeout about eight minutes before.” After watching Enfield coach, it’s believable that he wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek.

It was the kind of tournament where deep down, even 2019 Cal thought they had a chance to make a run. In the tourney opener, McKinley Wright IV hit what appeared to be the dagger, emphatically tapping his wrist. Wright time must’ve been miscalibrated, though, because review determined he didn’t beat the shot clock. The Buffs did beat the Bears, but Head Coach Tad Boyle proclaimed that they set basketball back 20 years.

Two minutes into Washington State’s game, Bill Walton declared it was the best he’d ever seen C.J. Elleby play. The Cougars turned the ball over 15 times in the early minutes, 6 of them by Elleby. They lost by 33, and still haven’t won a Pac-12 tournament game since it moved to Las Vegas. Ernie Kent was fired the next day, and one wonders why he was ever extended in the first place.

The tournament attendance was down this year, as Arizona didn’t make a deep run. I asked some Wildcat fans how they felt about being bounced in the first round. “Relieved, honestly,” laughed one. “I wanna forget this season,” echoed another. “The Pac-12 is nothing without us.” If only I had $100,000 for every time I heard that one.

What can be done? Is there a way to get out? In spite of the cash flow and management issues, I do think there’s hope for men’s basketball. A lot rests squarely on the schools’ ADs.

College basketball is about coaching, more than anything. That was clear in this tournament. The semifinals featured what I see as three of the top four coaches in Boyle, Dana Altman, and Mike Hopkins. I consider Krystkowiak to be up there as well, and he led his team to the third seed. They all find ways to get the most out of their players.

You need only look at the turnaround of the Washington program to appreciate the importance of that. Lorenzo Romar recruited elite talent almost every year. Perhaps his best prospect of all was eventual number one draft pick Markelle Fultz. With Fultz, he couldn’t manage 10 wins. Mike Hopkins took over a team whose recruiting class was gutted, and still got more out of them. The program is clearly trending up with him at the helm.

Larry Scott aside, this conference needs better coaches in its premiere programs. UCLA is the best positioned program, and they stuck with Steve Alford for far too long. They have a chance now to make an impact hire and turn things around. Bill Walton suggests they hire Barack Obama. “They’ll hire another coach, they’ll hire a very good coach,” said interim solution Murry Bartow. “There’s good days ahead for UCLA.”

USC and Arizona are also two of the better jobs, and each have had rumors about their coaching futures. They’ve recruited well, although they both had members of their staffs indicted as part of the FBI investigation. USC even hired the father of two prized recruits. Enfield and Sean Miller haven’t been bad, per se, but both have underachieved. How many other programs of their stature have shown so much patience?

To put it simply, there could be six or more players drafted this year from Pac teams who didn’t go dancing. And those rosters are littered with quite a few more that have NBA potential down the line. Most of these teams aren’t lacking for talent, they just need coaches who can better harness it.

The Pac-12 conference is the Conference of Champions. On Friday I attended the 2019 Hall of Honor ceremony, and was blown away by the new inductees. There were legends like Ronnie Lott and John Olerud. There were people who redefined their sport, like Dick Fosbury and Ann Meyers Drysdale. And there were champions, like Natalie Coughlin and her 12 Olympic medals, or Dick Gould and his 17 national titles. My favorite moment was when Steve Smith Sr. spoke about how the University of Utah gave him a chance to reach his dreams, meet his wife, and become a man. His mom told him she couldn’t afford college, so he’d have to “figure it out.” He and his wife are now involved in helping the next generation of Utes “figure it out.”

In spite of everything, the Pac-12 tournament is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Bill Walton shows up and finds ways to celebrate life (and drugs). There’s the annual game of mascot basketball. There are women shooting arrows with their feet. I go five days without touching a vegetable. This year, a girl scout proclaimed her dream of fetal surgery.

Jaylen Hands may have had the best week of anyone. Sure, the Bruins lost in the quarters and they won’t be going dancing. But he had a pair of twins declare their love for him on the jumbotron. (They were actual twins, too, not just facsimiles like the UCLA spirit squad).

But, really, the tournament is a great fan experience. Gary Payton went into the Oregon State crowd to greet fans donning his college jersey. He graciously posed for pictures with adults and children alike, shook a few dozen hands, and held a smile through the whole thing. And it wasn’t just him. People had similar experiences with Richard Jefferson and Puddles the Duck. The Pac-12 tournament is a beautiful thing.

I watched one of the quarterfinals with an off-duty TV sideline reporter. She had raided the vending machine, and was reveling in the fact that she didn’t have to obsess over the stats or story lines. She could actually watch basketball. “It’s nice to remember that this is supposed to be fun,” she told me. “Because it is.”

Oregon played phenomenal basketball en route to the title, becoming the first Pac-12 team to win four games in four days. Their overtime tussle with Arizona State in the semifinals was a real treat whenever the whistles took a break. And I loved the genuine joy in their celebration after the final, when they knew they had beat the odds to go dancing. Things were so wild that Bol Bol started talking to his shoe. Somehow, the Pac-12 clawed out three bids.

Pac hoops in the 2000s was a special time to be a part of. There may not have been a national title to hold onto, but one thing was absolutely certain: no matter which game you watched, there would be quality ball being played. No doubt at all about that. There was madness in any direction, at any hour (even Washington State).

So now, ten years later, you can go up on the Statue of Liberty in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.