The “Conference of Champions”, as Bill Walton says assuredly each broadcast about 100 times, has not won a men’s basketball title since Arizona miraculously did the trick 20 years ago.
What gives? Before Arizona’s title, UCLA won it all in 1995, ending another 20-year gap between titles for the Pac-12 dating to 1974-75, when the Bruins won their 10th championship in an 11-year span under John Wooden.
Oregon last week became only the sixth Pac-12 school to make the Final Four since the Wildcats’ championship in 1997.
Stanford lost in the 1998 Final Four to Kentucky. Arizona played in the championship game in 2001 and lost to Duke. UCLA went to three consecutive Final Fours (2006 to 2008) and came up short in each, losing in the 2006 title game to Florida and in the semifinal round the other two years (2007 to Florida again and 2008 to Memphis and John Calipari).
Since the Wildcats won the title in 1997 — with a 19-9 regular-season record and fifth-place finish in the Pac-10 — the Big East and the ACC have each claimed six championships. The SEC has won the title four times.
The following are the top five reasons why the Pac-12 has not lived up to Walton’s “Conference of Champions” claim, at least in men’s basketball. Ninety-one conference teams have qualified for the NCAA tournament since Arizona’s title and all went home with a loss.
Loss of Lute Olson and Mike Montgomery set conference back
The Pac-12 had quite a run with Olson and Montgomery two of the most visible head coaches in college basketball. Olson coached Arizona to four Final Fours and Montgomery took Stanford that far in 1998.
The first domino fell in 2004 when Montgomery made the ill-advised decision to leave Stanford for the NBA to coach the Golden State Warriors. He lasted only two seasons with Golden State.
Stanford is far from the same with plummeting attendance figures at Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal has only two Sweet 16 appearances and no Elite Eights since Montgomery’s departure.
Olson’s prolonged leave-of-absence and retirement saga in 2007-08 and 2008-09 resulted in interim staffs for those seasons.
Sean Miller entered from a mid-major at Xavier without West coast ties but has took Arizona to three Elite Eights and a No. 1 ranking a couple of years ago.
Montgomery and Olson departing within three years of each other left Ernie Kent and Lorenzo Romar as the deans of coaches in the conference. Neither has advanced to a Final Four. Kent was fired by Oregon in 2010 and Romar was let go after this season by Washington.
Touch luck of the draw
The one-and-done NCAA tournament can make any result unexpected. Keep that in mind.
Nine times since 1997 have Pac-12 teams lost to the eventual champion in the NCAA tournament.
UCLA’s two losses to Florida in 2006 and 2007 came at a time when the Gators won consecutive national titles under Billy Donovan.
Stanford lost to eventual champion Kentucky in the 1998 Final Four. Kentucky also routed UCLA 94-68 that year in the Sweet 16.
Duke won the title in 2010 after dispatching of Cal in the second round. The Blue Devils also won the championship in 2015 after eliminating Utah in the Sweet 16.
Oregon made it to the Sweet 16 in 2013 before losing to eventual champion Louisville.
Arizona faced an experienced, talented Duke team in the 2001 championship that had Shane Battier, Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer.
The 1998 Elite Eight upset loss by 25 points came against Utah’s crafty coach Rick Majerus, who so happened to throw off the high-scoring Wildcats with a triangle-and-two defense. If Arizona does not come across Majerus, it may have won consecutive national titles.
The Wildcats ran up against a Connecticut buzz saw in 2011 that included Kemba Walker playing out of his mind. Two missed 3-pointers by Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne bounced off the rim and the Huskies survived with a 65-63 win in the Elite Eight.
Arizona appeared prime for a strong title bid in 2005, up by 15 points with four minutes left against Illinois in the Elite Eight. But then everything went wrong and the Wildcats lost 90-89 in overtime. A significant reason for the Fighting Illini’s comeback? It was practically a home game with it played in Chicago. The crowd helped their momentum.
Of course, Arizona ran into its Kryptonite in the NCAA tournament, it seems, Wisconsin in consecutive Elite Eights in 2014 and 2015 and came up short.
UCLA’s shortcomings drastic
Starting in the 1998 NCAA tournament, guess who has the second-most Elite Eight appearances in the Pac-12 other than Arizona, which leads with seven in that span?
The answer is not UCLA. It’s Oregon, which notched its fourth this season and second in the last two years.
The Bruins, once the standard-bearers of the conference, have only three from that run of consecutive Final Fours under Ben Howland.
UCLA ran Howland out of town and brought in Steve Alford in 2013. Alford has never coached a team beyond the Sweet 16 in his 22 years as a head coach at the Division I level.
UCLA has 11 national titles to its credit but none since 1995 and that’s mostly because of questionable coaching moves and blunders, including Jim Harrick’s firing in November 1996 — 20 months after leading the Bruins to the championship — because of “recruiting irregularities.”
Critics of Arizona’s program point out that not making the Final Four in 16 years takes some luster off of it being one of the elite.
Lack of quality programs
This ties into the previous reason: Arizona, Oregon and UCLA have combined for five Final Fours and 14 Elite Eights since the 1998 NCAA tournament.
The other Pac-12 teams? Stanford has two Elite Eights (1998 and 2001) and one Final Four (1998) and USC an Elite Eight in 2001.
ASU has not even made the Sweet 16 since 1995 under Bill Frieder. Cal has not advanced that far since 1997. It’s going on 35 years now since Oregon State — once a West coast power — has made it to at least the Sweet 16.
Washington State advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2008 under Tony Bennett, but the Cougars have not been the same since 2009 when he left Pullman for Virginia.
Final Four-type coaches?
Other than Miller — three Elite Eights is impressive — and Oregon’s Dana Altman, does the conference boast any other certifiable coaches who can be envisioned in a Final Four?
Alford has much to prove as does his L.A. counterpart Andy Enfield at USC. Both are decent coaches but how far does “decent” get you?
ASU’s Bobby Hurley is basically starting out as a head coach at the Division I level. Stanford’s Jerod Haase coached his first season at a Power 5 conference this year.
Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak and Colorado’s Tad Boyle are good coaches but does their ceiling reach the Final Four and national title game?
Washington and Cal are in transition with new coaches.
Washington State’s Ernie Kent coached Oregon to the Elite Eight in 2002 and 2007, but can he do the same at Pullman, where basketball is an afterthought?
Keep an eye on Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle, who when fielding a healthy team can be dangerous. He is 41-54 after his first three seasons in Corvallis but he’s bound to get better.
Still, it is difficult to put the words Final Four and Oregon State together especially since the Beavers have not reached the Sweet 16 since 1982.
When Bill Walton speaks of “Conference of Champions” he must be talking about the other sports and his triumphant run with the Bruins more than 40 years ago.
When will men’s basketball once again be part of that claim?
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.