Nov. 15, 2010COLLEGE PAGE BASKETBALL PAGE
The talent drain began two years ago and the Pac-10 is still in recovery mode.
After sending six teams to the NCAA tournament for three straight years, the league was nearly invisible last March with only two schools represented - its fewest since 1988.
And regaining its status as one of the nation's elite conferences this season seems doubtful.
The cause of the Pac-10's lingering woes? The NBA draft. In 2008 and '09, the league produced 13 first-round picks and eight lottery selections - more than any other conference. Fourteen of those players had eligibility remaining.
Among the underclassmen who bailed early were Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook of UCLA, Brook and Robin Lopez of Stanford, O.J. Mayo and DeMar DeRozan of USC, James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph of Arizona State, and Arizona's Jerryd Bayless.
Those departures combined with a lack of blue chip recruits plunged the Pac-10 into mediocrity.
The league had a team in the final AP Top 25 rankings every year since 1986 until last season. It flopped during nonconference play, going 2-12 against ranked opponents with several ugly losses. None of the teams finished the season ranked among the top 20 in the RPI, either.
"Last year our league was much better than how we were perceived, but because of the lack of wins in the nonconference and maybe a lack of scheduling (tough games) in the nonconference, we took a beating as a group of teams that didn't get it done," second-year USC coach Kevin O'Neill said.
The Pac-10 will try to notch some notable wins this season, with such Top 25 teams as No. 1 Duke, Kansas State, Kansas, Gonzaga, Missouri, Baylor, Butler, Tennessee and BYU among its nonconference opponents.
O'Neill believes beating ranked teams early will improve the Pac-10's national standing.
"Your reputation will be shaped by what you do there because once you get into conference you just play each other," he said.
Only Washington is ranked in AP's Top 25 preseason poll at No. 18, although UCLA and Arizona were among others receiving votes.
The Huskies made it to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament. They return four starters and are picked to win the league title this season. After that, it's a scramble, with the Arizona schools and UCLA in contention.
The bulk of Pac-10 rosters are filled by West Coast players, and O'Neill pointed out the high school talent level dipped the last two years. Fewer players from the East Coast venture west, "so it's important for us to get the best players in our area," he said.
O'Neill should know. Most of the Trojans' recruiting class bailed out before the start of last season after the school imposed its own sanctions on the basketball program in the wake of NCAA violations involving Mayo.
Once a school lands good players, Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, "You've got to keep them. All the one-and-done kids hurt respective programs when they left early."
The talent drop-off was so steep that only two Pac-10 players were drafted in June. And no underclassmen declared for the draft, which means more veterans are around to play this season, even if their ability doesn't match that of their predecessors.
"It's like a program that loses five seniors," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "You've got freshmen coming in and they've got to grow. Once they grow, start to develop, you're back in business again."
Second-year Arizona coach Sean Miller is optimistic about what's to come.
"If you follow the class that will be here a year from now, some of the best players in the nation who happen to be in the West are coming into our conference," he said.
Recruiting will be bolstered by the conference's expansion in July, when Colorado and Utah join. A new television deal will be negotiated, and the league is looking into starting its own television network.
"We have a history and tradition of great basketball, so we've got to emphasize that and get back to that," Montgomery said. "The bottom line is we've got to win."