Not so far from Spokane, it's a raunchy hoops season
01-01-19

Fired in December? Who gets fired or furloughed in December, except football coaches and federal workers?

But you’d have to say Steve Alford earned it at UCLA, with a fortnight that included a 29-point thrashing at Cincinnati and home defeats to Belmont and Liberty. It doesn’t do Bruin backers much good to know that Belmont has had a pretty robust basketball tradition (in addition to being a worthy music school). As for Liberty, the head coach there is Ritchie McKay, who has presided over more than one chaotic program at Oregon State, New Mexico, et al.

At times like these, I used to gulp, along with the other wretches following Gonzaga, and wonder whether this might be the time we’d have to spend days tracking rumors, following flight plans and otherwise keeping an eye on Zags coach Mark Few. Indeed, he was a possible target when the Bruins hired Ben Howland in 2003.

It wasn’t long after that Norm Few, Mark’s father, scoffed at the idea, saying he hadn’t heard of many “record trout coming out of the Los Angeles River.” And in time, it became obvious that Few wasn’t going anywhere, unless it was to a more sedentary life casting dry flies.

So breathe easy, Zag fans. These are restful days for you. Thanks largely to Few’s stability, there isn’t much question that Gonzaga is the No. 1 program in the West.

True, that’s a fragile designation, subject to change almost annually. Arizona is restocking again, but Sean Miller is still chasing that elusive first Final Four. Oregon and Gonzaga matched Final Four trips two years ago, but the Ducks skidded to the NIT last year and have slogged through an undistinguished start to 2018-19.

Which brings us to the meat of today’s treatise. “Undistinguished” is about as pretty a word as you can conjure in reference to the Pac-12 this year. Gonzaga would probably prefer no attempt at contrast, avoiding any guilt by association.

I’ve covered and watched the league for damn near half a century, and – gut feeling here – this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Yeah, there have been other spasms of embarrassment: I recall a year in the mid-‘80s when the Pac-10 sent four teams to the post-season, and the day after all four were eliminated in the first round, the league’s post-season guide arrived in the mail.

Then there was 2012, when Washington won the regular season and didn’t get to the NCAA tournament, so tepid was the competition in the Pac-12.

These are the current guideposts: This week, the league has nobody ranked in the AP top 25, a feat of breathtaking ineptitude. It’s 7-25 against other Power Five conferences (three of the wins by Arizona State). It has losses to Princeton, Indiana State, Texas Southern, Kent State, Belmont, Liberty, Montana State and Santa Clara (twice). You say it’s no big deal, losing to Santa Clara? Well, the Broncos lost by 17 to Prairie View A&M – which is 1-11.

It would be stunning if the Pac-12 gets more than two teams in the NCAA tournament. Realistically, the only path to two would be a team that amasses a dominating league record – minimum, probably 15-3 -- and that team not winning the conference tournament. Short of that, the league might be looking at an automatic bid only.

What’s caused an epic collapse in a conference that as recently as three seasons ago, placed seven teams in the NCAA tournament?

USC and Arizona have been encircled by the FBI probe into agents and fraud. UCLA bears a resemblance to USC in football: Unable to come to grips with its pre-eminence in the sport, incapable of matching a coach to the prestige.

The Utah-Colorado tandem has recently formed probably the toughest Pac-12 road trip. No more. There and elsewhere, the easy answer is lack of players. Utah recently had guys like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. Now it loses by 15 to an 8-7 BYU team on the Utes floor.

Washington has been a disappointment, a preseason ranked team blown out by Auburn and Virginia Tech. But the near-miss against Gonzaga suggests that, playing well, the Huskies could show well in conference (a lot of that based on the lousiness of it).

Oregon was picked to win the league. But it doesn’t shoot the three or rebound that well, has four losses (including the Texas Southern stinker) and now 7-2 freshman Bol Bol (21 points, 9.6 rebounds) has a foot injury of undisclosed severity.

Cal and Washington State are dreadful. Wyking Jones appears in over his head with the Bears, while defense is perpetually a rumor with Ernie Kent’s teams. The question in Pullman is whether WSU (7-6) can win more games than the football team did (11).

So there you have it, a veritable Brotherhood of Blushes. Whatever the new year holds for Gonzaga fans, they can be thankful that the problems nearby are somebody else's.


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