The Pac-12 Conference is off to a quick start in its bid to turn around its disappointing showing the past two seasons in men’s college basketball, positioning itself for more teams and potentially more wins in the 2020 N.C.A.A. tournament.
The 12 teams in the conference had a combined record of 42-4 on Wednesday, with Oregon State scheduled to play Wednesday night against U.C. Santa Barbara.
That’s far better than the Pac-12’s start in each of the previous two seasons; its teams were 39-20 in the first two weeks of the 2018-2019 season, and 48-19 in the first two weeks of 2017-18. (Because of the scheduling of some early-season tournaments, Pac-12 teams played more games early in those seasons.)
The Pac-12 only sent three teams to the 2018 and 2019 N.C.A.A. tournaments. Oregon made the round of 16 last season, but in 2018, Arizona, U.C.L.A., and Arizona State bounced out of the tournament quickly, leaving the conference without a team in the round of 32 for the first time since 1986.
“There have been some very significant swings for the Pac-12. We’re coming off a couple of down years that have been tough,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. “That causes you to search and to consider making some changes.”
Perceptions about the Pac-12 play into the league’s maneuvers to try to catch up with other power conferences, especially in terms of television revenue for all sports. The league’s TV deal is up in 2024, and other changes in basketball are planned before then — including a 20-game league schedule next season, plus a “Coast-to-Coast Challenge” event in Las Vegas that will match Pac-12 teams against opponents from other power conferences.
Winning key games now will likely help the Pac-12 with those immediate tournament goals and broader issues, too. Conferences are paid millions of dollars in N.C.A.A. tournament funds based on how well their teams perform, and the Pac-12 is eager to measure up.
There are reasons to see the early wins as signs of a turnaround for this season. Four of the conference’s programs, Oregon, Arizona, Southern California, and Washington, all had recruiting classes that were ranked in the top 10 nationally by most services. Several of the players are potential first-round picks in next year’s N.B.A. draft, including Washington’s freshman duo of Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart. Arizona’s first-year tandem of Nico Mannion and Josh Green have also made an immediate impact.
“Those four classes brought in not only impact players, but also N.B.A. draft picks,” said Paul Biancardi, who analyzes top recruits in high school and college basketball for ESPN. “That translates into winning and excitement. It’s the only way to get back on track if you’re off track in recruiting.”
Some teams also got more experienced after some recent turnover. Arizona State, Colorado, and Oregon State all returned at least three of their top five scorers from last season, when each of those programs won at least 18 games. The Sun Devils reached both of the past two N.C.A.A. tournaments.
“Those teams are always ready early because they’ve got guys back,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said. “One of the things that’s hurt the league is we’ve had too many guys leave early. I know that affects every league, but it’s really affected the Pac-12.”
Markelle Fultz was the top pick in the 2017 N.B.A. draft after just one season at Washington. U.C.L.A.’s Lonzo Ball and Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen were also two of the top seven picks in 2017 after spending just one year in college. DeAndre Ayton left Arizona after his freshman season in 2018 and was the top player selected.
There are several new coaches in their first Pac-12 seasons, including some that bring their own cachet.
Mick Cronin at U.C.L.A., Mark Fox at California, and Washington State’s Kyle Smith all had previous N.C.A.A. successes. Before accepting the job at U.C.L.A. in April, Cronin led Cincinnati to nine straight N.C.A.A. tournaments from 2011-2019. He also had the third most wins in college basketball over the past three seasons, trailing only Villanova Coach Jay Wright and Gonzaga Coach Mark Few.
“His resume, his consistency, and his intensity will be a great thing for U.C.L.A. basketball,” Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley said of Cronin. “He has a distinct style and he always holds his teams accountable.”
U.C.L.A. started the season at 4-0, as did Arizona, which finished 17-15 last season. That has put the Pac-12 in position to have its top two most well known basketball teams at the top of the conference.
“I think of Arizona and U.C.L.A. as bellwethers for the Pac-12 nationally,” Scott said. “When your bellwethers and top brands are doing well, it helps the entire league. There’s a halo effect for the entire conference. It generates more interest and more buzz.”
Oregon, which also started its season with four wins, was picked as the most likely conference champion in the Pac-12 preseason poll. Under Coach Dana Altman, the Ducks have advanced to at least the second weekend of the N.C.A.A. tournament in four of the past seven years. The highlight of that run was a trip to the Final Four in 2017, a season that also saw Arizona and U.C.L.A. reach the round of 16 as high seeds.
Hurley said that one difference now is that those who seed the tournament value teams playing better early in the season. “I would like to see the league back to where it was during my first year in the Pac-12, where we had seven teams in the NCAA tournament” in 2016, he said.
So would the rest of the conference.