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Pac-12 Basketball Still Fighting Against Perception

In the past college basketball season, the Pac-12 Conference sent more teams to the Sweet 16 — three — than it sent representatives to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, when conference tournament champion Colorado and sole at-large, Cal, each bowed out early.

The 2011-’12 season was rock-bottom, the natural last step in a slow descent for the league. Things got so dire out West that the Pac-12 failed to land an NCAA Tournament for Washington, its regular-season champion.

The outlook is considerably less bleak now: not only did Arizona, UCLA and Utah all play into the 2015 tournament’s second weekend, but Oregon took eventual runner-up Wisconsin to the wire in the Round of 32. The conference also produced the NIT champion in Stanford.

Pac-12 basketball had its problems in 2014-’15, sure. UCLA eeked its way into the Field of 68 under somewhat dubious circumstances, Stanford’s place in the NIT was sealed by a dreadful final month and the bottom half of the league was especially weak.

But with a number of difference-makers returning, an influx of new talent and some new coaches pumping life into long-struggling programs like Oregon State, the conference’s immediate future is bright.

Is it bright enough to emanate beyond the Pac-12’s footprint, however? That’s the question the conference has been trying to solve for the past half-decade.

Scour the various “too-early top 25” rankings publications that have put out in recent weeks, and Pac-12 representation typically includes two or three teams. There are dissenters like NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster, who ranks four Pac-12 teams, but then there are outlets such as The Big Lead that rank just one.

It’s a bit confounding to be sure, but speaks to the larger issue the conference continues to fight: national opinion regarding the Pac-12 is all over the place, because the league struggles to command as much of the spotlight as its ACC, Big Ten or even SEC counterparts.

You can blame whatever factors you like — late tip-off times for Eastern viewers, availability of Pac-12 Networks in outside markets, the conference’s overall struggles from 2009 through 2012 — but ultimately, responsibility falls on the conference’s standard-bearers.

Sean Miller has done a nice job returning Arizona to the level of success it enjoyed from 1986 to 2005 under Lute Olson, but the Wildcats need to get over the Elite Eight hump that has tripped them up three times now since 2011.

Arizona’s flirtations with the Final Four are the closest any team from the conference has come since UCLA’s run of three straight ended in 2008. The conference’s last national champion, Arizona, cut down the nets in 1997.

Arizona’s title came just two seasons after league rival and college basketball’s all-time most decorated program, UCLA, claimed the last of its 11 national championships.

As one of college basketball’s blue bloods, UCLA carries cachet only programs like North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky or Duke can match — that is, when the Bruins are winning.

NCAA BASKETBALL: FEB 21 UCLA at Arizona

The Pac-12’s perception hinges partially on the Bruins’ success and consistency.

Pac-12 basketball needs UCLA to perform at a top-20 level consistently. Next season should see the Bruins take a positive step in that direction, with veterans Bryce Alford and Tony Parker back to anchor the ship.

Just like it’s good for Big 12 football when the Red River Rivalry has title implications, or for ACC basketball when Duke and North Carolina are highly ranked, or for Major League Baseball when the Yankees and Red Sox are both in the playoff hunt, it benefits the Pac-12 when both Arizona and UCLA are prominent.

The 2012-’13 and 2013-’14 seasons offered flashes of the old rivalry, particularly an outstanding 2014 Pac-12 Tournament championship game.

However, the Wildcats and Bruins haven’t consistently jockeyed for positioning on the national landscape since their heated rivalry in the 1990s tapered off after 2002. UCLA’s prosperity in the mid-to-late portion of last decade coincided with the end of the Olson era at Arizona, which was also the program’s worst stretch since the mid 1980s.

Likewise, UCLA was ravaged by early departures to the NBA draft just as Miller got Arizona back on track. That head coach Steve Alford has some veteran leadership back for 2015-’16 is a considerable building block, to be sure.

A renewed Arizona-UCLA rivalry is a nice centerpiece for a conference that will be the most competitive its been since 2008 — if not further back. One might have to refer to the turn of the millennium, when Arizona, UCLA and Stanford battled for supremacy and upstarts like Oregon, USC and Cal were also in the mix, for the last time the league looked so deep.

Utah reloads under the competent leadership of head coach Larry Krystkowiak; Cal has an influx of freshmen talent joining its returners, making for an intriguing lineup; Oregon is thriving under Dana Altman; and the first-year heroics of Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State have the Beavers positioned as potential spoilers.

The Pac-12’s 2015-’16 outlook is indeed sunny, and if it lives up to its potential, the rest of the nation will have to take notice.

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