Pac-12's New Kids Hanging Tough in Hoops

While the Rocky Mountain way has been a mixed bag for Pac-12 football, life’s been good for Utah and Colorado men’s basketball so far.

Remember the summer of 2010? Chances are your friendly neighborhood college athletic director or conference commissioner does, probably complete with a shudder and a cold sweat.

That, of course, was the summer of realignment. The power conferences played musical chairs, and when the music stopped, the Big 12 became a ten-team conference, the Big 10 became a twelve-team conference, and Missouri and Texas A&M latched onto the SEC.

And, of course, Utah and Colorado found a seat at the Pac-10’s table. When that realignment domino fell, many seemed underwhelmed, especially after initial reports that had Texas and Oklahoma jumping to the conference. The Utes and the Buffaloes seemed more like a consolation prize. To many, it looked like a conference getting bigger without actually getting better.

With both schools currently in their fourth year in the conference, some are still wondering if the Pac-12 is actually a better conference with Utah and Colorado in the fold. For football – the sport that clearly drives the bus in college sports – it has been a mixed bag. Utah isn’t a threat for a College Football Playoff spot yet, but it has already established itself as a formidable foe in its new conference. Colorado? Not so much. Not yet, anyway.

Is that also the case in men’s basketball? It doesn’t seem so. Actually, Utah and Colorado haven't just held their own, they've been able to compete.

Heck, in their very first year, the Colorado Buffaloes won the Pac-12 Tournament. They also won an NCAA Tournament game that year before bowing to Baylor. This despite being picked to finish tenth in that year’s preseason polls, and losing to Stanford by 20 and 24 points.

Since then, Colorado has continued to perform well in the Pac-12. The Buffs have won 20 or more games in all three completed seasons, though their current 11-11 mark may place that streak in some jeopardy. They were an NCAA Tournament team last year, even though they got pounded by Pitt.

Meanwhile, Utah has yet to rep the Pac-12 in the NCAA Tournament, but this year’s Utes – currently ranked 11th in the AP poll -- seem likely to change that trend. Not long ago, the Tournament was a frequent destination for the Utes, as they brought their dancing shoes in ten of eleven seasons between 1995 and 2005. They were the Final Four runner-up in 1998. And, of course, they made the Elite Eight in 1997. At Stanford’s expense.

Utah’s first season in the Pac-12 was brutal, with just six wins that entire season. But under Larry Krystowiak, the Utes have improved every year, building to an NIT appearance last season.

The success stories in Salt Lake City and Boulder have not gone unnoticed by the Pac-12 experts, nor has the process each school took to compete. “Colorado was in the Big 12, and physically they just did not seem to be able to compete in that league with the Kansases of the world and the Texas schools,” former Stanford head coach and current Pac-12 Network analyst Mike Montgomery told me on my radio show in November.

“They did a lot of things to bring that program up. They chartered aircraft. They did a lot of things with their facilities to try to compete. So then they come into our league and now they’re up to snuff. Tad Boyle has done a wonderful job, and people are excited about basketball in Colorado, which has not always been the case.”

As for Utah, Montgomery said, “I’m really so happy for Larry Krystowiak. They’re solid, they’re very well coached. They really execute, and they run stuff that’s hard to defend against.”

The products for Colorado and Utah have been competitive, and things have been good at the gate, too. Utah has seen an attendance increase of nearly 9 percent from last year. On average, over 11,000 folks are in the Huntsman Center when the Utes tip off. Meanwhile in Boulder, Buffs basketball has become a thing. Colorado’s average home attendance is down from last year, but only by a margin of 21 fans. 87% of the seats are filled at the Coors Events Center.

For comparison, Pac-12 men’s basketball attendance is off 4 percent from last season, with only 62% of seats spoken for. This, of course, may also be what happens when a product isn’t quite as good as it once was.

When that happens in other sports, the NBA and MLB in particular, many blame expansion. That’s not the case when it comes to Pac-12 hoops. Blame UCLA for being all over the place in the standings from year to year. Blame Washington, another maddeningly inconsistent program. Stanford made the Sweet 16 last season, but the Card have not returned the perennial power status they enjoyed ten years ago. To some extent, you can blame them, too.

Don’t blame the Utes or the Buffaloes. In just four years, their programs have proven themselves worthy of competing in the Pac-12.

(Granted, that may say more about the Pac-12 than it does about Utah and Colorado. And that’s probably a slightly different conversation than the one we’re having here. But still…)

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