In 1985, Coca Cola introduced New Coke. In 1968, The Beatles recorded "Wild Honey Pie." In 2010, the Pac-10 is playing men's college basketball.
Even the most qualified of entities can be responsible for seriously dreary products. Just recently a Rodeo Drive of quality hoops, the Pac-10, is now a Shakedown Street of futility. A sustained period of success has given way, due to a variety of factors, to an embarrassing situation this year.
The possibility exists where only one Pac-10 team may reach the NCAA tournament. Conference mainstay Arizona is looking at the end of its remarkable 25-year streak of NCAA appearances. UCLA is having its lousiest season in six years. We are all hoping that Stanford, for the first time since college basketball instituted the three-point line, won't suffer its first consecutive losing seasons.
"It's down. The pool of talented players just isn't what it has been recently," said Stanford Assistant Athletic Director Earl Koberlein, a Cardinal forward from 1982 to 1986. "Clearly the league isn't performing to what it's put out over the last couple of years."
That standard is a lofty one. Stanford Basketball reached unheard of heights, both in the standings and in its talent pool, earning a No. 1 ranking in 2000, 2001 and 2004. Arizona was among the nation's top teams in 2003. Ben Howland's Bruins equaled a Wooden era feat of three straight Final Fours (2006-2008). Oregon and Washington State made national headlines with deep tournament runs.
But consider the Pac-10 now a victim of its own accomplishments. Joining this college basketball establishment has drawn a lofty collection of prep talent – who have all been barred from entering the NBA draft directly out of high school since 2005. They've instead become more apt to bolt to the pros after one or maybe two years.
High schoolers in droves have followed Kevin Garnett's lead directly to the NBA for 15 years, while the top college players these days rarely stay in school more than two years. Still, the Pac-10's current woes can be traced directly to the recent "one-and-done" trend. Where are the conference's best players of the last three years?
They're in the NBA.
Spencer Hawes of Washington's 2007 great leap forward gave way to a mass exodus the following season. Arizona's Jerryd Bayless, UCLA's Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook and still-controversial O.J. Mayo of USC would be mere juniors in college this season. Stanford stars Brook and Robin Lopez heard whispers telling them to enter the draft after their freshman season, before joining the Pac-10 party at the NBA draft the following year.
Koberlein is compelling source, a link to distinct "eras" of Pac-10 college basketball. He was part of an advisory committee formed in the spring of 1986 by then-Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger, out to replace Tom Davis as head coach. Geiger chose one player from each class to be part of that committee, which in turn recommended Montana's Mike Montgomery. The former pivot man has worked in Stanford's athletic department since 1993 .
The Pac-10 can find inspiration for a possibly pending turnaround from its late-'80 about-face. It may have spent the era embarrassing the Big 10 in Rose Bowls, but the hardwood was a decidedly different story. Once UCLA ended in a Dark Side of the Moon-like run atop college basketball in the mid-'70s, the conference endured a long and frustrating struggle for national respect.
Oregon State won three straight Pac-10 titles, only to flame out each year in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins' struggles were well-documented, with five coaches arriving in and subsequently leaving Westwood in a 13-year period. While the term "mid-major" had not been penned, it was en vogue to ignore Pac-10 schools in favor of smaller western outfits. Witness Loyola Marymount, with USC transfers Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble joining UCLA washout Corey Gaines. Tim Hardaway at UTEP fed lobs to Greg Foster, another Bruin defector.
Arizona may have won the 1988 league title by going 17-1 (losing only to Stanford), but the Pac-10 had gone a miserable 2-11 in its previous 13 NCAA tournament games.
The Wildcats' 1988 march to the Final Four was significant. Coming two months after Sports Illustrated dubbed the conference the "Pac-thetic 9", it also coincided with some significant arrivals. UCLA, turned down by North Carolina State's Jim Valvano, hired Jim Harrick that spring.
Recruits who considered going east, suddenly stayed home. Don MacLean of Simi Valley spurned Georgia Tech before coming to UCLA, where he became the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer and led the Bruins to the 1992 league title. Duke and North Carolina courted Adam Keefe, who arrived at Stanford from Irvine. He became the first Cardinal player to be on two NCAA tournament teams and remains an all-time Stanford great.
"Look at those established coaches," Koberlein said. "Look what Mike (Montgomery) did here, look at (Lute Olsen's) Arizona. They sold the brand of the conference, the academics and the athletic traditions. They kept things going."
UCLA earned a long-awaited national championship in 1995. By 1997, four Pac-10 teams counted themselves among the Sweet 16. That feat repeated itself in 2001 when Stanford went 31-3 and was paced by one of three McDonald's All-Americans who joined the Pac-10 in 1999, another first. Casey Jacobsen joined Jason Gardner (Arizona) and Jason Kapono (UCLA) two years earlier in the annual high school super-showcase.
A turnaround after this downer of a season appears likely for the "Conference of Champions". UCLA and Arizona simply won't tolerate a basketball loser and will forever draw blue-chip recruits. Johnny Dawkins already has been restoring Stanford hoops to respectability despite a talent and depth shortage (which has been addressed with a stellar six-man 2010 recruiting class. Recent success at Oregon, Washington and Washington State has those schools rightly believing in themselves. Brainy Sun Devil head coach Herb Sendek has Arizona State back up near the top of the Pac-10 once again.
"I don't see the conference being down for long," Koberlein said. "The standards are too high. You hope it won't be like this for much longer."
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