If the breakneck pace of conference expansion has demonstrated nothing else, it has reaffirmed the harsh pecking order of the current hierarchy in college sports. Football is the one and true king of all things, ruling from on high, and every other sport will be well advised to not cross our gridiron overlords. But as best I can tell there are still a few people who care about basketball, and I'm one of them. Is the Pac-12 a good thing for Cal men's and women's basketball? Let's break it down.
First, a caveat - We don't really know exactly how the Pac-12 will be scheduled in basketball. Would the conference be in two divisions (North and South) like football's proposed structure? Would the conference emulate the Big East and have no divisions despite unbalanced schedules? Would the schools consider something crazy, like playing a full home and away round robin, which would mean 22 games? I'd be shocked if that happened, and it would only be feasible if the Pac-12 discarded a conference tournament, something that seems unlikely considering the money and exposure that goes along with our yearly annoying trip for superfluous road games.
For those of you upset about not seeing USC and UCLA each year in football, prepare to be angry again. If the same split is maintained in basketball Cal will only get one game a year against the likes of UCLA and Arizona, the two marquee programs of the Pac-10. Perhaps Monty can build up a rivalry with Romar's UW teams or the fightin' Hope-In-Laws. At least, unlike football, we'll see everybody once.
So let's take a quick trip to the Rockies and see what our new conference-mates bring to the hard court:
Colorado - The Buffs have had a tough time of late. To be frank, Colorado has been the doormat of the Big 12, with only 2 NCAA tournament appearances since the mid-70s. The Buffs were particularly bad in the past three years under now-departed coach Jeff Bzdelik, though their 6-10 conference record last year was a step up. Between their poor play and academic issues Colorado appears to be a program with lots of work to do before they can be considered threats.
Colorado hired Tad Boyle away from Northern Colorado and it will be his job to turn the program around. Ralphie Report speculates that he may have been hired in part because he's affordable at a time when CU really needed to save money:
I know that a lot of Buff fans were hoping to see McClain get the offer, for the main reason of keeping the continuity on the staff (and hopefully securing Burks and Higgins for next season), but I have also heard many realize that we were not going to make a splash with this hire and we needed to go after an up and comer as opposed to a "retread" (and no, I am not calling Steve McClain a retread). Well, Boyle certainly qualifies as and up and comer and I am sure that his contract will not be stretching the athletic department budget more than it already is.
Boyle's main task was to convince Big-12 freshman of the year Alec Burks to stay in the program, and evidently he succeeded in that task - Colorado will be relying on Burks and senior Cory Higgins in what may be their last year in the Big 12. With a late start in the recruiting process, Boyle signed a guard that transferred from Utah (ironically, a transfer that would never be allowed now that Colorado and Utah are conference mates) a three star forward from Texas with some upside and a seven foot, two star center from Wisconsin who sounds like a project in the mold of Max Zhang. Not awful for a coach that just came in late from one of the smaller schools in division one, though nothing that makes you think 'emerging contender' either. Colorado has recruited from all over the country lately, with no more than two players from any one state. One would expect that they would look towards California more in the Pac-12, but that's just idle speculation.
Utah - Like Colorado, Utah is in the midst of a turbulent off-season. FIVE different Utes transferred out of the program at the end of the year and Utah failed in an attempt to recruit JC talent to find immediate production. For a program with so much recent history his has to be a disappointing and sobering situation. I'd have to guess that 3rd year coach Jim Boylen is on the hot seat to start 2010, and he's shown signs that he's not particularly committed to his current job anyway.
BlockU is just hoping for an improvement over 2010's disappointing campaign, even without an NCAA appearance:
But on the flip side, 2010-like results will not be tolerated. Progress has to be made and this team can't finish below .500 in either overall record or conference record because that will prove to me the stagnation and regression we saw this season was most certainly not a fluke. Which, unfortunately, suggest that 2009 was.
What I want as the irrational, impatient fan is a team that does not lose to the likes of Seattle and Idaho at home. Those losses, at any stage of a career, are inexcusable. You can justify potentially one of those, but as a collection? No way.
Sounds pretty grim
Taken as a whole, Colorado and Utah look pretty underwhelming as basketball additions. What was exciting about the Pac-16 was that it represented an immediate infusion of good-to-great programs for a Pac-10 that was down in 2009. Hopefully the old 10 teams revive themselves with young talent and a little luck, but knowing that Texas, A&M, and Oklahoma St. were on the way was reassuring for the continued prestige of the conference. Barring sudden and surprising stability and growth, Colorado and Utah probably won't be ready to add anything in 2011 or 2012. Prove me wrong, Buffs and Utes! Prove me wrong!
Colorado - Like the men's team, the women don't have much recent history of success in the Big-12. Longtime coach Ceal Barry led Colorado to 10 NCAA tournaments in 13 years, but since her departure in 2006 the Buffs have struggled mightily. They recently hired Linda Lappe, a former player during the Barry era who, at 30 years old, is one of the youngest coaches in the NCAA. Despite her relative inexperience and short time on the job she managed to maintain a solid recruiting class led by twin guards from Long Beach Poly, one of which was given a similar ranking by ESPN as Layshia Clarendon.
Nevertheless, it will be difficult to bounce back from last year's 3-13, 11th place finish in perhaps the deepest conference in women's basketball. It would be great news for the Pac-10 if Lappe showed signs of turning her program around next year.
Utah - Many of you may remember the Utes from Cal's WNIT run - the Bears played a solid game against the Utes and finished with a 10 point victory in the 2nd round. Utah is one of the most consistent mid-major programs in the country, but for the first time in decades there may be some uncertainty. Head coach Elaine Elliott is something of an institution - she has been the head coach for 27 years, with 20 20 win seasons and 15 NCAA tournament spots - a sterling record for a non-BCS school. But she recently announced a leave of absence as she ponders potential retirement. An assistant coach will take over on an interim basis with a solid roster with some good young talent as Elliott considers her future.
I think Utah is actually a pretty solid add to the Pac-10, with the obvious worry that losing a head coach of 27 years can obviously have a destabilizing effect. Hopefully Utah brings some momentum into the Pac-12, because women's basketball is the sport that most needs successful programs to increase prestige and respect to the eyes of the nation. Outside of Stanford the Pac-10 has struggled to gain respect. Cal, UCLA, USC, ASU and Oregon have all shown positive signs lately that the Pac-10 can be more than a one team league nationally, but any help from Colorado and Utah would be much appreciated.