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Pac-12 basketball might be headed for an all-time low in NCAA tournament bids

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 3, 2019

Washington’s 81-79 loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 5  was among the better performances by a Pac-12 basketball team this season. The conference’s two signature programs, Arizona and UCLA, are struggling to find their footing. (Young Kwak / AP)
Washington’s 81-79 loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 5 was among the better performances by a Pac-12 basketball team this season. The conference’s two signature programs, Arizona and UCLA, are struggling to find their footing. (Young Kwak / AP)
By Patrick Stevens Special To The Washington Post

UCLA’s decision this week to end Steve Alford’s six-season coaching run with the Bruins ultimately served two purposes.

One is intentional: to break from a partnership that seemed odd from the start and had barreled into a ditch over the last month.

The second was merely a happy coincidence: It provided something to discuss about Pac-12 basketball that wasn’t solely about this miserable season.

Those wanting a good West Coast hoops fix the past two months have turned to Gonzaga and Nevada. The Zags won the Maui Invitational. Nevada ran the table in nonconference play, beating three Pac-12 teams (Arizona State, Southern Cal and Utah) en route to a 13-0 start.

San Francisco has shown to be a wonderfully quirky and fascinating team. Utah State is aces on the defensive glass and an intriguing alternative to Nevada in the Mountain West.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s signature program this decade (Arizona) is somewhere between a rebuild and a reload, and its most historically relevant program (UCLA) is off to find John Wooden’s 10th full-time successor. The defensive apathy that was a signature of the Alford era torpedoed the Bruins during a 7-6 start that reached its nadir Saturday with a 73-58 loss at home to Liberty.

At this rate, though, Alford won’t be the only Pac-12 coach sent packing this season.

Not one team in the conference has reached 10 wins. The league isn’t represented in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, the first time that’s happened since 2011-12. Only two teams (No. 39 Oregon and No. 49 Arizona State) began 2019 in the top 50 of the rankings.

More ominously, only four cracked the top 75 of the NET rankings, the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s new tool for evaluating teams, on Jan. 1 (No. 45 Arizona State, No. 56 Washington, No. 61 Arizona and No. 74 Colorado). With conference play arriving, there aren’t high-end victories to be had over the next two months.

Low tide arrived Saturday as UCLA was busy no-showing at Pauley Pavilion and ushering out the Alford era. Arizona State (against Princeton) and California (against Seattle) also lost at home, while Washington State fell to Santa Clara in a nominally neutral-site game in Spokane.

Pac-12 teams are 92-58 overall, though a deeper look at the data is far more troubling. The league went 7-20 on the road and 12-26 on neutral floors. It was 2-3 against the ACC, 3-9 against the SEC, 2-6 against the Big 12 and 0-7 against the Big Ten. Pac-12 teams rolled up a 7-10 mark against the West Coast Conference.

It’s enough to make you wonder if the Pac-12 will become the first single-bid power conference since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

It is already the only one to have just two teams earn bids; that has happened on five occasions.

Four of those came in a 10-team configuration; the fifth was in 2012 after Colorado and Utah came on board.

How has this happened? Roster flux caught up with Arizona (9-4), though there isn’t a galling loss in their portfolio. Washington (9-4) missed out on its chances for quality early victories. Preseason favorite Oregon (9-4) was without freshman Louis King for the first seven games, and bigs Bol Bol (undisclosed injury) and Kenny Wooten (broken jaw) are out for now.

The greatest source of consternation, though, is in Los Angeles. Southern Cal (7-6) lost all four of its nonconference games against power-conference foes. And UCLA, aside from sophomore Kris Wilkes’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to upend Notre Dame on Dec. 8, has been the definition of a joyless team.

The most consistent team of the bunch in nonconference play was Arizona State (9-3), which owns victories over Kansas and Mississippi State and boasts easily the Pac-12’s best at-large profile. But even the Sun Devils, who have received stellar play from freshman Luguentz Dort and San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham, stumbled at home against Princeton coming out of their Christmas break.

Still, they’re in far better shape than UCLA, where the 10 championship banners from the Wooden era (plus another earned in 1995 under Jim Harrick) dangle as a giant symbol of expectations. Bruins fans will have to wait a little longer to savor another.

Alford, a coach who had one trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in 18 seasons between Southwest Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico, was always a strange fit. A chronic postseason underachiever at his previous two stops – most notably with losses to No. 14 seeds in 2006 (while at Iowa against Northwestern State) and 2013 (while at New Mexico against Harvard) – his record in March with UCLA wasn’t as dreadful.

The Bruins made the Sweet 16 in three of his first four seasons. It was a stretch capped by the Lonzo Ball-led 2016-17 team that was dedicated to the principle of scoring a lot of points and hoping it was enough to make up for lackluster defense. To its credit, it largely was, finishing with a 31-5 record before a region semifinal exit against Kentucky.

From there, it unraveled on Alford. Last season’s team was even more defined by defensive indifference, and it fizzled against a savvy St. Bonaventure team in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Then came this year’s underwhelming start with a young team led by Wilkes and sophomore Jaylen Hands, a December free fall and Monday’s coaching change.

Under normal conditions, UCLA would play out the string under assistant Murry Bartow, then go looking for the next guy who won’t live up to Wooden’s unmatchable standard. But this is the Pac-12 of 2018-19, and the Bruins probably shouldn’t be counted out from anonymously piling up some victories in the next couple of months.

After all, somebody has to.

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