QUESTION: With the NCAA tournament expanding to 64 teams, how many do you think the Pacific 10 might get in?
WALT HAZZARD: If Dick Vitale keeps talking, we might not even get our champion in.
Whatever happened to the conference that gave the game John Wooden and Pete Newell, and put three different teams in the Final Four in 14 of the 17 seasons between 1959, when Newell's Cal team won, and 1975, when Wooden's last Bruin team took its 10th championship?
What has happened is free fall. One Pac-10 team--Larry Brown's Cinderella Bruins, fourth-place finishers in the conference--has been to the Final Four since Wooden retired. One team, Washington, made last fall's preseason top 20, and the Huskies have since fallen out, to be replaced by Oregon State, which is running 14th in the Associated Press poll.
The Huskies have no guards. The Beavers start three 6-foot 2-inch players with a negligible bench behind them that Coach Ralph Miller routinely neglects. These two teams are the cream of the conference.
The Huskies have nice size, but they're the only ones. Oregon State's front line has 6-9 A.C. Green, a 6-9 non-jumper in Steve Woodside, and a 6-2 guard, Dean Derrah or Eric Knox. Against Washington, Knox had to guard 6-9 Paul Fortier. Arizona and Stanford start 6-7 centers. Cal starts a 6-8 center. Some of those guys would be small forwards at North Carolina, or on the jayvees.
Arizona? The Wildcats are supposed to be contenders and get knocked off by Stanford. UCLA? The Bruins get shot up from sea to shining sea in December, but as soon as Pac-10 play begins, they're contenders.
Dick Vitale, the ESPN color commentator, has lamented the fall of the conference, but don't get on him. He's just running at the head of the pack.
From a former Pac-10 coach: "Now people are talking about the ACC, the Big Ten and the Big East. Nobody talks about the Pac-10 anymore. People look on the Pac-10 with disdain." From Newell, himself: "Oh yeah, the conference is down. They've got kind of a phony won-lost record because they played so many Division II and Division III schools. Cal and Stanford, between them, they must have played 10."
Various reasons for the downfall have been suggested:
--California high school basketball, which supplies about three-fourths of the conference's players, is down.
--California high school ball is fine, but look where all the players are going. LSU has John Williams, Oral Roberts has Mark and Jeff Acres, Notre Dame has Matt Beeuswaert, and DePaul has Kevin Holmes, Tony Jackson and Lawrence West.
--The addition of Arizona and Arizona State to the Pac-8, and the hiring of Lute Olson and Bob Weinhauer, respectively, is enhancing both schools' recruiting. That just spreads the talent that much thinner.
Nothing much has really happened except at UCLA. After Newell's consecutive appearances in the finals in 1959 and 1960, and Oregon State's fourth-place finish in 1963, what was the conference without the Bruins? This may not be a Beaver team for the ages, but it's a good, representative Ralph Miller team. The last two Washington teams have been their best in recent history. All that's really missing is the giant in Westwood.
Among the players Olympic participation helped most, try SMU's 7-foot Jon Koncak. A project as a freshman and sophomore, he blossomed as a junior and made the U.S. team, although he played little in games. Bob Knight's practices seem to have been enough. Koncak scored 31 points in a televised showdown against North Carolina's 6-11 Brad Daugherty and 7-foot Warren Martin, running his NBA value up a few hundred thousand dollars in an afternoon. "He'd never run into anyone like Bobby," said Pete Newell, an Olympic assistant. "Bobby treats 'em all alike, kinda tough. I'm sure nobody had ever talked that harshly to Jon before. I saw Bobby yell at him once in practice. Jon had kind of a quizzical look, like, 'Is he speaking to me ?' " . . .
From a Pac-10 release: Eight conference players, including six who have started this season, are from one high school, St. Bernard in Playa del Rey. The starters are Bobby Thompson of Arizona State, Eric Knox of Oregon State, Keith Ramee of Stanford, Chris Washington and Leonard Taylor of Cal, and Corey Gaines of UCLA. The subs are Kevin Vidato of Washington and Rod Keller of USC. . . . When UCLA lost 7-foot Tito Horford of Houston Marian Christian to the University of Houston, Bruin officials claimed privately that Horford wanted to become a Bruin but was talked out of it by advisers in Houston. The Cougars are now afraid that even after signing Horford, they're going to lose him to LSU, which they fear is still interested. A Houston official recently told a writer that Coach Guy Lewis had said in a meeting that the Cougars could no longer count on having Horford.