Jordan Adams, UCLA’s freshman guard from Georgia, knew only one thing about Pac-12 Conference basketball.
“UCLA and Arizona were the only teams you noticed,” Adams said. “That’s all we heard about back home.”
The Bruins and Wildcats, long the national brands in the conference, were expected to push the Pac-12 back into the elite this season. UCLA brought in the No. 2 recruiting class with Arizona right behind at No. 3.
The conference has received a bump in perception. The Bruins (21-7 overall, 11-4 on Pac-12 play) and Wildcats (23-5, 11-5) meet Saturday night at 6 with all the Big Event trimmings expected at a sold-out Pauley Pavilion.
“Last year, the Pac-12 definitely had a bad year nationally,” said Jim Sukup, editor of Collegiate Basketball News. “They were looking for a resurgence this year. Whether that has happened is a matter of opinion.”
This game could convince fence-sitters.
ESPN has sent College Game Day to Westwood, raising the possibility that analyst and former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps could say something nice about UCLA, his longtime nemesis.
The sellout is a novelty at new Pauley Pavilion, where the capacity is 13,800 and there have been only six announced crowds of more than 10,000 this season.
What the national television audience won’t see are teams considered among college basketball’s best. UCLA and Arizona have a history of being that, but they’re not at the moment.
The Wildcats slipped to 11th in the Associated Press poll last week and then lost to unheralded USC on Wednesday. The Bruins are not ranked. They also have a loss to USC and are still trying to recover lost reputation from a loss to Cal Poly in December.
Success in Westwood and Tucson matters to the conference. The programs are the helium in the Pac-12’s balloon.
Only twice in the last 20 years has neither UCLA nor Arizona been ranked after the regular season ended. The conference had only two teams make the NCAA tournament both times.
The conference has had 21 teams in the top 10 at the end of the regular season since 1992, and 13 were UCLA or Arizona.
Asked whether UCLA and Arizona carry the Pac-12’s reputation, California Coach Mike Montgomery said, “Uh, duh. That’s a problem we got. If those two are not good, the conference is not perceived as being good. People don’t give credit to the schools across the board in the league.”
Arizona and UCLA were expected to enhance the Pac-12’s credibility nationally this season. The Wildcats were ranked 12th and UCLA 13th in the AP’s preseason poll.
Instead, heading into the last two weekends of the regular season, it’s Oregon that leads the conference, with UCLA a half-game behind and Arizona a game behind.
Arizona’s recruits have become support players, which initially worked well. The Wildcats had victories over No. 5-ranked Miami and No. 8 Florida and climbed to as high as No. 3 in the AP poll. But they have a 3-3 record in the last six games.
UCLA labored in nonconference, but now has some traction. The Bruins’ four-player freshman class has blossomed as UCLA has won five of its last six games.
“This gives us a chance to show ourselves on national television,” UCLA freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad said.
And show off the Pac-12.
The conference had only two teams in the NCAA tournament two of the last three seasons. Washington was denied a bid a year ago, the first time the conference’s regular-season champion had not gone to the tournament since 1944.
“I think everyone has respect for the Pac-12,” said Arizona Coach Sean Miller, who played and coached in the East. But, he added, “Great teams are defined by things that occur in the month of March, in the tournament.”
Only one Pac-12 team other than UCLA and Arizona has advanced past the second round since the Bruins reached the Final Four in 2008 — Washington in 2010.
“It takes a sustained period of really good basketball to get a reputation,” said Cal’s Montgomery, who had some teams go deep into the tournament when he coached at Stanford. “You have to be in the spotlight a long time for people to perceive that you might be a good basketball program.”