Commentary on Pac-12 developments on and off the court …
Rising: Washington State basketball
When dawn broke Thursday morning, the Pac-12 had three men’s teams still standing in the postseason: Arizona and UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, and Washington State in the NIT.
Despite the National Invitation Tournament’s secondary status, this stands as a significant development for the Cougars and, potentially, the conference.
WSU blasted Brigham Young 77-58 on Wednesday night behind 27 points from guard Michael Flowers to advance to the NIT semifinals in New York City. (Yes, somebody has finally beaten BYU.)
The experience is undoubtedly exhilarating for the Cougars, but the true value of NIT success is the foundation it creates for the following season.
The extra practices, additional competitive opportunities and cohesiveness forged serve as launch points.
Four times in the past decade, the postseason NIT winner has reached the NCAA Tournament the following season:
— Memphis won the NIT last year and just lost a close game to Gonzaga in the second round.
— TCU claimed the title in 2017 and reached the NCAAs the following year.
— Baylor won the NIT in 2013 and then began its run of March Madness success, culminating in the national title last spring.
— Wichita State’s NIT title in 2011 led to a seven-year stretch of NCAA appearances.
— And we should account for the COVID disruption: Texas won the NIT in 2019 and was viewed as a bubble team in March 2020 before the shutdown.
But Washington State doesn’t need to win the NIT to receive the full benefits.
Teams have turned semifinal runs into an NCAA berth the following year. It’s all about the experience that comes with playing four or five additional games against quality competition.
WSU beat Santa Clara, SMU and BYU to reach Madison Square Garden and will now face Texas A&M, one of the last teams left out of the NCAAs.
(The other semifinal matches Xavier against St. Bonaventure.)
Given that they have only one senior in the rotation (Flowers), the Cougars could very well join the list of teams that use NIT success as a springboard for the following season — and give the Pac-12 another NCAA berth.
Falling: Wooden Award success
The Pac-12 has two finalists for the most prestigious individual award in college basketball (at least in the Pac-12 footprint): UCLA’s Johnny Juzang and Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin.
Both are considered long shots.
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiewbe is the heavy favorite, followed by Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis.
Barring a major upset (think: St. Peter’s over Kentucky), the Pac-12’s multi-decade drought will continue with the award named after its most famous coach.
The conference hasn’t claimed the Wooden since 1995, when UCLA senior Ed O’Bannon was honored.
Since then, players from ACC teams have won the Wooden eight times.
The Big 12 has won it four times.
Players from Dayton, Creighton, St. Joseph’s and Cincinnati have won it.
But nobody from the Pac-12.
The Wooden Award is about more than statistics and victories. The list of criteria includes a 2.0 grade-point average and “strength of character, both on and off the court” — hardly unreachable bars for Pac-12 players.
And it’s not like there’s a bias against the conference. Three different Pac-12 women’s players have won the Wooden (Washington’s Kelsey Plum, Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike and, of course, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu).
So we wonder: Why the drought on the men’s side?
The winner is chosen by a national panel of approximately 1,000 voters who represent all 50 states and are deemed to be “college basketball experts.”
Typically, the award goes to the best upperclassman in the country — only three freshmen have been honored, and they were next-level players: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson.
Could the conference suffer from a paucity of elite talent?
Not many Pac-12 Player of the Year winners from the past 10-15 years became NBA lottery picks.
Or perhaps ongoing exposure issues are to blame. Any award that relies on a national advisory panel is inherently bad for players who frequently appear on a network with limited national reach.
Either way, the absence of a Wooden Award winner is symptomatic of larger issues Pac-12 men’s basketball must resolve in order to regain the elite status it enjoyed in the 1990s and 2000s.
Rising: The Lincoln Riley effect
USC football continues to reap the benefits of hiring one of the top coaches in the sport.
Those benefits take many forms.
We’ve seen next-level recruiting success from the Trojans with both high school prospects and transfers, including coveted quarterback Caleb Williams.
And now, there’s a tangible link between Riley’s presence and increased exposure for the program.
Last week, USC announced that its spring game, scheduled for April 23, will be televised live on ESPN.
It’s the only spring game in the country set for live broadcast on the network, according to the Trojans. Kirk Herbstreit will be on the call.
(All other Pac-12 spring games will air on the Pac-12 Networks.)
Essentially, the broadcast is free marketing for the program and the school — and indirectly, for the conference — on the most influential sports network in the country.
The value of that exposure should be worth a few months of Riley’s salary.