Wooden's UCLA to 1997's Arizona: How Pac-12 men's basketball will be remembered

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Pac-12 as we know it will come to an end -- in men's basketball, at least -- this week in Las Vegas with its conference tournament. Ironically, the conference tournament, or lack thereof, was one of the things that once differentiated the Pac-12 from the majority of other leagues. The league didn't have one until 1987, and that lasted four seasons before it returned in 2002.

After this season, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington will play in the Big Ten; Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will join the Big 12; California and Stanford will head to the ACC; and Oregon State's and Washington State's basketball programs will perform in the WCC while still intending to rebuild the Pac-12 and maintain control of what will be a two-team conference.

This week will cap a rich history that dates to the formation of the Pacific Coast Conference in 1915, a 109-year run that includes 15 national championships and some of the greatest players and coaches the sport has ever seen.

ESPN's Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway discuss the biggest personalities and moments in the conference's history, the legacy of the Pac-12 and what might happen moving forward.

What is the Pac-12's place in the history of the sport?

Jeff Borzello: Any discussion of college basketball's history -- or the best of the best in the history of the sport -- cannot happen without including the Pac-12. Or, more specifically, UCLA. UCLA is the program with the most national championships. The Bruins also own the longest dynasty in history, winning seven straight national championships and going to 10 straight Final Fours. John Wooden is the greatest college basketball coach of all time. Lew Alcindor is arguably the greatest college player in history and Bill Walton isn't far behind. As a result, the Pac-12 will always be a consistent theme in the sport's history.

John Gasaway: The NCAA should thank the Pac-12 and specifically UCLA annually. Wooden's dynasty established the NCAA tournament as the event that awards the real national championship. Prior to the Bruins' first title in 1964, the NCAA tournament was still competing with the NIT for that claim. Even in the midst of the Bruins' run, Al McGuire and Marquette turned down the NCAA and played in the 1970 NIT instead. But by the time Wooden retired in 1975, there was no question in anyone's mind. A Pac-12 program (Pac-8 at the time) made March Madness what it is today.

Myron Medcalf: Yes, the legacy of the Pac-12 revolves around those great UCLA teams. But Wooden and many UCLA players also made an impact beyond basketball. In 1947, Wooden, who was head coach at Indiana State,refused to accept an invitation to the NAIA tournament because officials of the event would not allow Clarence Walker, the team's only Black player, to participate. Years later, with his UCLA teams, Wooden also took a stance when he let his prominent Black players show they could be leaders while also being themselves. The image of Lew Alcindor at a meeting with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and other civil rights advocates sent a strong message that UCLA players could use their platforms to advocate for change. Wooden had the best teams in America for more than a decade. As some of his peers resisted integration, he not only won with Black players, but shamed other schools for refusing to do the same.

While the league hasn't won a national title since 1997, it has produced many amazing teams in the past 27 years. Which of them ranks No. 1?

Medcalf: A number of impressive teams have followed that Arizona squad of 1996-97. Stanford won 31 games with Casey Jacobsen and the Collins twins (Jason and Jarron) in 2000-01. A UCLA squad that featured future NBA All-Stars Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook won 35 games and reached the Final Four during the 2007-08 season should be considered. Sean Miller had some great teams at Arizona too, including the 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams that made back-to-back Elite Eight appearances and won 67 games combined. And it's easy to forget the 2016-17 Oregon team that lost standout Chris Boucher late in the season but still had a chance to upset North Carolina, the eventual champ, in the Final Four.

But the greatest team the league has produced since 1997 was the Arizona team that tried to win another title a year later. Michael Dickerson, Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Jason Terry and A.J. Bramlett all returned for the 1997-98 season after leading the Wildcats to that championship. That team won the Pac-10 championship but lost a lopsided game to Utah in the Elite Eight. Still, the Wildcats won 30 games and had a legit shot at a back-to-back run to the national title.

Gasaway: I'm hopping aboard this "Arizona teams from a million years ago" bandwagon. With apologies to the Westbrook-Love UCLA dynasty, the vote here is for Arizona 2000-01. Now this was a team: Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Jason Gardner, Loren Woods and Luke Walton. Never mind the eight losses. Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi, died that January, and the coach stepped away for five games. If KenPom existed in 2001, the No. 2 seed Wildcats would have been the favorites in the Elite Eight against Bill Self and top seed Illinois. Arizona reached the title game before falling to Duke.

Make one bold prediction for what we're about to see from the Pac-12 over the next few weeks leading up to the national championship

Borzello: While I'm not going to say they are going to end the Pac-12's national championship drought, I think the Wildcats give the league just its third Final Four appearance since 2008 and Arizona's first since 2001. The Wildcats have had a slew of letdown games this season, but I love the balance and variety in their offense, and the additions of Caleb Love and Keshad Johnson have provided a much-needed boost in the toughness department. Plus, they're likely to play their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Los Angeles, where they should have a fan advantage.

Gasaway: Write it down: Washington State reaches its first Elite Eight since 1941. It will be the first time for the Cougars. In 1941, you reached the Elite Eight by getting a bid, period. The entire field had eight teams. (Headline that March: "Fans hate expansion idea: Going to 16 waters down the field!") Powered by the resulting buzz, the Cougs carry the Pac-12 name forward to a new conference with Oregon State that debuts in 2026 and does for non-coastal Western hoops what Dave Gavitt did for the East in 1979. You said bold, right?

Medcalf: A team outside the three listed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology (Arizona, Washington State, Colorado) will earn a bid by winning the Pac-12 tournament title. Isaiah Collier looks like an NBA draft lottery pick againb and USC has won four of its past five games. Could the Trojans make a run to the league's tournament title? This is as bold as I can get, because I don't see a scenario where the league ends the NCAA tournament drought with another title.

What will the impact of the newly arrived Pac-12 teams be in their new leagues next season? Will we see a team in 2025 do what Houston did in 2024?

Gasaway: On the one hand, it's unlikely any Pac-12 export can be to 2025 what Houston's been this season. Arizona has the best five-year KenPom ranking in the departures lounge, and next season the Wildcats will compete against ... Houston. But let's see this glass as half full. The Big Ten gets a sweet big-picture deal. We'll wait a long time until UCLA, USC and Oregon are as down as they are now. Washington State and Oregon State give the WCC a statistical bump. And don't despair, ACC: Mark Madsen has Cal on the right track.

Borzello: Houston is going to enter the NCAA tournament as a 1-seed and a favorite to cut down the nets, so I think it's a stretch to think any current Pac-12 team will do that in their new digs next season (although Arizona has the best shot). I agree though that the Big Ten will get deeper with the new schools, while the Big 12 -- the best conference in college basketball -- is just getting better with the Arizona addition. The one caveat: If Washington State manages to keep Kyle Smith -- and that's a big if, maybe an unlikely if -- the Cougars will be able to push Gonzaga and Saint Mary's from day one in the WCC.

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