Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 11/2/11
LOS ANGELES That new 225 million-per-year television contract may be gilding the pockets of the Pac-12 schools, but there is one thing it won't be able to buy for the conference's basketball teams: relevance. The conference has added Colorado and Utah, but Derrick Williams, and guess which will be a bigger factor as the Pac-12 tries to regain a foothold among college basketball's elite? Williams, a transcendent player who was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, nearly carried Arizona to the Final Four last March, his last-second miss of a 3-pointer (and another one by teammate Jamelle Horne) keeping the Wildcats from beating eventual national champion Connecticut in the West Regional finals. And now? The Wildcats return three starters, but began their season last week with an exhibition loss at home to Division II Seattle-Pacific, and followed that up with a rather uninspiring 60-51 exhibition victory over Humboldt State. Because the Wildcats are ranked 16th in The Associated Press preseason poll, the highest of any Pac-12 school, Arizona's problem is now everyone else's, too. That's what happens when you play in a conference that is on ESPN less often than the West Coast Conference, nearly got only one NCAA Tournament bid in 2009, and over the past two seasons has won two fewer tournament games than Butler. UCLA, the conference's other marquee program, is ranked 17th, but the Bruins and 24th-ranked California will have a hard time proving to anyone that they are any more legit than Arizona. Neither the Bruins nor the Bears won an NCAA Tournament game last season the Bears were in the NIT and neither is scheduled to play a ranked non-conference opponent. "It was true in the Big 12 last year, it's true in the Pac-12 this year: It's on all of us to hopefully have great preseason games and win some of those games," said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, whose team was left out of the NCAA Tournament last season because it won just four regular-season games away from home. "That's how your league is judged. We're always looking to add one or two, and through tournaments three or four marquee non-league games that can prove what the Pac-12 is all about. If every team does that and we're all successful in the preseason, it does nothing but help our league as a whole." So it may be incumbent on Washington to acquit itself well against 6th-ranked Duke and Marquette, and Arizona to shed the loss to Seattle-Pacific (and perhaps Humboldt State) by winning at Florida or beating Gonzaga, tasks that would require rapid growth from freshman point guard Josiah Turner. UCLA has an NBA-like frontline with Big Baby-esque center Josh Smith, as well rugged Reeves Nelson and 6-foot-10 David Wear, a North Carolina transfer, at small forward. But who's going to get them the ball is an open question after point guard Malcolm Lee, along with his backcourt mate, Tyler Honeycutt, left to become second-round NBA picks. Another added hurdle is that while Pauley Pavilion undergoes extensive renovations, the Bruins will have to play across town at the dilapidated Sports Arena, which used to be USC's home court. "The fact that it's right by SC is kind of weird," UCLA guard Lazeric Jones said. "I talked to somebody the other day about getting booed at our home games." Cal returns last year's Freshman of the Year, Allen Crabbe, and Mike Montgomery's teams rarely underachieve in the regular season. And Washington should be boosted if Abdul Gaddy returns to form after tearing knee ligaments last season and freshman Tony Wroten gives the Huskies a potent point guard duo. But after those four teams, everyone else's prospects are speculative at best. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson says he has a team that can compete with anyone in the Pac-12, but he did not say whether the Beavers could avoid getting crushed at home by Seattle as they did last season. USC might have given people trouble if point guard Jio Fontan hadn't torn up his knee on a summer tour of Brazil. Washington State must replace lottery pick Klay Thompson. Stanford is hoping that the 10 freshmen it played a year ago grow up. Oregon has eight new players, so perhaps name tags will not be necessary by midseason. And one of Arizona State's few reasons for optimism, freshman guard Jahii Carson, has not yet been cleared to join the team while his transcripts are being scrutinized. The newcomers, Colorado and Utah, are not expected to have much more of an impact in basketball than in football, where they have combined to win one conference game. Montgomery, the longtime Stanford and Cal coach, believes it is when the bottom feeders of the Pac-12 improve that the conference will be recognized as heading in the right direction. "It's the quality from top to bottom that gets you progress," Montgomery said. "There's been the notion that the Oregon States and the Washington States weren't any good, so it didn't make any difference if you beat them because they're not any good anyway. In the ACC, if you lose to Clemson, well, shoot, that's Clemson. We could never get that. Until we start winning preseason games, Arizona can't lose to Seattle Pacific. It's the same thing with UCLA. If UCLA loses to Long Beach and Fullerton at home (as it did two years ago), we're all screwed. That's just how it is."
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