The breakup of the Pac-12 Conference was one of the biggest off-season happenings of 2023, but is it really all that shocking? For West Coast hoop fans and those that like traditional rivalries in NCAA sports, what has transpired with the “Conference of Champions” has to be a bit heart-breaking, but it shouldn’t be all that surprising. We take a look at the old Pac-12 and some of its resonating moments from a hoops perspective.
Let’s be honest, we think some things are going to last forever. Who can imagine life without Best Foods Real Mayonnaise? Or an iPhone? There are two certainties in America: One, change is constant and two, if you don’t put out a quality product, it will eventually catch up to your business one way or another.
The demise of the Pacific-12 Conference was shocking, but it really shouldn’t be any surprise considering the inept leadership of the past decade. The conference had a poor broadcast distribution package since the inception of the Pac-12 Network in 2011 and it was never rectified. The conference’s leadership never did anything substantial to solve the problem and the bottom fell out. The poor product lingered and the consequences reached a head when all but four of its 12 members bolted for other conferences by summer 2023.
Let’s face it, the conference was never going to be the same when flagship schools USC and UCLA announced they were leaving for the Big 10 in July 2022. After all, the L.A. market is the nation's second largest and by far the biggest and most important on the West Coast. With only Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington State remaining, the conference could cease to exist in the future. Should it add other programs, the Pac-12 still won’t be anywhere near what it once was.
We decided to take a quick trip down memory land at some of the once proud basketball conference’s resonating moments and top recruits from the perspective of a City of Angels native.
• The biggest recruit ever from the Pac-12 conference, of course, is Lew Alcindor of Power Memorial (New York) in 1965 to UCLA. He’s probably the best high school player of all-time and he was already one of the best players in the world when he decided to attend UCLA. He would deliver UCLA three NCAA titles in his three seasons on the varsity, but keep in mind UCLA won back-to-back NCAA crowns in 1964 and 1965 before he arrived. Then UCLA coach John Wooden finished his career with 620 wins and 147 losses. Between 1963-64 and 1972-73, he lost only 15 games and if you take away the 1965-66 season when Alcindor was on the freshman team, he only lost seven games in that time frame. The difference from the early years? Wooden stepped up his national recruiting efforts tremendously and helped the then Pac-8 Conference gain nationwide respect.
• The biggest Pac-12 recruit in the last 30 or so years? Off hand my vote would be Charles O’Bannon out of Artesia (Lakewood, Calif.) in 1993. He was highly coveted and beating out Kentucky for his services was a swoon even though his older brother Ed (who graduated from Artesia in 1990) was already at UCLA. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino even spoke at Artesia’s banquet that year in an effort to close the deal. It was front page news when Charles picked UCLA. Recruiting Charles gave then UCLA coach Jim Harrick credibility and made UCLA a major contender for the NCAA title, which it won in 1994-95. It remains UCLA’s only NCAA crown in the post-Wooden era. Remember, Harrick didn’t really win the recruiting sweepstakes for Ed. He chose UNLV (which was part of the Big West Conference) out of high school, but later enrolled at UCLA after UNLV went on NCAA probation, something his family knew might happen while he was being recruited.
• Ed missed his freshman season at UCLA with a torn ACL, which made him a medical redshirt and eligible for the 1994-95 club. Since Wooden won his last title in 1975, the Pac-12 (and the entire West Region) has only won two NCAA titles, as Arizona won two years later in 1996-97. That Arizona team was the No. 4 seed in the Southeast Region, but defeated three No. 1 seeds on its way to the NCAA title. Arizona was 11-7 in the Pac-10 play that season.
• With the advent of cable television in the 1980s, many highly-regarded recruits in the Pac-10’s prime recruiting areas opted to play elsewhere in the country. Yes, there is a bigger concentration of colleges East of the Rockies, but it was broadcast distribution (sound familiar?) that made recruits desire to attend schools far away from home. California’s Class of 1986 was considered one of the state’s best ever, but the Pac-10 was hurt when the top two players in the state, Scott Williams of Wilson (Hacienda Heights, Calif.) and Stevie Thompson of Crenshaw (Los Angeles), decided to attend North Carolina and Syracuse, respectively. Another future NBA player, Elden Campbell of Morningside (Inglewood, Calif.), chose Clemson. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1984-85, the ACC and Big Ten have sent at least three teams to each March Madness. In 1985-86, the Pac-10 did not have a single team in the AP Top 25 at any point in the season and Arizona (No. 9 seed) and Washington (No. 12) were the only two teams to make the Dance. The Pac-10 was also a two-bid league in 1987 and 1988, a foreshadowing of what can happen when a major conference has a poor broadcast distribution deal.
• Arizona St. and Arizona joined the Pac-8 in 1978, while Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-10 in 2010-11. Besides Arizona, there has been one NCAA title between the other three schools when Utah won in 1943-44. Since Arizona won the title in 1997, outside of UCLA the conference teams that have made the NCAA Final Four are: 1998 Stanford, 2001 Arizona, and 2017 Oregon.
• Here are the consensus Top 3 recruits that enrolled at a Pac-12 school since Alcindor: Paul Westphal of Aviation (Redondo Beach, Calif.) in 1968 to USC, Bill Walton of Helix (La Mesa, Calif.) in 1970 to UCLA, Richard Washington of Benson Tech (Portland, Ore.) in 1973 to UCLA, David Greenwood of Verbum Dei (Los Angeles) in 1975 to UCLA, Jason Kidd of St. Joseph (Alameda, Calif.) in 1992 to CAL, Baron Davis of Crossroads (Santa Monica, Calif.) in 1997 to UCLA, Spencer Hawes of Seattle Prep (Seattle, Wash.) in 2006 to Washington, Kevin Love of Lake Oswego (Ore.) in 2007 to UCLA, O.J. Mayo of Huntington (W. Va.) in 2007 to USC, Jrue Holiday of Campbell Hall (North Hollywood, Calif.) in 2008 to UCLA, Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) in 2012 to UCLA, Kyle Anderson of St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) in 2012 to UCLA, Stanley Johnson of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) in 2014 to Arizona, Jaylen Brown of Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.) in 2015 to CAL, Lonzo Ball of Chino Hills (Calif.) in 2016 to UCLA, DeAndre Ayton of Hillcrest Prep (Phoenix, Ariz.) in 2017 to Arizona, Evan Mobley of Rancho Christian (Temecula, Calif.) in 2020 to USC and Isaiah Collier of Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.) in 2023 to USC. Muhammad and Anderson are the only consensus top 3 duo to enroll in the same college in the same recruiting cycle. It almost happened in 1975, as well, when Greenwood’s high school teammate at Verbum Dei, Roy Hamilton, went to UCLA. He’s more of a consensus top 5 player but it still was impressive for two high school teammates to be that highly regarded, choose the same college and go on to play in the NBA.
• UCLA has successfully recruited a consensus Top 3 recruit 10 times, while USC has done it four times. Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.) is the only high school to have more than one consensus Top 3 recruit attend a Pac-12 school. In fact, Wheeler could have been credited with three players, but most consider Shareef Abdur-Rahim a consensus Top 10 player when he graduated from Wheeler in 1995 and chose CAL. The 1995-96 Pac-12 Player of the Year was ranked No. 4 by the Hoop Scoop and No. 8 by All-Star Sports.
• Whom are the highest rated recruits from the West Region to choose a Pac-12 school over UCLA? Looking back it would have to be Westphal and Cliff Robinson of Castlemont (Oakland, Calif.), both whom chose USC. Robinson was the 1977 California Mr. Basketball and was All-Pac 10 as a 17-year old college freshman. In his rookie season in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets, he set a record for most points by a teenager (19 years old) with 45 vs. the Pistons on March 9, 1980. The Collins twins, Jason and Jarron, were also coveted by UCLA in 1997 when they graduated from Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood, Calif.) and chose Stanford.
• Whom are the highest-regared recruits from the West Region that got away from the Pac-12 when they were heavily recruited by a member school? Three names come to mind in Danny Ainge of North Eugene (Ore.) in 1977 who chose BYU and went on to win the Wooden Award as college basketball’s best player (1981), Carlos Boozer of Juneau-Douglas (Juneau, Alaska), who in 1998-99 took an official visit to UCLA but ultimately chose Duke over St. John’s and the Bruins, and Sidney Green of Jefferson (Brooklyn, N.Y.), who chose UNLV over UCLA in one of the wildest recruiting battles we’ve ever heard of. UNLV, in many respects, was the toast of West Coast college basketball in the 1980s, but they didn’t recruit against the Bruins or other college Blue Bloods as much as casual fans may think. They often got recruits others couldn’t touch or JUCO transfers they developed.
• If Charles O’Bannon is not the most important Pac-12 recruit post-Wooden then Sean Elliott of Cholla (Tuscon, Ariz.) is. When he graduated from Cholla in 1985, he stayed home to play for the Wildcats and was the first big-time recruit for coach Lute Olson. Elliot, who would go on to be Pac-10 Player of the Year twice and led Arizona to its first Final Four in 1988, helped give Arizona national credibility. Under Olson, the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament for 23 consecutive seasons.
• Everybody knows about the UCLA greats, particularly Alcindor and Walton, arguably the two greatest players in NCAA history. But whom would be the best Pac-12 players ever that didn’t suit up for the Bruins? Elliott would definitely be the forward that comes to mind and Oregon State’s Steve Johnson from San Gorgonio (San Bernardino, Calif.) has to be mentioned among big men. He led the Beavers to a No. 1 ranking in 1980-81 before Oregon State was upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Rolando Blackman and Kansas St. A backcourt of Kidd and Gary Payton of Skyline (Oakland, Calif.) would be hard to top. Kidd made national headlines by choosing CAL, while Payton wasn’t quite as highly-regarded coming out of Skyline but went on to have a terrific career at Oregon State. In fact, Skyline teammate Greg Foster was more highly-regarded and went to UCLA. The Pac-12 has produced a plethora of top backcourt performers and after the Bay Area duo of Kidd and Payton, names that deserve mention include Westphal, Gus Williams of Mt. Vernon, N.Y. and Harold Miner of Inglewood, Calif., all USC products. Other backcourt performers worth mention are Oregon’s Ron Lee of Lexington, Mass., Arizona’s Mike Bibby of Shadow Mountain (Phoenix, Ariz.) and Washington’s Brandon Roy of Garfield (Seattle, Wash.).
• Whom are my five personal favorite Pac-12 players of all-time? The top two are easy: Miner and UCLA’s Tyus Edney, the Poly (Long Beach, Calif.) product who didn’t play in the 1995 NCAA title game but made the shot of the tourney in the second round vs. Missouri. Rounding out my favorites would be Ed O’Bannon, Elliott and CAL’s Tony Gonzalez of Huntington Beach, Calif., who helped the Bears on a surprise Elite Eight run in 1996-97.