Pac-10 needs to restore missing mojo

LOS ANGELES — Good thing the Pacific 10 Conference hired Creative Artists Agency as part of its image makeover, because it could take some imagination to put a positive spin on the state of the conference's basketball teams.

Among the possible slogans heading into the start of conference play Wednesday:

The Pac-10: We're no longer behind the Colonial Athletic Association in RPI.

The Pac-10: We may be 0-2 against Montana, but we own Montana State.

The Pac-10: No need to waste part of your Mondays checking for us in the rankings.

No Pac-10 team appears in The Associated Press rankings for a third consecutive week, raising the possibility that the conference could be left out of the final rankings for a second consecutive season. Before last season, that had not happened since 1949.

The conference was so bad last season that Arizona State went 12-6 in Pac-10 play, won 22 games ... and still didn't get into the NCAA tournament.

An anomaly? More like a trend.

The conference is 5-13 against ranked teams this season and has fared only marginally better against unranked opponents. UCLA lost to Montana. Arizona State lost to Richmond. USC lost to Rider — by 20 points. And Oregon State hit a troubling trifecta, losing to Montana, Utah Valley and Texas Southern.

"I think the Pac-10's in about the same shape as it was last year," ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said Monday. "A few teams are better than they were, but overall the league does not project the kind of strength it did in its history and certainly over the last eight to 10 years when it was really strong."

Bilas cited the Pac-10's coaching carousel as a primary factor in its struggles. UCLA's Ben Howland, Washington's Lorenzo Romar and Arizona State's Herb Sendek are the only coaches who have been with their programs for at least three full seasons.

"Seventy percent of the league has turned over," Bilas said. "You can't have recruiting continuity when you have changes like that."

It's also hard to sustain success when many of the best players are leaving every year. The conference had 13 players taken in the first round of the NBA draft in 2008 and '09, including 10 underclassmen.

USC's O.J. Mayo, UCLA's Kevin Love and Arizona State's James Harden, just to name a few, would still have college eligibility remaining had they not left early.

"We lost a ton of guys early," Howland said, "and you just don't replace that overnight when you're losing the kind of players this league has lost to the NBA."

Replenishing the talent supply has proved especially difficult because of a cycle in which few blue-chip prospects are being produced by West Coast high schools — for the first time, California did not produce a male McDonald's All-American in 2010. Besides UCLA's Joshua Smith, from Kent, Wash., there appear to be few impact freshmen in the Pac-10.

"There may not be those that are going to be national freshmen of the year this year," Romar said, "but the flip side is that they will be in school a little longer and end up being quality guys."

Senior leadership also is missing. There are only 17 seniors in the Pac-10, and UCLA, Stanford and Washington State have none.

Nevertheless, Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose Wildcats are purported to be on the upswing, said the Pac-10 has progressed from where it was a year ago.

"It's very understated," said Miller, in his second season at Arizona. "Maybe it's just incremental, our improvement, but there's no doubt, considering the performances and the players, we're a better conference than we were a year ago."

Miller pointed to UCLA and USC as examples of teams that have improved, citing Smith and Trojans transfer Jio Fontan as two who will make a difference. UCLA's win over previously undefeated Brigham Young and USC's victories over Texas and Tennessee account for three of the conference's five marquee triumphs.

Romar, whose Washington team fell out of the rankings earlier this month after a one-point loss at Texas A&M, said he expected the Pac-10 to exceed the two NCAA tournament bids it received last season. Bilas cited four tournament-caliber teams: Washington, Washington State, Arizona and UCLA.

But the early Ratings Percentage Index figures as calculated by independent expert Jerry Palm aren't encouraging. California's RPI of 32 is the best of the bunch, followed by Arizona (43), USC (49), Washington State (60), Washington (61), UCLA (88), Arizona State (106), Stanford (156), Oregon (179) and Oregon State (326).

The Pac-10 is seventh in conference RPI, up from ninth a few weeks ago. It no longer trails the Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10 but still checks in behind the mid-major Mountain West.

Miller said it's up to Pac-10 coaches to restore the conference's luster.

"It's going to take a couple of seasons," Miller said. "Moving forward, I can tell you there's as much talent in the West as there is anywhere in the country, and it's on all of us to recruit them hard and convince them to play in our conference."

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