In recent years, in their attempts to explain exactly what has gone so wrong in the Pac-12 -- which reached a nadir in 2011-12 -- the league's coaches have often latched to what we'll call the Unified Theory of Early Entry. The Unified Theory of Early Entry states that the Pac-12 is going through its current malaise because it has, over the past three or five or 10 years, lost an inordinate number of players to the NBA earlier than its coaches ever expected. Keeping pace has been difficult, they say. Surprise defections set you back. It's hard out here.
This has never seemed like a particularly serious explanation. After all, don't other programs lose players? Don't other conferences suffer NBA attrition? Don't some of them -- Kentucky's John Calipari is the most obvious example -- actually embrace it as a winning strategy?
In a piece published Monday, ESPN The Magazine's Jordan Brenner took a hard look at the Pac-12, and attempted to tease out exactly what has pushed the league toward its doldrums, and whether it can be remedied as a new season begins. And, as you'd expect, the whole early entry thing doesn't stand up.
Of all the factors that have hurt Pac-12 hoops, early entry is the coaches' favorite target -- and also the least legitimate. When they whine about the exodus of top players, they sound as if they are two decades behind the times, not three time zones behind the East. UCLA coach Ben Howland repeatedly laments the loss before last season of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, two underclassmen who "weren't ready," he says, and ended up as second-round picks. Pac-12 coaches Sean Miller (Arizona), Kevin O'Neill (USC), Lorenzo Romar (Washington) and Mike Montgomery (Cal) all mentioned the departure of eight underclassmen following the 2009-10 season, conveniently forgetting that not a single conference player declared early for the 2009 draft. What do they think is happening elsewhere?
The same thing, obviously. In fact, the talent drain has been more severe in other leagues. Over the past 10 seasons, 43 players left the Pac-12 early for the draft. During that same period, the SEC lost 51 underclassmen, followed by the Big 12 (48) and Big East (44). The ACC lost 42, leaving only the Big Ten (19) in a different realm. But the myth endures through the coaches' words. Talking to Howland, it seems as if the world is united in an effort to prevent UCLA from retaining its best players. "We are in the land of agents," he says. "If you come over here in the summer, there's 30 pros here every day."
Yeah, because there aren't agents in DC, New York and Chicago. Or, as O'Neill says, "believe me, agents are the least of our problems. They can reach a guy whether he's in Anchorage, Coral Gables or Los Angeles."
What O'Neill said. Sure, there are more agents in Los Angeles, but the idea that those agents spend all their time clustering around L.A.-area basketball -- or even around West Coast hoops in general -- seems totally farfetched. There are, after all, only so many NBA prospects to go around. Those players may be more exposed to agents in L.A. earlier and more often than, say, Bloomington, Ind., but the idea that agents don't have vast networks around the country scouring for talent and AAU connections is just plain naive. Everyone has a cell phone and Internet access and a Facebook account. This isn't the 1980s. You can find your next big commission anywhere.
I was curious to see if Howland's take on things had received any reaction from UCLA fans. Indeed, Bruins Nation -- which is among Howland's harshest critics on the Internet, but even so -- derisively chides him for "whining."
Whatever you call it, what Brenner writes is true: The Pac-12 has lost plenty of good players to the NBA draft, including some who weren't ready, and that probably defected too early, and that left the conference marginally weaker as a result. But the effects have hardly been disproportionate.
The Pac-12's weakness is much more a function of coaching instability and an only recently expanded television/exposure profile. Which, when you think about it, is actually good news! Players will always leave early for the draft; you can't change that. You can change -- in fact, the Pac-12 already has changed -- the way it will be viewed by fans across the country. It's on the way back. Just don't blame the NBA draft for its problems in the first place.