Instead, the conference desperately needs the Bruins to come back -- and fast. Having Arizona dip, even just for one season, didn't help either.
So when the coaches gathered this week for the annual spring meetings in Phoenix, the mood was upbeat. The Pac-12 -- that ultimate big-boy punching bag in college basketball lately -- has two of the nation's top three recruiting classes. And they're from the league's two most prestigious programs.
"I think any buzz for our league is good for everybody,'' Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said. "As competitors, we would like the buzz to be about us, but as long as it's somebody in our conference and especially a brand name like UCLA, that can only be good for the rest of us.''
The Pac-12 had only two teams make the NCAA tournament in 2012, and one of those (Cal) was in the First Four in Dayton and lost. Regular-season champ Washington didn't get a bid, an embarrassing situation for the conference, which became the first big six league to not have its regular-season winner receive a bid.
Utah arrived in the conference and was abysmal in its first season, finishing 3-15 in the Pac-12 and 6-25 overall. Arizona State fell apart and finished 10-21. USC was decimated by injuries and was the worst of all, finishing a stunning 1-17 in league play and 6-26 overall.
The saving face of the Pac-12 was actually new member Colorado. The Buffaloes won the conference tournament, beat UNLV in the NCAA tourney and hung around with Baylor before losing in the Round of 32.
But perception of the league being down wasn't a reach. It was reality. The numbers and results didn't lie. The Pac-12 was an almost hard-to-fathom 1-25 against the RPI top 40 in nonconference play.
So with Arizona loaded up with four ESPNU 100 recruits in the Class of 2012 and UCLA having secured Kyle Anderson in the fall, the Bruins kept up the momentum in the spring by grabbing another top-five recruit (Shabazz Muhammad) and a four-star big man (Tony Parker).
That's not just good for those two schools, it's welcomed by the rest of the league.
Don't think Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott didn't take notice of the Bruins' big April.
"It's extremely important,'' Scott said. "The public and media follow big brands, and it doesn't get any bigger than UCLA basketball in our conference.
"Having them have a strong recruiting class [and] a new Pauley Pavilion to move into is great news for our conference. We've got new TV deals. The timing couldn't be better.''
The conference's coaches have long complained about the television package and a general lack of national exposure. A few years ago, first-place Cal was at USC in a critical game and it wasn't even televised.
Well, the Pac-12 finally has a new TV package that will allow every conference game to be televised on one of three networks: ESPN, Fox or the new Pac-12 Network. The league will shift from a straight Thursday-Saturday/Sunday schedule to one that has more flexibility.
In addition, the conference tournament now has a chance to have a sellout with the league choosing Las Vegas as the neutral destination. The Pac-12 had struggled mightily to draw consistent crowds to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. That shouldn't be the case at a destination venue like the MGM Grand, where the Pac-12 will become the fourth conference to play its conference tournament in Vegas, joining the Mountain West (Thomas & Mack Center), WCC and WAC (both at the Orleans Arena).
What will this conference look like by next March, though?
A year ago, the league was gutted by early entrants to the NBA draft at USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State, Arizona and Stanford.
"Our league wasn't going to be good in the nonconference in November or December because of who left,'' Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "And then UCLA lost Reeves Nelson [dismissed early in the season] and so we weren't in a position to do well.''
Now they must be.
"We need some top-10 teams,'' said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who has consistently been a Pac-12 title contender at Stanford and Cal. "We didn't have any, and it hurt us. Based on the recruiting, Arizona and UCLA should be in the mix.
"You need good teams going in. It will help us all if we're competing against better teams. Our RPI goes up. One through nine we were pretty good last year.''
The early onus will be on UCLA. The Bruins have to show well at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Georgetown and ESPN.com preseason No. 1 Indiana in the four-team field.
"We've had some bad losses out there,'' Montgomery said of the Pac-12's shoddy nonconference record lately. "Typically, everyone looks at UCLA and makes a judgment. It may not be fair or right and they haven't been the best team, but when they [are down], it hurts everybody. It's incumbent on everybody to win the games [you're supposed to win] in the pre-conference.''
Montgomery didn't excuse his own team. The Bears beat no one of significance outside league play last season and were annihilated by Missouri and UNLV.
"We didn't perform well, and that hurt our league,'' Montgomery said. "The impressions start early. We shouldn't lose games we shouldn't lose, because then when the league plays each other, we're screwed. We can't do anything to improve the reputation. That's on all of us to have a better November and December heading into the conference.''
USC coach Kevin O'Neill isn't doubting the Pac-12's ability to bounce back this season with several NCAA tournament teams.
"And we plan on being one of them,'' O'Neill said of the Trojans, led by Jio Fontan, who missed last season with a knee injury. "UCLA and Arizona had top recruiting classes, and that helps everybody improve. I think it's great. We'll see how they react to stressful situations.
"All our teams look good on paper, and we should be one of the top leagues in the country. We lost more pros in this league than the five other power leagues together the last few years. We're producing great players and most are doing well. But all of that is going to change. It's going to be a great year for our league.''
And if they win the next three games at home -- against USC, UCLA and Oregon State -- then the potential 7-2 Ducks should be in line for a conference championship.
With Oregon maturing and settling on a rotation with four-year transfers, combined with a muddled Pac-12, it could be in a strong position to contend for the title.
The Ducks completed their first sweep at the Arizona schools in five seasons. Cal is the highest ranked Pac-12 team, at No. 40 in the RPI. Oregon is next at No. 51. Three of Oregon's four Pac-12 wins have come on the road, and its second-half schedule is more favorable with a home-road split.
"In two weeks we'll know,'' coach Dana Altman said of the Ducks' title chances. "If we make the turn after these three home games, then we'll have a chance. But we've got to take care of business at home. That's our big challenge. We have to make our place hard to come in and get a win.''
Preseason conference favorite Cal already won at Oregon. The Ducks' other loss was at Washington. On the surface, neither setback should be looked poorly upon. And there is no way any team in this league is going to run away with the title this season.
But for Oregon to be in decent shape for the conference championship is somewhat surprising. The Ducks had Jabari Brown, the top freshman in the Pac-12, on their roster. But he quit two games into the season and is now at Missouri.
But the biggest surprise may be how easily Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph has meshed into the lineup. Joseph is leading the Ducks in scoring, at 14.9 points a game. Veterans E.J. Singler and Garrett Sim are next, each in double figures, before Ashaolu and Woods.
Joseph quit on the Gophers a season ago, costing Minnesota dearly at a time it needed him after Al Nolen was injured.
"Devoe needed a change of scenery,'' Altman said. "He's older. He's more mature. And any time a player has to sit and watch for a semester it makes a player see how important basketball is to him.''
Altman apparently isn't getting the same Joseph that Tubby Smith coached.
"I have the advantage of an older and more mature player,'' Altman said. "I saw how much basketball means to him. Now he wants to do what he can to help his team win. He's been easy to work with.''
Altman said the Ducks, who held Arizona to just 57 points, needed to get their rotations down. Having Sim and Singler be the rocks for this team has helped as Joseph, Woods and Ashaolu find their niches. Woods was never a scorer at Wake. He's not much of one at Oregon either, but he's become a serviceable big man, averaging 6.8 points.
The Ducks weren't ready for elite competition early in the season, which was evident in a loss at BYU (completely understandable), at home to Virginia (one of the ACC's top four teams) and certainly to open the season at Vanderbilt.
But no one else in the Pac-12 has done much of anything outside of the league, either.
Stanford, Cal and Washington stand ahead of Oregon -- for now -- with one loss. But there are likely more defeats to come as the competitive balance continues in the Pac-12.
Altman makes a solid point about the early-entry defections to the NBA. The then-Pac-10 was vulnerable to losing starters such as Jeremy Green (Stanford), Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee (UCLA), Klay Thompson (Washington State), Isaiah Thomas (Washington) and Nikola Vucevic (USC). Injuries (Jio Fontan at USC), ineligibility (Jahii Carson at ASU) and a dismissal (Reeves Nelson at UCLA) have contributed to the down turn as well.
Oregon State has improved greatly from last season and had the league's best nonconference win -- in overtime against middling Texas. But the Beavers have stumbled in the Pac-12 after beating Cal. They lost in four overtimes to Stanford and at Arizona in overtime before dropping a road game at ASU during the same weekend.
All these results mean a team like Oregon is more than capable of competing for the conference title.
"We have good competitive balance,'' Altman said. "We're getting better as the year goes on. I don't think we have an elite team. But I do think we have five or six pretty good teams. A number of them are starting to play well.''
A few schools, like Xavier, Gonzaga and Memphis, as well as newcomers Baylor, Marquette and Vanderbilt are expected to challenge with deep NCAA tournament runs and possible Final Four berths.
But what about the programs that missed the NCAA tournament a season ago? The ones that appear destined to rise this season?
A run to New Orleans might not be prudent to predict. But then again, no one had VCU headed to Houston last April. But even the Rams didn't have a consistent regular season. VCU squeaked into the field and then enjoyed a magnificent postseason run. Connecticut, another team that had been nearly as erratic, albeit against superior competition, won the national title.
Below are 10 programs headed for breakout seasons. If they fall flat, they may have no one to blame but themselves. The talent is in place. The landscape is open. And the opportunity exists for any team in this group to make the bracket its own for a weekend or two in March.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 -- and with good reason. Baylor, Texas A&M, Kansas and Missouri should all be deemed favorites. Texas arguably could finish higher than the Cowboys. But Oklahoma State has one of the top freshmen in the country who few discuss outside of the region in LeBryan Nash. He could be a star by midseason. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford has assembled a cast that is more apt to run this season and cause havoc the way he's envisioned. The Cowboys have a loaded schedule after picking up a challenging game versus Pitt at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 10. Oklahoma State may still finish as low as fifth or sixth in the Big 12. But if they get into the NCAA field, consider the Cowboys a potential breakthrough team with an ability to cause problems in March.
Marshall: Memphis is the clear favorite in Conference USA. But the Thundering Herd have two guards -- DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts -- who can match up with any of the players on the Tigers. Marshall has plenty to prove to be worthy of a team that should be taken seriously. There are a number of nonconference games -- Belmont, Iona, West Virginia and Cincinnati -- that will show if Marshall is worthy of significant hype. And of course the Herd must make Huntington a tough place to play and be consistent to nudge at Memphis throughout the winter. If Marshall does that, you'll take the Herd seriously in March.
Harvard: The Crimson are the pick to win the Ivy. They technically won a share of the regular-season title with Princeton last season. But Harvard lost the playoff game against the Tigers on a buzzer-beater and then got blasted at Oklahoma State in the NIT. Harvard is finally ready to be the Ivy leader from the season's start to its finish. Coach Tommy Amaker has the core of his team returning, and Harvard can compete with most teams in the country. Keith Wright is a legit All-America candidate. Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, Christian Webster and Oliver McNally are all experienced. The Crimson can make a name for themselves with a win at Connecticut on Dec. 8, easily the most recognizable game on the schedule. But if not, don't fade on Harvard during the winter. This team will be relevant in March and a trendy first-weekend upset pick.
Detroit: Slaying Butler in the Horizon League has been like the search for the Holy Grail for conference opponents. Milwaukee thought it had the Bulldogs beaten when it hosted the conference tournament title game, only to lose. Detroit has the personnel to dethrone Butler, even with Eli Holman's status in doubt. The majority of coaches in the league tab the Titans as the team to beat and the most talented with Ray McCallum Jr., Chase Simon, Nick Minnerath and Doug Anderson. Members of the Valparaiso staff said last week that the Titans look like a formidable Big Ten team when they step on the court. Detroit has the opportunity to make the NCAAs with a solid schedule. Get there, and the Titans will be a hard out.
Creighton: Greg McDermott was no fool when he left Iowa State on his own terms and seized the Bluejays' job once Dana Altman went to Oregon last year. McDermott had been in the Missouri Valley at Northern Iowa and seen the success and potential of arguably the top job in the conference. The Bluejays have a number of hidden gems who are flying under the national radar in Doug McDermott, Greg Echenique and Antoine Young. The problem for Creighton is that the schedule could have been stronger. It may need to have a significant run during the Valley tournament, which won't be easy at all due to the strength of Wichita State and Indiana State, to ensure a bid. But once they're in, the Bluejays have the personnel in the right positions to be a serious pest.
New Mexico: Coach Steve Alford is going through a bit of a renaissance in Albuquerque. The Lobos had a big-time run two seasons ago but then took a dip last season. The ability to bounce back quickly will be on display in 2011-12. Alford has found the right mix of four-year transfers (Drew Gordon and Demetrius Walker), hidden gems out of high school (Kendall Williams and A.J. Hardeman) and an international sharp shooter (Australia's Hugh Greenwood) to put together a conference champ. The Lobos will have to manage the nonconference well and get past UNLV, but this team has the ability to be a second-weekend squad in the tournament.
Saint Louis: Rick Majerus had a horrendous personal year with the death of his mother and multiple injuries and illnesses. He's also had to deal with the suspensions of his two best players. But he seems energized this fall and has a team that is committed to making serious strides in the A-10. Kwamain Mitchell is back after a suspension. He joins Mike McCall and Kyle Cassity as the core of this team. Majerus put together a challenging slate of nonconference games, giving the Billikens ample tests to see if they're worthy of the praise. Xavier and Temple are the standards in the A-10. St. Bonaventure is a legitimate upstart with perhaps the best all-around player in the league in Andrew Nicholson. But Saint Louis should a formidable team, poised to get Majerus back to the NCAA tournament.
Virginia: The plan at Washington State was to get players out of high schools and take chances, in hopes they develop and reach their potential. The Cougars did, and Tony Bennett got them to the NCAA tournament. Wazzu's program isn't close to Virginia's. The Cavs have more resources, finances and access to players. Still, Bennett hasn't deviated from his plan. And now that Mike Scott is healthy inside, Bennett has a team that gets him, his style and his commitment to defense. The Cavs should be able to score and close games, rather than sit on the doorstep, unable to get significant wins. The timing is perfect for Virginia, too. The ACC is in a rebuilding mode outside of North Carolina, Duke and to some extent Florida State. The rest of the league is in flux, giving Virginia ample chances for wins and to establish itself as a top-four team en route to the NCAAs.
Oregon: The Ducks have the Nike resources, the state-of-the-art everything and have been consistently recruiting talented players to the Northwest from urban centers in the Midwest -- regardless of the coach. Dana Altman also fully understood the need to infuse a few transfers, one is a risk in Wake Forest's Tony Woods, and another is a lock for success in Louisiana Tech graduate Olu Ashaolu. The infusion of newcomer Jabari Brown, who was a hit on a summer trip to Italy, is a game-changer for the Ducks. Altman said Brown still needs to be consistent, but who doesn't at this stage in the season? Oregon has a challenging schedule, which includes opening at Vanderbilt, so be patient with the Ducks. In a Pac-12 where there is no clear favorite (not Cal, UCLA, Washington or Arizona), the opportunity is there for Oregon to surprise. The Ducks won the CBI tournament over Altman's old team, Creighton. The natural next step will be the NCAAs.
Long Beach State: Dan Monson has had a long road back to the point where he feels comfortable in the game. He left Gonzaga to try to rebuild Minnesota after NCAA violations. He wasn't able to turn that program around on a consistent basis. Now he's done that at Long Beach State. The 49ers were atop the Big West last season but didn't win the conference tournament. Long Beach will have to fend off Orlando Johnson and UC Santa Barbara again, but with Casper Ware and Larry Anderson, the 49ers should prevail. Long Beach has a monster nonconference schedule that could set up an at-large berth if it falls short in the Big West tourney. Long Beach will have the talent to win a game in March.
Five months later, he edged out Connecticut's Kemba Walker for Big East Player of the Year.
Using that as a backdrop, let's remember that the list of 50 Wooden nominees is flawed, much like any of the award lists. The Wooden Award does not allow its voters to nominate any freshmen or transfers (either four-year or junior college) on their ballots.
And with college basketball as loaded with talent as any year since 2007-08, narrowing it down to 50 is not easy. So below I've attempted to come up with the names that didn't make it, either as "just missed the cut" omissions or just because they're freshmen or transfers. These guys aren't on the list (which can be found here), but might show up when it's updated during the season.
This group is by no means definitive, either. There's no telling who else might emerge nationally as the games get under way.
Let's take a look
The omissions (in alphabetical order):
Julian Boyd, Long Island: The Blackbirds are the favorite again in the Northeast Conference and the main reason is because Boyd is back and ready to dominate the stat sheet.
D.J. Cooper, Ohio: The diminutive point guard does a little bit of everything; he averaged 15.8 ppg, 7.5 apg and 5.0 rpg for the Bobcats last season.
Jared Cunningham, Oregon State: Cunningham has some of the best hops in the sport and a chance to be a Pac-12 star, allowing the Beavers to finally move up in the standings this season.
Seth Curry, Duke: Curry was a standout shooter for the Blue Devils on their trip to China and could be one of the top scorers on the team.
Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies was recently reinstated to the Cougars, and the offense is expected to flow through him inside and out as BYU mounts a campaign to win the WCC in its first year in the league.
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: SMC coach Randy Bennett envisions this as one of the best teams he's ever had, but a lot of that will have to do with whether Dellavedova can shoot like Mickey McConnell did last season.
Greg Echenique, Creighton: Echenique was a rebounding force for Venezuela this summer and should do even more for the Bluejays with a full season to work with.
Kyle Fogg, Arizona: Fogg is next in line to assume a leadership position for the Wildcats, who are in a position to compete for Pac-12 titles for years to come.
Kevin Foster, Santa Clara: As a sophomore, Foster sort of came out of nowhere to average 20.2 ppg and become one of the nation's top 3-point shooters.
Chris Gaston, Fordham: The Rams aren't any good, but the nation's leading returning rebounder (11.3 rpg) at least deserves a shout-out in this space.
Yancy Gates, Cincinnati: UC coach Mick Cronin said he'd be surprised if Gates wasn't one of the 10 names on the Big East preseason first team.
Rob Jones, Saint Mary's: Jones could be a double-double regular for the Gaels, and for Saint Mary's to win the WCC, Jones will have to be a star.
Doron Lamb, Kentucky: John Calipari says Lamb will be the Wildcats' best player. Just Coach Cal mind games, or the truth?
Meyers Leonard, Illinois: Leonard didn't contribute a whole lot as a freshman, but he was a hidden gem on the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia this summer. The Illini are expecting big things out of him.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: McCollum is the nation's leading returning scorer (21.8 ppg) and is in the top five in steals (2.5 spg). Oh, and he did that as a freshman. What more do you need to know?
Cameron Moore, UAB: The Blazers have been consistently good under Mike Davis and have had unheralded C-USA stars. Moore is the latest.
Toure' Murry, Wichita State: If the Shockers win the Missouri Valley over Creighton, a lot of the credit will end up going to the veteran Murry.
Brandon Paul, Illinois: Illini coach Bruce Weber was a bit surprised Paul didn't crack the top 50 on the Wooden list, given his overall importance to this team.
Ryan Pearson, George Mason: The Patriots are a trendy pick for the Top 25 and a lot of that has to do with the versatility of Pearson.
Damier Pitts, Marshall: The Thundering Herd are a real sleeper to gain an NCAA tourney berth out of Conference USA in large part because of Pitts.
Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope has come back from multiple life-threatening situations and has a real shot as a senior to put it all together and finally shine.
Terrence Ross, Washington: The Huskies can't be dismissed as a major player for the Pac-12 title, and if they win it, Ross will be a significant reason why.
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga: Sacre has matured into a solid post player, and that progress shows no signs of stopping as the Zags once again compete for the West Coast title.
Mike Scott, Virginia: If the sleeper Cavs mount a run to the NCAA tournament, the oft-injured Scott will be the reason why.
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: If Sidney is in shape and plays up to his potential, he has SEC Player of the Year potential and could be the difference between the Bulldogs making the NCAAs or NIT.
Chace Stanback, UNLV: Stanback's suspension to start the season is only one game, so that won't diminish his ability to lead the Rebels in their hunt for a Mountain West title.
Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic: FAU quietly won the Sun Belt East Division last season and Mike Jarvis' diminutive point guard was the catalyst behind the regular-season championship.
Hollis Thompson, Georgetown: If the Hoyas are to make the NCAA tournament again and be a pest in the upper half of the Big East, then Thompson needs a breakout season.
Kyle Weems, Missouri State: Doug McDermott is the one everyone is talking about in the Valley, but let's not forget that Weems is the reigning MVC Player of the Year. Too bad for the Bears he's their only returning starter.
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The sophomore guard was the leading scorer in four postseason NIT games for the Lobos and should only get better with the addition of Australian Hugh Greenwood.
Dewayne Dedmon, USC: Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill firmly believes this JC transfer is an NBA talent who could dominate the post and average a double-double for SC.
Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: The former UTEP big man is ready to have a bust-out season for a team that has serious bounce-back potential after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign.
Mike Rosario, Florida: The former Rutgers scoring guard finally has plenty of support around him and will put up numbers for a winner.
Rakim Sanders, Fairfield: The Boston College transfer should flourish after dropping down a level, and he should get coach Sydney Johnson another trip to the NCAA tourney. Johnson is beginning his first year at Fairfield after leading Princeton to the 2011 tourney.
Royce White, Iowa State: White is finally ready to be a star on the college scene after multiple transgressions at Minnesota.
Brandon Wood, Michigan State: The Spartans picked up a rare senior transfer (taking advantage of the graduate transfer rule) from Valparaiso who could be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten.
Tony Woods, Oregon: The embattled Woods arrived from Wake Forest after legal issues and has a chance to really shine as a double-double player for the first time in his career.
Bradley Beal, Florida: Beal has a chance to be a productive player in a frontcourt that has a vacuum after multiple seniors departed.
Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga: Coach Mark Few has been anticipating Bell's arrival for over a year now. He's expected to step in and deliver right away.
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: The Cardinals fancy themselves a Big East title contender, and that's partly because they consider Blackshear a star in the making.
Jabari Brown, Oregon: Brown was the star of the Ducks' trip to Italy with his scoring prowess, and expect that to continue in the Pac-12.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: There is some question right now as to Carson's eligibility, but if he's good to go, the Sun Devils might become relevant in the Pac-12 again.
Erik Copes, George Mason: Copes was bound for George Washington before Karl Hobbs was fired; now he'll be a headline performer for the Patriots and first-year coach Paul Hewitt.
Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Davis has a chance to be the SEC Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, so expect him to be on the midseason list when freshmen are allowed.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut: He will be an immediate star and help lift the Huskies into the national title chase again. He's more than likely a future top-five pick in the NBA.
Myck Kabongo, Texas: Coach Rick Barnes has had quite a bit of success with big-time freshmen guards, and Kabongo is next in line.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Gilchrist will be another star on what will be a headline team throughout the season.
Johnny O'Bryant, LSU: Coach Trent Johnson needs the Tigers to start trending upward again, and he has a shot with the arrival of the big man from Mississippi.
LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State: OSU is a bit of a mystery team in the Big 12, but the All-American from Dallas could push the Cowboys into contention.
Austin Rivers, Duke: Rivers will have the ball in his hands quite a bit and appears to be the next Duke star in a lengthy list of recognizable names.
Josiah Turner, Arizona: The Wildcats will win the Pac-12 regular-season title if Turner is as good as advertised.
Cody Zeller, Indiana: If coach Tom Crean is going to turn the Hoosiers into a relevant team this season, it will be because of Zeller and his impact in the Big Ten.
He might not have been the fourth.
But no one ever questioned if he could coach or whether he was savvy enough to figure out how to win at an elite level.
Altman had the Arkansas job at one point but got cold feet after finishing the news conference and quickly went back to Creighton. He didn't feel then that he was ready to move on.
You can't dismiss the pressure to win at Creighton, where the Bluejays are the No. 1 attraction in Omaha during the winter and spring. The fan base is passionate and the demand to win is real.
So Altman shouldn't be surprised that patience at a school like Oregon doesn't last long. Not with all the money that's poured in. Not with all the shiny new facilities that dot the campus.
So Altman was willing to take chances. And if he's right, the gambles will pay off with an NCAA tournament berth in March and a top-five finish in the Pac-12.
If he's wrong about choosing experience over youth, the plan will have backfired and might slow the rebuilding job.
Altman took on former Wake Forest center Tony Woods, dismissed by the Demon Deacons for an assault charge last year. Woods was at one point heading to Louisville and there were plenty of takers for a 6-foot-11 center who has potential but hasn't reached it. But not everyone was willing to push the envelope with their administration for a player who had such a public fall.
"I talked with all his former coaches, his AAU coach, and they were all unanimous that they thought he was someone we should take," Altman said of Woods, who averaged eight points and 5.4 boards on UO's recent five-game trip to Italy. "I've only had the opportunity to coach him for 10 days prior to the trip and then the 12 days on the trip, and during those first impressions he was really easy to work with and got along great with his teammates. He has tremendous upside as a player."
"He's athletic, has good hands and runs pretty good," Altman said. "He was rusty and not in very good shape, but we can correct those things."
The second gamble wasn't much of a risk at all. The Ducks took on Olu Ashaolu, a Louisiana Tech graduate who declared for the NBA draft, withdrew his name and is now at Oregon with a waiver to play immediately as he takes a graduate school class. Ashaolu averaged 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds a game last season for the Bulldogs. He averaged 7.0 points and 6.4 rebounds during the foreign trip.
"He's interesting, an awfully good rebounder and a good defender," Altman said. "Our challenge is to help him develop more skill on the perimeter to make him more versatile. We don't want him to go away from what he does best and that's rebound the basketball. He's tough around the basket. He's going to be a good player for us and, if he's patient as he tries to develop and he plays to his strength, then he's going to help us."
The Ducks did lose inside player and leading scorer Joevan Catron, along with steady guard Jay-R Strowbridge, but everyone else is back from a team that defied expectations last season and ended up winning 21 games and the CBI postseason championship over Creighton in a best-of-three series.
But if Oregon was to be taken seriously as a contender this season, it had to get stronger and more productive in the post. When the season ended, the chances of adding players like Woods and Ashaolu were nonexistent and it seemed like there was no way the Ducks could be taken seriously as a legitimate Pac-12 player.
Now they are.
"Obviously college basketball has changed a little bit now," said the mild-mannered Altman, who rarely changes his tone. He's about as even-keeled as coaches can be during this high-pressured era, with his folksy Midwestern accent making it seem like everything is always going to be OK. "Not everybody stays four or five years anymore. You have to have program guys, but we also realize you need help. Tony will be here for two years. Olu for just one. It gives a chance for guys like [freshman] Austin Kuemper a chance to develop and go against those guys in practice and then maybe down the road he can do some things."
The Ducks have a stellar group of freshmen, led by Jabari Brown and Brett Kingma. Yes, they are freshmen, but the stats don't lie. Brown led the Ducks on the Italy trip with 15.4 ppg and Kingma tied junior wing E.J. Singler with 9.2 ppg on the tour. Toss in redshirt senior Jeremy Jacob and the Ducks have a top six that can match up with most of the Pac-12. Inexperience on the perimeter will be an issue with the potential for plenty of turnovers.
But the talent is in place for the Ducks to be a factor. Especially if a top-30 recruit like Brown can live up to expectations.
"Jabari scored baskets on the trip and he challenged himself defensively," Altman said. "The scouting report was out on him and teams tried to take him out of his rhythm. He's talented young man. As he develops and continues to push himself, he's got a chance to be a good player."
Ernie Kent had plenty of success during his tenure at Oregon. He took the Ducks to two Elite Eights and brought in NBA-level talent. But then there was a drain in talent as the Ducks slumped after a 2007 regional final appearance. Oregon made the NCAAs in 2008, but was a miserable 2-16 in the Pac-10 in 2009 (8-23 overall) and again failed to make the postseason in Kent's final hurrah.
As mentioned, last season's Ducks not only made the postseason but actually won a postseason tournament, albeit a relatively weak one.
Not every Pac-12 team trying to catch up with the establishment is building the same way. Rival Oregon State is going with freshmen and foreign players over a four-year period under Craig Robinson. Arizona State is more apt to do the same under Herb Sendek. Same with Stanford's Johnny Dawkins and Washington State's Ken Bone. USC always has the luxury of being in L.A., so recruiting is never as much of a chore as it is for the Northwest schools. Utah and Colorado are still figuring out what will work.
Oregon can be less patient because it has the lure of being the ultimate Nike school with recruiting attractions that most can't offer when they get on campus and see all Nike's money has to offer with state-of-the-art facilities -- the beautiful Matthew Knight Arena chief among them. Maybe that's what made getting Woods and Ashaolu easier. Perhaps it was Altman or engaging assistant Tony Stubblefield. Regardless, they are in Eugene, and they could be the difference in the Ducks speeding back their rivals in the rebuilding process. Or
it could blow up on Oregon and set the program back.
We'll know just how much a difference they'll make early, with the Ducks opening the season at top-10 Vanderbilt on Nov. 11 and following up with road games at Nebraska (Nov. 23) and BYU (in Salt Lake City on Dec. 3) in the season's first month. Then there's a home game against fellow sleeper Virginia on Dec. 18.
"We've got balanced classes now, with 13 scholarships, after going through with nine guys last year," Altman said. "We're building a base now. We're much further along in 16 or 17 months than we thought. We're in a much better position now. We feel much more comfortable and are going in the right direction."
The Big Ten already formally announced its two football divisions and will make its official decision about basketball at its annual meetings this spring, with the consensus being there will be 18 league games with every team playing each other at least once, rivalries protected and the other crossover games done on a random basis for competitive balance.
The Pac-10 athletic directors meet next week (Oct. 6-7) and are likely to follow a similar path, with the final say going to the presidents and chancellors who will meet on Oct. 21.
There are still a number of options for the football divisions, from a simple split between North (Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, Oregon, Utah, Colorado) and South (Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Arizona) and variations off that, as well as a zipper option with each rivalry split to form the two divisions (Washington and Washington State on different sides with Utah and Colorado being the two new rivals). Of course, in football, much like the Big Ten did with Ohio State-Michigan, if a rivalry was split in divisions, that game would be one of the mandatory crossover games every season.
More than likely, the men's basketball schedule will have 11 games against every other team, the 12th game would be against the natural rival and then the other six games would be chosen at random, leaving four schools that a team would play only once a season.
The hitch in the Pac-10's scheduling is that every school wants at least one road trip to L.A. and the Bay Area for recruiting and alumni purposes. League officials have to be cognizant of that sentiment.
Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said it was his preference to make sure the Beavers, or for that matter every school, gets to L.A. and the Bay Area each season.
"And we have to play Oregon every year twice, I don't think we should skip that one," Robinson said.
The Pac-10 is the last power-six conference to still play a true round robin schedule in men's basketball. But when the Pac-10 gives up that title, the Big 12 will assume the role of being the only power-six conference that anoints a true champion. The Big 12 will be a 10-team league in 2011-12 with the departure of Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-10). The conference has already made it known it will play a true, 18-game round-robin schedule when it's a 10-team league.
Twelve teams might be the perfect number for football with two six-team divisions and a championship game. But going from 10 to 12 in men's basketball takes away the equitable scheduling and the true champion and creates a competitively imbalanced schedule. That's what the Big East, Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Big 12 have dealt with lately. The Pac-10 has not.
"I would select the model that gives the opportunity for us to play each other home-and-home as many times as possible in the shortest window of years," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "You want every team to touch each other in the shortest time possible. That's the fairest way to do it."
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said there have been a number of different models discussed, such as playing 16, 18 or even 20 or 22 league games.
"But the overall sentiment is to stay at 18," Guerrero said. "You want a scheduling model where you play your natural rival and do some home-and-homes. We might go to Oregon but they don't come and return. We might play host to Oregon State but not go to Corvallis. Nothing is definitive."
Guerrero said a number of athletic directors are on record as saying they covet being in the Los Angeles market and "we're looking at ways to make that happen."
Guerrero said the consensus among the athletic directors was to go with one division, 18 games and avoid any no-plays in basketball.
"Those are the parameters to build a model around," Guerrero said. "We could have gone with a 22-game model and still kept the double round robin, but that limits nonconference flexibility. I think 18 is the most appropriate."
Guerrero just came off leading the men's basketball selection committee, which created the "First Four" format under the newly expanded 68-team tournament. In that format, Guerrero and the other nine members of the committee reached a compromise where two of the games will involve the last four 16th-seeded teams and two of the games will include the last four at-large teams.
Guerrero has been a peacemaker/mediator with these types of NCAA issues and his experience should serve him well at the Pac-10 meetings next week.
However, one way to get around the rule now is to go on a foreign trip. For the first time, the NCAA is allowed incoming freshmen to join the offseason excursions.
Prior to leaving, a team gets 10 practices, although they don't have to be 10 in a row. It's a welcome addition to the summer schedule for any coach.
Four of the most important trips that teams will be going on this summer are:
Kentucky: The Wildcats will travel to Canada in August for John Calipari's first look at new high-profile freshmen Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones as they mesh with the returnees in a quest to keep the Wildcats atop the SEC.
Oregon: The Ducks are off to Italy as new coach Dana Altman looks to find his footprint in the program in advance of the Ducks moving into a new state-of-the-art facility.
Northwestern: The Wildcats have a real shot to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. Going on a foreign trip with Kevin Coble back after a season-ending foot injury could make a huge difference in the Wildcats' quest to make the field of 68. Northwestern, like Oregon, is off to Italy.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the pick to win the Big East with the return of every starter save Jermaine Dixon. The last time Pitt went on a foreign trip it was to Canada in August 2004. Coach Jamie Dixon had just completed his first year and the core of the group was still young with Levon Kendall, Carl Krauser, Chevon Troutman, Ronald Ramon and Chris Taft highlighting the roster. That team finished 20-9 and was a No. 9 seed.
The expectations are even higher for this group. That's why Dixon wanted to take advantage of the new rule, and the team will be in Ireland from July 29 to Aug. 9.
From a basketball perspective, the practices -- like the one the Panthers held last Friday and will again this Friday -- are key. The most important issue for Pitt is figuring out the rotation, especially up front.
Pitt has several big men, Nasir Robinson, Gary McGhee, Dante Taylor, J.J. Richardson and Lamar Patterson, who will all have to figure out their roles. In the backcourt, the Panthers will likely go with a three-guard lineup of returnees Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown in place of Jermaine Dixon. But incoming freshmen Isaiah Epps and Cameron Wright could certainly push those three at times. Learning how they handle the road will be key for Jamie Dixon.
Dixon said that when he took the team to Canada in 2004, he was hoping to find an effective 3. He didn't on the trip and said he was still searching in March.
This roster isn't devoid of options for him. But he'll learn quite a bit more on this excursion and he'll have plenty to ponder come October.
This opportunity exists because the Panthers took advantage of an invite from Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who is the current U.S. ambassador to Ireland. The team will get a reception in Dublin at the U.S. Embassy. The trip includes two games in Cork, two in Dublin and two in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The team will meet with PeacePlayers International, an organization that uses basketball to promote peace and togetherness between Protestant and Catholic youth in Northern Ireland. A year ago, the Pac-10 tried unsuccessfully to quash foreign trips. The rationale by the league in trying to trash these trips was cost-cutting and that not all schools could afford them. True. Most have to raise separate funds. But not all go, and if they want to invest in a trip that can be beneficial to their team, there is no harm done.
The Pac-10's effort was sincere, but it was also short-sighted. You can argue that these trips are junkets if you'd like. And for some schools they are. But if the players and coaches want to get something out of it more than basketball -- like opening their minds to issues outside of their comfort zone (see: Northern Ireland) -- then there can be an educational experience that comes out of the sojourn.
• Louisville's appeal to get Memphis guard Roburt Sallie eligible for next season is based on Sallie graduating and now apparently pursuing a graduate major that Memphis doesn't offer; Louisville didn't say what that exact major was. Sallie would be playing for his third school and fourth coach in his Division I career after being denied admission to Nebraska before he made his way to Memphis under John Calipari and then Josh Pastner.
• At its ongoing meetings in Chicago this week -- in addition to deciding how the new opening-round games will be formatted -- the NCAA tournament selection committee will review whether it will move the opening-round games from Dayton and whether it will have them on one day (Tuesday) or two (Tuesday and Wednesday).
• Oregon is shooting large by going after Gonzaga's Mark Few, Pitt's Jamie Dixon and Florida's Billy Donovan. I'd be surprised if any of them were to take the bait. The money isn't as grand as what apparently is being bandied about. The facilities are expected to be beautiful, but Nike czar Phil Knight has always been about improving the infrastructure at Oregon more so than supplementing a coaching salary. Former Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny probably will be making the call. Oregon would likely go with a Nike coach and there is one that I think would be a great fit if the Ducks thought out of the box: BYU's Dave Rose, who has done a tremendous job with the Cougars. Everyone at the school from the president on down was superb in helping Rose out during his horrific pancreatic cancer battle over the summer. But it would be hard for Rose to turn down Oregon, if the Ducks were to look at him. Rose coaches an entertaining style that would be a great fit, and he's an A-plus person who would do wonders with the boosters. If not Rose, then non-Nike coaches Randy Bennett of Saint Mary's and Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M should be given a shot to at least decide if they want to move.
• I wouldn't be shocked if Tubby Smith listened to Oregon. But staying at Minnesota also makes sense with the Gophers poised to be in the Big Ten title chase next season. If Paul Hewitt were to leave Georgia Tech, that's the better fit for Smith.
• Hewitt to St. John's sounds great, but does Hewitt want to give up on Georgia Tech and the ACC? He has always told me how much his family loves Atlanta. He hasn't had problems recruiting talent to Georgia Tech. Unless it were a necessity, a coach shouldn't leave a football power-six school for a basketball-only school, regardless of its conference affiliation.
• There was no shot Donovan was leaving Florida for St. John's. I don't buy he's leaving Florida for anywhere at this juncture. He didn't go to Kentucky. He turned his back on the NBA. His family loves Gainesville. He's close with the top athletic director in the country, Jeremy Foley, and he makes $3.5 million a year.
•Houston coach Tom Penders was adamant that he was just resigning from Houston, not retiring. He said he has a lot of coaching left in him. Penders said the decision was his, not the school's. Penders, whose moniker is "Turnaround Tom" (not sure who coined that phrase), said he wants to coach again, as soon as next season. But he has to have a destination.
• Texas assistant Rodney Terry would certainly make a lot of sense at Houston. He has support. Let's see if he can get the gig. Keep hearing conflicting reports on whether Billy Gillispie of Kentucky, UTEP and Texas A&M fame can get the job. Marquette assistant Tony Benford, a native of Hobbs, N.M., and former Texas Tech player, has always recruited Texas well and deserves a look.
• Seton Hall alumnus Adrian Griffin, now an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, has had initial conversations with the school about the opening. He is pushing his loyalty to the institution, his ties to the NBA, his MBA and his tutoring under Rick Pitino, P.J. Carlesimo, Scott Skiles, Jeff Van Gundy and others in the NBA. Griffin would likely be behind Siena's Fran McCaffery, Robert Morris' Mike Rice and Richmond's Chris Mooney. Still, the former Pirate will at least get a chance to be heard. He should since he's so passionate about the school.
• Central Florida's opening is creating quite an interest with Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Reggie Theus, Murray State's Billy Kennedy and possibly Marshall's Donnie Jones, who was an assistant at Florida.
• Boise State's list continues to be a solid group: former Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak, Portland coach Eric Reveno, Weber State's Randy Rahe and Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice.
• If DePaul is serious about an on-campus arena with approximately 8,000 seats, it could change the job for the foreseeable future. But the Blue Demons must put a shovel in the ground for potential coaches to feel like there can be serious movement on the subject.
• Jeff Lebo's bounce back from fired at Auburn to hired at East Carolina is one of the better moves for a dispatched coach.
• Former St. John's coach Norm Roberts would go back to Kansas if Bill Self had an opening on the staff. But he also would like to be a head coach again -- next season. Roberts had the Red Storm playing at a high level, but couldn't close out a number of close games.
• A number of NBA personnel officials expect a floodgate of players to declare for the NBA draft with plenty making poor decisions with only a short window (end of April to May 8) to withdraw under a new NCAA rule.
• Fordham getting Hofstra's Tom Pecora would be a great get for local ties within the city. But Pecora still never coached Hofstra in the NCAA tournament. You can't hide from that fact. That doesn't mean he shouldn't deserve a shot at another school, but Fordham needs someone who has experienced the NCAAs to rise up from the depths of the A-10. Pecora is well liked in the city and beyond but hasn't been able to get over the hump in the CAA since Jay Wright left for Villanova. Hofstra would be a coveted job if it were open and assistants like Pitt's Tom Herrion would be near the top of the list.
• Penn hasn't officially hired Jerome Allen yet. Does that mean Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon could be in the mix?
• UC Irvine has a wide net to cast and it should include BYU assistant Dave Rice, who is as well connected in the West as any other assistant.
• Iowa was once a plum job. The Hawkeyes could do no wrong going with Dayton's Brian Gregory or Utah State's Stew Morrill, but UTEP's Tony Barbee would also be an interesting call if he's not in play at DePaul.
• Charlotte is one of the top jobs open with a chance to move up quickly in the A-10.
• It's still early, but if a major job opened, the coaching carousel will spin at a much quicker rate. So far the job list isn't as high profile yet.
The coaching carousel is in full tilt for the spring, and there were plenty of rumors to chase this weekend. Many of them proved to be untrue. Here are some of the things I culled from various sources over the weekend:
St. John's: Rick Pitino told ESPN.com on Sunday that he intends to finish his career at Louisville. Florida coach Billy Donovan told ESPN.com he's not involved at St. John's and he's "happy where I'm at." Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley also confirmed to ESPN.com that he hasn't been contacted by St. John's, calling the bluff on any Donovan-to-St. John's story.
So where does that leave the Red Storm after the heavy hitters? Well, there is plenty out to choose from. If the Red Storm want Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg or Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt, they'll have to get them in a clandestine way without any kind of formal search. Can it be done? Possibly. But the money has to be large, with assurances that there is a real commitment in place. I concur with Dick Vitale. If it ends up being another solid coach who doesn't have national name recognition, even someone with strong New York ties, why get rid of Norm Roberts?
Seton Hall: Siena's Fran McCaffery and Richmond's Chris Mooney appear to be strong candidates. That doesn't mean they're the only candidates, but the Pirates are said to be looking for a fresh face with a clean track record after the Bobby Gonzalez debacle. If the Pirates push, they can probably land McCaffery, while Mooney might be harder to pry away from an elite A-10 job. But both may have to think twice, given the talent returning to their respective teams next season.
Oregon: Mike Bellotti's decision to step down as athletic director makes it even more clear that former AD and influential Oregon booster Pat Kilkenny will make the hire with the nod from Nike's Phil Knight, who has invested in Oregon as much as any high-profile alumnus at any other school. Don't be surprised to see the next Oregon coach coming from the family of coaches who work with Nike. The next Oregon coach has be someone who can sell the program to the boosters and aid in filling the arena and the boxes. Gonzaga's Mark Few gets first crack, and then it could down the line with elite Nike-sponsored coaches such as Minnesota's Tubby Smith and recent Nike addition Jamie Dixon of Pitt. The level of interest for any on these coaches is unknown.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes formed a search committee on campus. This isn't a search for a new professor. The basketball coach must be a fantastic recruiter and energize a sleeping fan base at this moment. But they also need a proven coach. That's why the Hawkeyes could do no wrong with Utah State's Stew Morrill or Dayton's Brian Gregory. According to sources, both would listen if called. Morrill has been one of the most underrated coaches in the country for over a decade. Gregory has Dayton as an A-10 contender. Gregory was once in the Big Ten as an assistant under Tom Izzo.
Central Florida: Three interesting names keep floating up here: Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Reggie Theus, former Alabama coach and current ESPN analyst Mark Gottfried, and Appalachian State coach Buzz Peterson. UCF needs to make a splash of a hire. Theus would certainly fit that description.
Boise State: Here's who is not going to Boise: LSU's Trent Johnson. I spoke with him Sunday, and he reassured me that any chatter of him going back to Boise was ridiculous. He said he has one of the top recruiting classes coming to Baton Rouge. Now, former Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak is a viable candidate and is seriously in the mix. But so too should be Portland's Eric Reveno. Weber State's Randy Rahe and Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice are on the radar. Boise State should be a coveted job since there could be a day in the near future when Boise State joins the MWC.
• If Penn hasn't hired interim coach Jerome Allen yet, there could be some movement with Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon. I'd still be surprised if Allen didn't get the job.
• IPFW's Dane Fife is expected to be in play at Toledo. But the more Ohio State wins, the likelier it becomes that you could see someone like Jeff Boals. Don't be surprised when the MAC looks to the Big Ten for hires.
• Hawaii hired former USC assistant Gib Arnold because of his strong local ties. His father, Frank, was the former coach there. Expect Arnold to keep up a mix of international players with mainland JC players and high school seniors to get the Warriors back to relevance.
• As for Charlotte, Buzz Peterson worked for the Charlotte Bobcats, so going to Charlotte from Appalachian State would make perfect sense. I've had a number of coaches say the Charlotte job is one of the best in the A-10.
• Houston coach Tom Penders resigned Sunday, according to multiple reports. While Texas assistant Rodney Terry should be in the mix, is there anyone who doesn't think former Kentucky and Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie gets the job?
• Fordham should just hire alumnus Mike Rice of Robert Morris. He's a sound, intense coach. Would they get a bigger name? Probably not.
The hot names: Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa; Steve Donahue, Cornell; Tony Barbee, UTEP.
Barbee should be in play at DePaul and Auburn if he chooses to leave what could be another CUSA champ at UTEP next season.
Jacobson should be patient and make sure he doesn't do something that doesn't make sense (such as going to a bottom-dweller).
Donahue needs to leave Cornell if he wants to climb. The Big Red may never be at this point again. But Donahue is comfortable, so if the right move isn't out there, he should be patient.
A few random thoughts from the first weekend:
• The Mountain West Conference did a sensational job of getting four teams in the NCAA tournament. All four teams represented well in either the first or second round. But not getting a team in the Sweet 16 still limits the MWC from being treated with true credibility as a proven elite league. The MWC must break through with a Sweet 16 team soon.
• Decisions abound for the NBA draft among players who were ousted in the first weekend. Remember, under a new NCAA rule, players have until May 8 to withdraw from the NBA draft. That means there will be roughly a week to make a decision on staying in the draft (the NBA deadline to withdraw is still 10 days before the draft). There won't be much time for workouts.
So from the teams that have lost, who has to make decisions about leaving for the NBA or at least testing the draft for a week?
Georgetown: Greg Monroe
Gonzaga: Elias Harris.
Florida State: Solomon Alabi.
UTEP: Derrick Caracter.
BYU: Jimmer Fredette
• For the record, Butler athletic director Barry Collier said he wasn't fired at Nebraska and left more than $1 million on his contract to return to his alma mater.
Team of the week
Memphis: Won at UAB 70-65; beat Tulsa 75-53
If the theme of the final week of the regular season is to earn your way into the NCAA tournament, then the Tigers are doing their job.
Memphis couldn't afford one slip in its final two games against a pair of teams picked to be at or near the top of Conference USA. Knocking off UAB earlier in the week gave the Tigers a tremendous asset: a sweep of the Blazers, with a third matchup likely coming in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament in Tulsa, Okla.
If Memphis gets three wins over UAB, it would be hard to keep the Tigers out. They also delivered a knockout punch to Tulsa on Saturday. Maybe the Golden Hurricane can wake up and hold serve at home in the conference tournament. But the one-time favorites in this conference enter it on wobbly footing. Tulsa will also have to deal with a likely matchup against Marshall in the quarterfinals; not an easy draw, considering the Thundering Herd are playing quite well heading into the tournament after a convincing win over SMU in Dallas.
Maryland: The Terps won a share of the ACC title with a late-possession home win over Duke earlier in the week, and then took out the Sylven Landesberg-less Cavaliers at Virginia. Great week, tremendous season, and an effort from Gary Williams worthy of coach of the year honors.
Notre Dame: Like Memphis, the Irish had to win two games down the stretch to stay on the right side of the bubble. They did it by beating Connecticut at home and taking out Marquette on the road in a thrilling overtime win in which they were saved at the end of regulation with a 3-pointer off a loose-ball situation.
Purdue: There was reason to doubt the Boilermakers after an offensive struggle against Michigan State the previous Sunday in their first full game without Robbie Hummel. But Purdue won the games it was supposed to last week by beating Indiana at home and taking out a gritty Penn State team in State College.
West Virginia: Well, my original pick to win the Big East championship never settled its point guard situation, but still found a way to finish strong with a convincing win over Georgetown at home and then a thrilling comeback win over Villanova in overtime Saturday to give the Mountaineers some momentum and mojo.
Player of the week
Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia: He was "Big Shot" Butler, making a 3-pointer at the end of regulation and then a running shot to beat Villanova in Philadelphia on Saturday. Butler finished with 21 points in 43 minutes. He was actually only 3-of-10 from the field, but made two huge shots and was 13-of-14 at the free throw line. He also scored 22 points in an earlier win over Georgetown as the Mountaineers finished strong.
• Oregon coach Ernie Kent is adamant that he's not out. I'm not sure I've met another coach with as much passion about fighting off rumors about his job status.
If Kent is out, as has been widely reported, then the Oregon job becomes the highest-profile gig available. DePaul doesn't come close. Oregon is in a league with plenty of movement. The Ducks have been to two Elite Eights in the past 10 years. Oregon has a massive new state-of-the-art arena to play in next season, and has the financial backing of Nike.
The Nike angle will be the driving force in deciding who the next coach is, if Kent is indeed out. After the obligatory run at Gonzaga's Mark Few, the list of coaches the Nike/Oregon Ducks will go after likely includes Minnesota's Tubby Smith, Texas A&M's Mark Turgeon and New Mexico's Steve Alford, among a few others. Whether assistant Kenny Payne, who has been the team's lead recruiter, will stay is another interesting twist. The DePaul interim staff might be asked to stay on as well, which might not give much flexibility to hire a new staff to whoever takes both jobs.
But as enticing as the Oregon job could be, it still won't be the best gig in the Pac-10. That will fall to UCLA, and I would put the tradition and passion of Arizona and the recruiting bases at Washington and USC ahead of the Ducks. As long as Cal has a coach like Mike Montgomery heading the Bears, it's hard to doubt their staying power, either. This is not easy stuff. Oregon will have to find its way on a consistent basis whoever is chosen to lead the Ducks. This is of course assuming that the reports are correct and Kent is gone.
The other coaching jobs that will be interesting to watch in the next week are in the Big East (St. John's and Rutgers) and the SEC (Auburn). The telling detail in these cash-strapped times for higher education will be whether schools have the money to buy out coaches, not so much whether the firing is justified.