Pac-12 closes its basketball book with an exciting final chapter

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Oregon claimed the last-ever Pac-12 Tournament championship, defeating Colorado, 75-68, at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night.

LAS VEGAS — Back in December, I felt like I was at a funeral when I attended the Pac-12 Conference football championship game.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t even sit Shiva. I was too busy being mesmerized by Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. to shed any tears.

Saturday might be different. I just witnessed the final Pac-12 basketball game. And yes, I’m sad. Ironically, Oregon was a participant here too. And Dana Altman’s team did what Dan Lanning’s football team couldn’t, which was leave Las Vegas a winner.

The Ducks were able to take control late at T-Mobile Arena and pull away from Colorado, 75-68 to look up the Pac-12’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and will join Arizona and Washington State as the conference’s expected NCAA representatives. At 23-11, we’ll see Sunday where the selection committee sends the Ducks. As for Colorado, its 24-10 record may not be good enough to get into the Big Dance. The bubble is a more precarious place to be this year than normal.

“I love the league,” Altman said after his guys cut down the nets. “I’m going to miss it. Vegas has been great to us. But you have to adapt. A lot of change is coming.”

It sure is. Oregon is heading to the Big Ten along with Washington, UCLA and USC. Colorado is headed back to the Big 12 and will be joined by former Pac-12 foes Utah, Arizona and Arizona State.

“I’m proud of what we did (in the Pac-12),” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “It was a good run. The Pac-12 has a great tradition in basketball. I wish it wasn’t going away.” 

Boyle’s right. If you think Pac-12 football has its share of legends from over the decades, basketball may have even more.

It starts and ends with John Wooden. All the great UCLA teams and players. The tremendous Arizona teams under Lute Olson. Other great coaches — Ralph Miller at Oregon State, Dick Harter at Oregon. Marv Harshman at Washington. George Raveling at Washington State. Bob Boyd at USC. 

And players? Simply too many to mention.  

Let’s put it this way, the Pac-12 took a back seat to no one. However, all that history is now just that — history.

As I wrote in December, this didn’t have to happen. The Pac-12 should still be alive. But it was killed by greedy presidents and an incompetent commissioner. I said it then and I stand by it today.

You can try and shift the blame all you want. I know too many people who are alumni of Pac-12 schools. They are absolutely heartsick over this. And rightly so. But they should take solace in knowing each of their teams came to T-Mobile Arena giving it their all, one final time, to try and leave their mark.

There were 12,912 on hand to witness the last-ever Pac-12 game Saturday. But they were enough to create some energy in the home of the Vegas Golden Knights. 

“I didn’t think anyone would show up after we beat Arizona,” Altman said. “It hurts we’re not going to have the Pac-12 anymore and part of me is sad we’re not going to be here (in Las Vegas).”

USC’s Joshua Morgan said Thursday after losing to Arizona in the quarterfinals: “It’s a bummer. When I came here, the Pac-12 was my favorite conference. I always wanted to come to a Pac-12 school.

“It’s definitely bittersweet. I’m happy I was able to play in the last Pac-12 Tournament. Obviously, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to.”

UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose team got bounced in the quarterfinals Thursday by Oregon, tried to reflect on the pending death of the Pac-12.

“Sad. Sad. Sad,” he said. “I think, I would only hope — I think I know this because I follow it close, although I’ve never spoken to our head of the NCAA, Mr. (Charlie) Baker. He’s doing everything he can to save college sports, literally everything he can.

“And all you’ve got to do is look at what happened to this great conference and realize it can happen to all of college sports. Like people, with all this stuff, I’ll throw something out and people will say, ‘Well, that can’t happen.’ If you would have met me five years ago and I would have told you all this was going on, you would have said there’s no way.

“You’re not the Big Ten. There’s not collectives recruiting and paying players. Courts saying the NCAA — every time we have a rule the court says you can’t have one.

“So here’s what I’ve got for you. (Oregon’s) N’Faly Dante is making NIL money and let’s just assume it’s better than what he can make playing professionally next year. He should get an attorney and he should get an injunction so he can keep playing in college because we lose every other case, the NCAA. I know you’re looking at me, like, you’re crazy. But why wouldn’t he do that? Because they’re taking away his right to make a living. I bet he would win. I mean every other case wins. So I mean the whole thing is nuts.

“But as far as the Pac-12, look, I feel bad for the West Coast basketball fans and personally for UCLA fans and mainly for the alumni that have hung so many banners and just been such an illustrious part of the Pac-12 — records and all that stuff, where does all that go?”

Indeed. Where do they go? I’m guessing Pauley Pavilion will keep the 11 national championship banners up. Why take them down? It’s part of UCLA’s history. And that goes for every other championship a Pac-12 school has won. The conference may be a two-team league officially come the end of July with just Oregon State and Washington State, but the records and the memories of what Bill Walton always lovingly refers to as “The Conference of Champions” are forever. And no amount of greed or incompetency can deny that.