If one word had to be picked to sum up the 2009-10 season in Pac-10 men's basketball, it might not be a word. It would likely be more of a groan or a sigh. It might be the sound you make when your lunch options are an egg salad sandwich out of a vending machine or an old container of Cup Noodles. The conference, which has won the championship 15 times (11 of them by UCLA), has not had a year to remember.
No team is nationally ranked. College basketball prognosticators think that the conference may get only one or two teams into the NCAA tournament. The regular season champ, Cal, matched the record low for wins by the conference champ (since the Pac-10 expanded to its current size) with 13. Washington State had the most wins in conference history for a last place team with 6.
Whenever a Pac-10 team made an appearance on national TV against a nonconference opponent, a loss was the usual result. UCLA lost brutal games on national TV to the likes of Cal State Fullerton, Portland, and Mississippi State.
The conference has been holding its annual postseason tournament at Staples Center since 2002. And judging by the number of phone calls I got at home begging me to buy tickets, the Pac-10 was worried about people not showing up to watch the games this year.
Further complicating matters this year, defending tournament champion USC declared itself ineligible for postseason play in the wake of the O.J. Mayo recruiting scandal. The concession stands at Staples Center were not selling any USC-branded tournament souvenirs.
So, the Pac-10 tournament this year had just nine teams. The tournament, which normally opens on a Wednesday night with a doubleheader featuring the bottom four teams of the tournament, had just a single game between the #8 and #9 teams in the conference: Oregon and Washington State. The winner would get to face Cal on Thursday.
Over the past few years, I've developed a habit of attending quite a few games at Staples Center. In 2007, I made it to all nine games. This year, because of work and personal obligations, I could make it to just one game, the Wednesday night opening round.
A game matching up a 15-15 squad whose coach is expected to be fired (Oregon's Ernie Kent) against a 16-14 team that lost 9 of its last 11 games does not exactly spark a big rush to the box office for tickets.
I got a ticket from a scalper outside Staples at a 50% discount and likely could have held out for even less if I had the slightest bit of haggling talent. The ticket put me in the lower bowl of Staples about 15 rows up. For a Lakers game, that same seat would likely fetch $300-$1000 depending upon the opponent.
To their credit, Oregon and Washington State played an entertaining game, with the Ducks winning in overtime 82-80 on a pair of free throws by senior guard Tajuan Porter. The crowd, or perhaps more accurately, the gathering, of 6,090 people (so the Pac-10 claims) got their money's worth. Keep in mind that a lot of us did not pay much to get in.
On Thursday the tournament has its marathon day of four games. It starts at 12:10 pm with #5 UCLA playing #4 Arizona. Cal plays Oregon around 2:40 pm. #2 Arizona State plays #7 Stanford at 6 pm and the day of basketball finishes with a game starting around 8:40 pm between #3 Washington and #6 Oregon State.
I've gone to all four games in one day a couple times. It takes stamina. It also takes a lot of cash to feed yourself at Staples Center, not to mention that you have to buy two tickets to see all the games. And by the time the fourth game starts, you start to lose track of who's playing. That's all part of the excitement! Or, perhaps, it is just the sign of needing to stop sitting in one place for 12 hours watching basketball games.
Tickets for Thursday's games should be easy to come by as Staples Center staff were handing out discount coupons. Tickets for Friday's semifinals (a doubleheader starting at 6 pm) and the Saturday final (at 3 pm) are available. With USC not participating and UCLA (a 13-17 squad) likely to be eliminated early, the tournament may be a tough sell for local fans.
Nevertheless, the Pac-10 has shown no indication in wanting to move its men's tournament from Staples Center. Logistically, Los Angeles is the easiest city for all the schools to travel to, as well as find hotel rooms.
The women's tournament starts on Thursday at the Galen Center at USC. All ten schools will be playing in that one, with the championship game scheduled for Sunday. Stanford won the regular season title with UCLA and USC in second and third place.
As for the NCAA Tournament starting next week, local college basketball fans may have to look fairly far away to find a team with a local rooting interest. UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State are the closest schools to Los Angeles with a realistic chance of getting into the NCAA Tournament.
Although the Pac-10 has been down this season, the conference will likely improve next year. Why? Well, it would be hard for it to be much worse than it was this year. It would take just one good year of recruiting for the Pac-10 to regain its reputation as one of the top basketball conferences in the country.
* Thursday update 11:30 pm UCLA extended its season for at least one more game after beating Arizona 75-69. The Bruins will face first place Cal Friday night at 6:20 pm. The winner of that game will face either seventh place Stanford or third place Washington on Saturday.
In the Big West tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center, first place UC Santa Barbara will play fifth place UC Davis and second place Pacific will take on Long Beach State.
In the Pac-10 women's tournament at Galen Center, USC will play Oregon at 5 pm. UCLA will play Oregon State afterwards. Those will be quarterfinal games.
** Friday updateCal put an end to a disappointing season for UCLA with an 85-72 win in the first semifinal game of the night at Staples Center. Senior Michael Roll finished his UCLA career with a personal best of 27 points. The Bruins finished their season 14-18. Cal will play Washington for the conference championship Saturday at 3 pm.
The Bruins, depending upon how you count a decade starts and ends, had one with three Final Four appearances and three losing seasons. Take heart, UCLA fans, the same fate befell USF in the 1950s
In the Pac-10 women's tournament, there will be a pair of rivalry games in the semifinals at Galen Center. First place Stanford plays fourth place Cal at 2:30 pm and then second place UCLA plays third place USC around 5 pm.
The Big West Conference will produce a Southern California team for the NCAA men's tournament. UC Santa Barbara, the regular season champ, will play third place Long Beach State at 9 pm Saturday at the Anaheim Convention Center for an automatic spot in the tournament.