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Malee: Pac-12 basketball sinking to new low

There are a great many reasons that I’m glad the NBA is back in my life. Too many to count, really.

It’s one of the most prominent hobbies in my life. Some of my favorite writers are back in action and most importantly, I no longer turn a Nick Saban shade of red when someone uses the words “NBA” and “lockout” in the same sentence.

It’s great, and through just a couple of weeks, I couldn’t be happier. Who cares if the condensed schedule might cause roughly 35 season-ending injuries? I get to watch basketball again!

You’ll notice, in the preceding sentence, that I said “basketball” without identifying it as “professional” or otherwise. What about Pac-12 basketball, which did not suffer a maddening work stoppage (though wouldn’t that be fun?) and started back in early November?

I meant what I said. It was only on Christmas Day, when the NBA returned in earnest, that I really felt like I was watching basketball again. Whatever is happening in the Pac-12 right now is something else entirely.

OK, that’s just a bit harsh. What we’re watching two nights a week is, indeed, basketball, but it would hard to make the argument that it’s up to the conference’s normal standards. As I sat in Matthew Knight Arena on Sunday and watched Oregon slug it out with Cal, struggling to score even a modest 60 points, I wondered what had happened to the conference that once housed such star attractions as Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Roy and James Harden. Was it really just four years ago that Love and Westbrook (who were roommates) duked it out with USC’s O.J. Mayo in the Pac-10 Championship semifinal? Did I really watch Harden play in person back in the Mac Court days?

It all seems so foreign now. These days, I look at the Pac-12 landscape and can hardly think of a single player with NBA talent. UCLA’s Josh Smith might actually be the best prospect, and he’s an undersized center whose weight pushes to Eddy Curry levels. Says ESPN’s Chad Ford on his big board: “He’s big, super talented and doesn’t seem to care at all about getting in shape or playing basketball.” Sounds splendid!

Now, to be clear, the Pac-12 is not defined by how many NBA draft prospects it has in a given year — nor should it be. But no matter how much of a college basketball diehard you are, it can’t be denied that there is a noticeable correlation between draft prospects and overall level of play. It’s only natural — highly talented players bring higher levels of play. At times, their presence can be toxic, especially if they abide by the NBA’s idiotic one-and-done policy (see: O.J. Mayo and USC). But if given the choice between now and 2008, even the most passionate fan of the college game would have to choose the latter.

That choice is easy. But since we’re stuck in the present, what can we do to solve this crisis? Well, that’s the frustrating part. It’s hard to tell, exactly, why the Pac-12 has suffered such a precipitous fall from grace. You can blame some of it on Tim Floyd and USC for being so blatantly dirty that no one wants to go near the program. You can also blame UCLA coach Ben Howland, to some extent, for continuing to recruit big names and then failing to do much with them on the court.

But really, when you look at the big picture, maybe the Pac-12 is just going through a nasty streak of bad luck. Oregon has been plagued with underperforming recruiting classes since that infamous 2008 class (Michael Dunigan, Teondre Williams, Matt Humphrey, Josh Crittle, Drew Wiley) arrived on campus. Arizona State just kicked its leading scorer, Keala King, off the team. And two springs ago, just when Washington looked to have signed a bona fide talent in Terrence Jones, John Calipari and Kentucky snatched him away.

Maybe that, more than anything else, is the problem that the Pac-12 faces right now. Even the homegrown products (Jones is a Portland native) are fleeing well beyond the borders of the conference, with greener pastures so clearly waiting out East. At this point, there isn’t one Pac-12 school — not even UCLA or Arizona — that can truly be labeled as a top-tier basketball school. When I look at Jones or any other top prospect, I can hardly blame them for jumping time zones. The best talents want to play against the toughest competition and the Pac-12 certainly doesn’t provide that.

And so, for now, I can actually identify with Josh Smith. If this is basketball, I’m not sure I even like it anymore.

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