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Drukarev: Pac-12 men’s basketball will return to celebrated status

Earlier this week, the nation watched as a Kentucky team loaded with NBA talent held on to defeat a savvy, well-coached Kansas squad for the NCAA national championship.

The game saw a level of play the much-maligned Pac-12 rarely produced in 2011-2012.

But, contrary to what’s been pounded into our head on Twitter and in other mediums over the course of the college basketball season, the Pac-12 isn’t that far off from returning to the land of respectability — if not elite status.

No, our beloved conference isn’t close to threatening the Big East,@@ Big Ten,@@ or even the SEC for conference supremacy, but the Pac-12 is unquestionably on the rise and should be more than a two-bid league next year — and for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to mock, but the Pac-12’s success in the NIT last month was noteworthy. Stanford, the league’s seventh-place team,@@ won the tournament in runaway fashion, defeating Minnesota 75-51.@@[email protected]@ Washington advanced to the tournament’s semifinals before falling to the Gophers in overtime.@@[email protected]@ Oregon topped LSU and outgunned a game Iowa team before falling to the Huskies in the third round.

Only Arizona failed to advance past the first round, losing to Bucknell,@@[email protected]@ but the rest of the league’s schools performed well against consistently strong competition.

Meanwhile, in the NCAA Tournament, while Pac-12 regular season runner-up Cal was stomped in the play-in game, Colorado advanced to the second round and nearly upset Baylor before fading down the stretch@@[email protected]@ — the same Colorado team that lost twice by double digits to Stanford and fell to UCLA and Arizona in the second half of the season by lopsided margins.@@[email protected]@

That’s not to mention Washington State, which reached the finals of the College Basketball Invitational before suffering a narrow defeat to Pittsburgh in the finals,@@[email protected]@ or the Bruins, who will sign another top-ranked recruiting class despite the program’s recent struggles under coach Ben Howland.@@[email protected]@

There’s no reason to believe the aforementioned teams won’t build on their strong finishes to the 2011-2012 season next year. After losing seven players, including No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams, No. 11 pick Klay Thompson and No. 12 pick Alec Burks to the NBA Draft in 2011,@@[email protected]@ many of the conference’s best players will return next season.

Sure, Washington may suffer with the early defections of Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross to the NBA,@@[email protected]@ and it might be a while before USC, Arizona State and Utah are taken seriously, but the conference as a whole should be solid next year.

Arizona, which is ranked No. 12 in an early preseason top-25 poll by ESPN’s Andy Katz, will be loaded with talent.@@[email protected]@ Stanford, coming off its NIT title, returns the bulk of its top players and adds a touted recruiting class that features two ESPNU 100 players.

@@[email protected]@UCLA has an excellent shot to add the nation’s top 2012 recruit, Shabazz Muhammad,@@[email protected]@ and has a talent-laden roster, even if Howland has no idea how to best use it. The loss of Devoe Joseph and Garrett Sim will set Oregon back, but Dana Altman, Tony Woods, E.J. Singler & Co. should keep the Ducks in a respectable position within the conference.@@[email protected]@

Cal will be solid again under Mike Montgomery, one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the nation.@@[email protected]@ If potential first-round pick Andre Roberson returns to school, Colorado will once again be a postseason contender.@@[email protected]@

All in all, with a few notable exceptions, the Pac-12 is in a far better place to avoid the embarrassing upset losses that plagued the league in the nonconference schedule this season and produce the type of solid basketball that has defined the league for much of the past few decades.

If the just-completed postseason and recruiting rankings (six Pac-12 teams have graced the top-25 team recruiting rankings over the past two seasons) are any indication, the Pac-12 will be respectable in men’s basketball — sooner rather than later.

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