Pac-12 Post-mortem: Coaches, players weigh in on final conference tournament

Arizona men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd acknowledged that the Pac-12 Tournament “means so much to people outside of our sphere.” (File photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – Eleven years ago this month, Mick Cronin, then the men’s basketball coach at the University of Cincinnati, sat at a postgame presser offering his thoughts on participating in the final Big East Tournament.

After an unfathomable collapse for one of the nation’s premier basketball conferences, Cronin expressed his shock at what would be the first domino to fall in modern-day conference realignment.

“This is the greatest tradition in college athletics: this tournament,” Cronin said. “The fact that we’re sitting here and this is the last Big East Tournament is beyond ridiculous.”

That was part of the somber opening scene of Ezra Edelman’s ESPN 30-For-30 “Requiem For The Big East” (2014), and Cronin couldn’t have imagined answering the same question in the same situation over a decade later.

Now representing college basketball blue-blood UCLA, the most storied program of the Pac-12 Conference, Cronin again was asked for his perspective on an illustrious league facing impending doom in the latest round of shuffling.

“All you’ve got to do is look at what happened to this great conference and realize it can happen to all college sports,” Cronin said. “If you had met me five years ago and I had told you all this was going on, you would have said there’s no way.”

Fitting for college basketball in the month of March, expect the unexpected.

Even with the trophy and a trip to March Madness, Dana Altman, in his 14th year as coach of the Ducks, left T-Mobile Arena that night with the sense of sorrow shared by every West Coast basketball fan.

“It hurts that we’re not going to have a Pac-12,” Altman said. “We won the first one here in 2013 when it moved to Vegas, and we’re winning the last one here in Vegas. I’m going to miss that.”

Altman and Oregon may have hit the jackpot in their final hand at the Pac-12 table, but for teams that came up short last week, they’ll leave the conference with empty pockets.

A stone-faced Tommy Lloyd, who had gone two-for-two in this tournament prior to 2024, could care less about what was happening beyond the hardwood.

“It means so much to people outside of our sphere, which is great because we draw power from those people,” Lloyd said. “But our deal is focusing internally, game by game. And
we’re not getting any more complicated than that. We’ll let you guys get all sentimental about the last Pac-12 stuff, this and that, how many games – I don’t care about any of that.”

It’s ironic, perhaps, that the most locked-in coach at the helm of the top seed in the conference tournament would fall short. Overwhelming favorites to win their third straight Pac-12 Tournament title, Arizona missed out on a chance for their 10th overall in a letdown loss to Oregon in the semifinals.

As the last two Pac-12 programs to achieve No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, it was fitting for the Wildcats and Ducks to dominate the headlines in Vegas.

For the teams that have now played their last game with the Pac-12 patch on their uniform, it’s a far different perspective. Take Arizona State, which was bludgeoned by Utah 90-57 in the first round, ending its season and tenure in a conference it had been a part of since 1978 in disgrace. While ASU doesn’t have the richest history among Pac-12 basketball programs, the college basketball legend who serves as the Sun Devils’ head coach expected a far better farewell.

“That’s going to be the lasting memory of us playing in the Pac-12. Wow!” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “That’s a terrible, terrible memory. Nine years of being in this league and coaching in this league, and it’s going to be gone, and that’s how we chose to go out.

“It doesn’t feel good.”

Arizona State junior guard Frankie Collins stands on the Pac-12 logo during the final season as we know it of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Arizona State junior guard Frankie Collins stands on the Pac-12 logo during the final season as we know it of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

The sick-to-the-stomach feeling trickles down to the players, too. None of today’s players suited up for a John Wooden or Lute Olson, but it doesn’t take away from the league’s history that will fade from memory. The players are fully aware of the rich legacy the league Bill Walton likes to call “The Conference of Champions” leaves behind.

“We play for a school that has a lot of history in the Pac-12,” UCLA’s Adem Bona said. “Representing the school for the last time and the last time we’re ever going to play in the Pac-12 is really big.”

The flagship program of the conference, the Bruins still hold the record for the most national championships in the sport with 11 and the Pac-12 can boast of legendary hoops names such as Wooden, Lew Alcindor, Reggie Miller, Russell Westbrook and Walton.

“It is a bummer,” said Joshua Morgan, a USC senior forward and California native. “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.”

While Pac-12 hoops will live on through the four teams with NCAA Tournament bids, the conference’s last dance did not disappoint. From Oregon’s Cinderella run to Colorado’s upset of Washington State, the final Pac-12 Tournament gave the premier conference on the West Coast an ending worth remembering.

USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington are Big Ten bound. Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado have new homes in the Big 12. Ignoring the geography implied by its name, the ACC picks up Stanford and California. Left out to dry in their small markets of the Pacific Northwest are Washington State and Oregon State.

WSU and OSU leave while going in opposite directions. The Cougars qualified for the NCAA Tournament with flying colors, while the Beavers finished dead last in league play.

It all left coach Wayne Tinkle with mixed emotions in the wake of Oregon State’s elimination on Wednesday.

“I purposely didn’t want to think about that a whole lot,” Tinkle said. “I’m kind of over my disgust and frustration and I want to celebrate… because it was a hell of a ride. And it’s a shame that we’re in the position that we’re in, to be quite honest. And I’ll probably lament on that stuff now that we’re done, but we wanted to keep our focus on the present.

“And it’s a damn shame. We say damn this, damn that, because of beaver dams. It’s a dam shame.”

College basketball observers beyond the conference are equally frustrated.

“The idea that the Pac-12 is going away is egregious,” ESPN’s Seth Greenberg said. “What has happened to the Pac-12 is malpractice. It is one of the great tradition conferences in the history of sport: across the board, there isn’t anything the Pac-12 hasn’t excelled in. Ten years from now, people won’t even know what Pac-12 championships are. I think that’s really sad.”

Whether Mick Cronin’s quote makes the opening cut of an ESPN 30 For 30 describing the Pac-12’s demise one day is uncertain, but what is for sure is the end of an era in college basketball.

Following Oregon’s 75-68 victory over Colorado in the championship game on Saturday, the Ducks claimed the final Pac-12 Tournament title. Now the conference will disband at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, its storied legacy snuffed out with barely a sound.

Not even from Mick Cronin.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Scott Sandulli expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sandulli has interned as a staff writer for affiliates of Rivals and SB Nation

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Dominic Contini expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in digital audiences. Contini aspires to be a content creator and has interned for the social media teams of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Fiesta Bowl, Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Arizona State Athletics.