Arizona State guard Trent Lockett reacts during the Sun Devils' loss… (Rick Scuteri / Associated…)
The defining moment of the Pac-12 basketball season to date took place Dec. 17 at Wells Fargo Arena, Arizona State's home floor.
The Sun Devils' opponent was Northern Arizona, which came into the game with a 2-7 record and a 70-year-old interim coach, Dave Brown, who had been announcing the team's games on the radio when coach Mike Adras quit "to pursue other interests."
The last time Brown had coached a game at any level was in 1990.
Final score: Northern Arizona 69, Arizona State 68 as an unheralded freshman named Stallon Saldivar scored a career-high 24 points, including a three-pointer at the buzzer.
An anomaly for the best college conference in the West?
Not this season.
Arizona State's loss to Northern Arizona was more than a tad embarrassing, but whether it was the worst this season by a conference team is debatable. Among other contenders: Washington's 92-73 drubbing by South Dakota State; UCLA's 69-58 loss to Loyola Marymount; Washington State falling to UC Riverside; and Weber State clobbering Utah by 29 points.
And there was this one that didn't officially count: Arizona lost an exhibition game to Seattle Pacific.
You might assume that Pac-12 teams could have been looking past those perceived as lesser opponents in some cases, but the conference hasn't fared well against good teams, either.
For example, the Pac-12 is 0-25 against ranked teams. California, picked to finish second in the Pac-12 in a preseason poll, was swamped by No. 21 Nevada Las Vegas, 85-68, and by then-No. 21 Missouri, 92-53.
Things got so bad that when Stanford took No. 1 Syracuse to overtime before losing, 69-63, the Pac-12 media relations corps played it up big.
Indeed, the once-proud Pac-12 is now a foil for other conferences. The Mountain West trumpets in its weekly notes its 10-2 record against Pac-12 schools. And the Big West proudly proclaims its three wins.
As the Pac-12 Conference season opens Thursday, all barometers point down.
California Coach Mike Montgomery seems resigned to the Pac-12's receiving no more than a bid or two for the NCAA tournament.
"It's just put a lot of pressure on everybody in the league," Montgomery said. "When everybody was winning and everybody was ranked, you're saying, man, we could finish fifth and get in. That's great, but it's not the way it is right now. Obviously the conference tournament winner goes, but after that, I think all bets are off."
There is no Pac-12 team in the top 45 of the RPI, the computer rankings system that helps determine NCAA at-large bids for the tournament. Arizona, at No. 49, is the best. California is next at No. 64. The conference, besides having no wins over ranked teams this year, has only one against a team in the top 50 of the RPI. In comparison, the Atlantic 10 Conference has eight.
Jay Bilas, a former player at Duke who is now an ESPN college basketball analyst, said there is no way to sugarcoat the Pac-12's performance.
"They've not performed well by every objective measure, and I don't see anyone with a straight face saying there is some sort of subjective viewing that could change that," he said.
Bilas suggests part of the problem has been coaching flux in the conference. Nine of the 12 schools have hired new coaches in the last four years.
"When that happens it's hard to keep recruiting continuity," Bilas said.
He also said the high school talent level in the West has been down in recent years.
Cal State Fullerton Coach Bob Burton said the Pac-12 has been hurt badly by early defections to the NBA.
"If Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee had stayed in school for UCLA and Derrick Williams had stayed at Arizona," Burton said, "everyone would be talking about how the Pac-12 had two teams that should go to the Final Four."
The Pac-12 has 50 players on NBA rosters, second only to the 61 players produced by the Atlantic Coast Conference. UCLA has 15 players on NBA rosters, most of any college team.
Tim Floyd, who coached at USC and is now at Texas El Paso, said the conference was at its best a few years ago when it was filled with good guards.
"You win with good guard play," Floyd said. "UCLA had Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook; Arizona had Jerryd Bayless; Oregon had Aaron Brooks; Washington had Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy; USC had O.J. Mayo, Daniel Hackett, Gabe Pruitt, Nick Young; Cal had Jerome Randle. I don't see that caliber of guard in the league now. There are some serviceable big men but that's not enough."
Floyd also said talent at the high school level in the West has been down. And he noted that some of the best players in the West headed east.
Third-ranked Kentucky is receiving contributions from two players from Portland, Ore., sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman Kyle Wiltjer. Fourth-ranked Louisville is anchored by guard Peyton Siva from Seattle. Sixth-ranked Baylor has two Californians, including Gary Franklin from Santa Ana Mater Dei High, who transferred from Cal.
"It's tough," San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher said. "Every kid wants to play immediately, play a style that's pleasing and play in sold-out arenas. That's what matters."
The Pac-12 would seem able to offer some immediate playing time, but the other pieces appear to be missing.
Times staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.