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March 18, 2013
The Pac-12 Conference has fought a battle for respect that Sunday's NCAA tournament selection proves the conference is losing.
The Bruins have a beef, considering they beat UA in all three meetings. UCLA also was the regular-season champion. But hey, maybe the league's national profile is improving - the regular-season champion was left in the National Invitational Tournament a year ago.
Few conferences in the six that make up football's Bowl Championship Series - the "power" conferences, as it were - can make that claim. Not many can say its conference tournament champion and recently Top 25-ranked representative is a No. 12. In fairness, Ole Miss bears that same dubious distinction as Oregon.
In most other power conferences, top teams defeating each other is a sign of strength. Take the Big Ten, which ended its regular season with every member losing at least four conference games. In the Pac-12, such parity is considered weakness.
UA's seeding and placement near home should send the conference a clear message: what's accomplished in the Pac-12 is treated with less respect than performance in November and December. The Wildcats won more games against NCAA tournament teams in the season's first half than its second, yet the former are more valued.
It's a counterintuitive if not hypocritical mindset. Conference play begins on the back-half of the season, after squads have had time to develop chemistry. A young UCLA bunch may have been unimpressive in the nonconference, but its freshmen maturing and developing cohesion made the Bruins much more formidable now.
While recent struggles have diminished perception of Pac-12 basketball, the conference's struggle for respect is not new - and not exclusive to basketball.
The conference went nearly a decade, from 2002 to 2010, without receiving an at-large selection into one of the BCS bowl games. An Aaron Rodgers-led California team that nearly beat national champion USC was passed up for the Rose Bowl in 2004. Oregon, at 10-1, was denied the Fiesta Bowl in favor of 9-2 Notre Dame in 2005.
Even now, in a three-year stretch with UO and Stanford playing in the top-tier bowl games, the Pac-12 is still behind the Southeastern and perhaps Big 12 conferences. In the last five years, the SEC and Big 12 has sent a one-loss team to the national championship game. The Pac-12 never has.
East Coast media bias is an easy scapegoat, but Sean Miller said in his press conference last week that the Western media has a tendency to cannibalize its own.
The pressing matter behind every decision commissioner Larry Scott makes is establishing the Pac-12 as the pinnacle of college sports.
Recent moves should pay dividends in the long run. The restructured television deal is currently the most lucrative in college sports, and the even split among members is good for all 12 universities.
An issue fans are likely to point to is officiating. Seven of the Football Bowl Subdivision's 23 most penalized teams were Pac-12 members. On the hardwood, finicky whistles disrupt the game's rhythm. There's a steep learning curve for the league's teams against other opponents.
Solomon Hill told reporters following UA's 66-64 loss to UCLA on Friday that the sweet to temper some of the bitter in playing his final Pac-12 game was saying goodbye to the conference's officials.
Whatever the cause, there's a surefire solution for the conference to regain national respect: win. A deep run in the NCAA tournament goes a long way to establishing the kind of credibility that nets a conference more than a couple of No. 6 seeds.