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Pac 12 Conference slumps as basketball tourney begins

SPORTS DIGEST:

The Pac 12 Conference has been known by a lot of names over the years.

It was the Big 5 and the Big 6 for a while. There were a few years in the 1960s when it was the American Association of Western Universities. Before that, it was the Pacific Coast Conference.

Since 1968, when it became the Pacific 8 Conference, the self-proclaimed conference of champions has been a collegiate power in the major sports like basketball and football and minor sports like women’s gymnastics and water polo.

Conference schools still win their share of national championships in the minor sports. The USC women just missed out on a national championship in indoor track last weekend.

But never has the Pac 12 has been as bad in the major sports as it is this 2018-19 school year.

Washington and Washington State were the only teams to make the final Top 25 ranking in the Associated Press’ football poll following this past season. They were ranked 11 and 13, respectively.

The men’s basketball season is worse. No team is currently ranked in the top 25. Washington is entering the Pac 12 basketball tournament as the top-seeded team with a 24-7 mark. The Huskies are 15-3 in conference.

Only three teams, Washington, Arizona State and Utah, have a conference winning percentage higher than .600. Seven of the 12 teams have conference records of 10-8, 9-9 or 8-10.

Mediocre to say the least.

The reason for that mediocrity starts with the local teams. UCLA and USC were supposed to be better than their 9-9 (UCLA) and 8-10 (USC) records indicate. 

The Bruins’ lack of consistency has already cost head coach Steve Alford his job. USC’s Andy Enfield could face the same fate as soon as next week.

When Bennie Boatwright decided not to turn pro last year and returned for his senior year, the Trojans were penciled into the NCAA playoffs this year. It didn’t happen. 

Enfield couldn’t replace graduated point guard Jordan McLaughlin, the Trojans had injury and eligibility issues and the Trojans played Arizona in the first round of the conference tournament hoping to extend their season another game. 

That would be against Washington.

It’s hard to say where UCLA’s season went wrong. Freshman center Moses Brown was supposed to be a dominating presence in a one-and-done year for the Bruins.

But after an impressive start to his UCLA career, Brown mostly floundered. He may have to come back a second year to UCLA just to restore his reputation.

Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef, was supposed to make an impact as a freshman. Instead, he missed the season after having heart surgery.

Jalen Hands and Kris Wilkes both returned from last season after considering turning pro. They have led the team in scoring this year but should plan on coming back next year, too, unless they want to play in the NBA’s G League next year. They aren’t ready for the real NBA.

The Bruins played Stanford to open the tournament, the winner advancing to play Arizona State.

If the conference is lucky, Arizona State will defeat Washington in a close final March 16 and both teams will get selected to play in the NCAA Tournament, which starts March 21. If not, the big bad Pac 12 Conference will have as many representatives in the NCAA Tournament as the Ohio Valley, Northeastern, Horizon and Colonial conferences, who each send one team to the tournament each year.

Even the West Coast Conference, which features Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, will have two teams in the tournament this year.

That’s because St. Mary upset No. 1 Gonzaga March 12 to win the conference tournament. Gonzaga, with its 30-3 record, is a shoe-in for the tournament.

ROAD TRIP: The Los Angeles Football Club is on the road this week, facing the New York City Football Club March 17 at noon in Yankee Stadium. LAFC is 2-0, NYCFC is 0-2.

LAFC moved to 2-0 with an impressive 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers March 10 at Banc of California Stadium. 

Forward Carlos Vela earned Major League Soccer’s player of the week award with a goal and two assists to lead the Balck and Gold to the win.

The Galaxy fell to 1-1 on the season, being shut out by FC Dallas, 2-0, in Dallas.

Forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed the game with what was reported as an Achilles tendon issue. The main scoring threat for the Galaxy didn’t practice March 12 and could miss the March 16 game against Minnesota United at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.

The Galaxy will have trouble scoring as long as Ibrahimovic is hobbling.

TWO WEEKS AWAY: It is opening day for the Dodgers March 28. Clayton Kershaw, who has started the last eight opening days for the team, still hasn’t played in a spring training game, but Dodger manager Dave Roberts said he can get ready in the next two weeks, but why should the Dodgers rush him.

He can get two starts in before the season starts and then two more in the minor leagues and still be ready the second week of April.

The Dodgers have plenty of pitching. Walker Buehler, who had a fine rookie season last year, also is being brought along slowly and the Dodgers haven’t indicated how they plan to use Julio Urias this year.

The Dodgers have raved about Urias’ potential since 2015. It looks like 2019 may be the year we finally see that potential in full display.

The Dodgers will start the season with at least three positions being platooned, possibly four.

A.J. Pollock and Cody Bellinger are set in center field and right field, respectively. The same can be said for shortstop Corey Seager, back from hip and elbow surgeries, and Justin Turner at third base.

Russell Martin, who returns to the Dodgers this year after years in Pittsburgh, Toronto and New York, will share catching duties with Austin Barnes.

Max Muncy and David Freese will share first base and Joc Pederson will share left field with Chris Taylor or Kike Hernandez. Hernandez and Taylor will both see time at second base as well.

The bullpen isn’t set yet, but you know Kenley Jansen will be the closer with Pedro Baez and Joe Young among the key set-up men.

Another thing you can count on is the Dodgers keeping the shuttle to Oklahoma City going, ensuring there are always fresh arms in the bullpen.

The Dodgers still have more talent than any other team in the National League West and have to be favored to win their seventh straight title, but that’s why they play the games.

The other teams have improved and he Colorado Rockies extended the Dodgers season an extra day last October, so it won’t be easy. In a 162-game season, it never is.

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer