New Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith enters a Pac-12 basketball race that is as deep and loaded as ever after impressive NCAA Tournament showing in 2021
By Jay Drew Oct 25, 2021, 10:15am MDT

SAN FRANCISCO — A razor-close overtime loss to undefeated Gonzaga in a Final Four game.

Three teams in the Elite Eight.

Four teams in the Sweet 16.

Five teams in the Round of 32.

A conference-record 13 total wins in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Add it all up, and it begs the question: What will Pac-12 men’s basketball teams do for an encore in the 2022 Big Dance after the most successful overall showing in conference history last March?

“We have great reasons for optimism in the Pac-12,” deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Jamie Zaninovich said at the league’s men’s basketball media day last week at conference headquarters in San Francisco.

The good news for the league is that many of the top players who helped turn the conference’s unexpected success into the story of March Madness last spring are back for more this year.

Although only two Pac-12 teams made The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll released Monday — UCLA is at No. 2 and Oregon is at No. 13 — the league is seemingly gaining more respect with each passing year.

Arizona, USC and Colorado received votes, along with BYU, which will play two Pac-12 teams this year — Utah and Oregon.

“We are excited about the momentum we have from last season, and confident in the talented student-athletes and great leadership from our coaches,” said new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff last week.

“The collective commitment to basketball throughout the conference is very important. Our shared objective is to optimize tournament bids and ultimately cut down the nets as national champions.”

That hasn’t been done since Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats won it all in 1997.

Into that momentum, and improvement after some lackluster Big Dance showings from 2017-2019, steps new University of Utah coach Craig Smith. The only other new coach is Arizona’s Tommy Lloyd, the former top assistant under Mark Few at Gonzaga.

“Certainly, being a part of this amazing conference — the Pac-12, the Conference of Champions, is what they say. Or at least somebody does. To be a part of that is awesome. It is something you want to be a part of, right?,” Smith said, flanked by returnees Branden Carlson and Riley Battin, when it was Utah’s turn to address the media on Oct. 13. “Bring on the competition.”

Actually, the league has been trending up since 2020, when up to six teams were expected to get NCAA Tournament bids before the Big Dance was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.