As Pac-10 fades away, a reminder of Olson’s reign

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The Pac-10 – which officially becomes the Pac-12 on Friday – will go down as Lute Olson’s conference.

The legendary Arizona coach didn’t usher the Wildcats into the 10-team league in 1978 (along with Arizona State), but he built the conference’s preeminent hoops program. He won a national title in 1997, reached four Final Fours and enjoyed some of the most dominant seasons in Pac-10 history.

In fact, if you ask Arizona Republic writer Doug Haller, the Wildcats encompass nearly half of the league’s 10 best teams, spanning every season since 1978. That includes: 1987-88, 1996-97, 2000-01 and 2002-03.

Also on Haller’s list? Three UCLA teams, two Stanford squads and one Oregon State team.

Perhaps a surprising aspect is that Haller ranks the national title team of 1997 as the worst of that bunch. His reason? The Wildcats finished fifth in the Pac-10 and simply got hot at the right time. His top team: the Sean Elliott-led squad that reached the 1988 Final Four.

An excerpt:

The Wildcats (35-3) had everything, shooters, big men and an All-American in Sean Elliott. Ranked 17th in the preseason AP poll, they used the Great Alaska Shootout as their coming-out party, defeating Duquesne, Michigan and Syracuse. Arizona quickly jumped to ninth in the poll. Soon, the Wildcats were at No. 1, where they spent six weeks. They entered the NCAA Tournament with a 15-game win streak. With balanced scoring, Arizona won its first four tournament games — over Cornell, Seton Hall, Iowa and North Carolina — by 26.8 points. In the Final Four, they lost to Oklahoma 86-78, making them one of the best teams not to win a national title. Elliott averaged 19.6 points. Tom Tolbert (14.1), Anthony Cook (13.9) and Steve Kerr (12.6, right) also were in double figures. Throughout the season, Arizona outscored opponents by 20.5 points.

(Also a mystery: How that Oklahoma team lost to Kansas in the title game. Anyway.)

Olson’s Arizona teams were loaded with pro players throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s. It’s a testament to that 1995 UCLA squad and Mike Montgomery’s consistency at Stanford that Olson didn’t completely dominate the Pac-10 every season.

But most of all? Out of all those teams and all that talent, the league only won two NCAA titles. That’s either a testament to just how difficult it is to win the NCAA tournament or a criticism of underperforming teams.

Maybe both.

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