SALT LAKE CITY
If Sean Miller leaves Arizona in the prime of his coaching career, one of the factors would surely be the imposing geography and travel demands of the Pac-12.
Sure, some of it would be the recruiting poverty of Arizona, and the shortage of available elite prospects for more than 500 miles in any direction. But the most challenging part of coaching Arizona, in basketball and any sport, is its isolation.
Now that Utah has rebooted its basketball program and refilled its arena, now that Tad Boyle has made Colorado a steady winner, the most dreaded words to a Pac-12 basketball coach are “The Mountains.”
The Pac-10 was hard. The Pac-12 is much harder.
The Utah-Colorado swing has become the most menacing road trip in the league. It’s three separate flights. It’s two games in front of capacity crowds with bountiful and rowdy student sections. It’s one trip from basketball hell.
On basketball-centric campuses like Utah and Colorado, the fans lie in wait. Near the end of Utah’s 81-46 victory over ASU on Thursday, the crowd began to chant “Bring on Zona!” This is the third year in succession Utah fans camped out overnight, hoping to get primo seats at Huntsman Center.
Utah and Colorado are 13-2 in home conference games this year. Only three travel partners in league history have gone through a season with fewer combined losses.
UCLA and USC were 17-1 in 1978-79 and again in 1991-92.
Cal and Stanford were 17-1 in 1996-97. Arizona and ASU were also 17-1 in 2013-14.
After an early breakfast Friday in downtown Salt Lake City, Miller and his team watched game videos of the Utes and hopped a 9:35 a.m. bus for Huntsman Center and a morning workout. They left home Tuesday afternoon. They will return home, via charter flight, about 6 p.m. Saturday.
What was that line Miller had about traveling in the Pac-12? You forget the name of your dog?
Earlier this week, Miller said the Pac-12 “may not have the (travel) partners” in future seasons.
It was the first public hint that the league may be willing to review or rearrange the way it schedules basketball games.
Anything is possible in the era of charter flights and nontraditional TV programming.
No other Power 5 conference has the travel and time demands of the Pac-12. Not even close. After Arizona’s game in Utah, the Wildcats will have spent 13 hotel nights preparing for conference road games. Eighth-ranked Iowa, by comparison, has back-to-back road games just once in the Big Ten season. But one was a Sunday at Illinois, followed by a Thursday game at Indiana.
In between, the Hawkeyes go home and attend classes for three days.
Duke drives to ACC road games at Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson and North Carolina State. It has eight days between “back-to-back” games at Louisville and Pitt.
Miller’s old school, Xavier, doesn’t get worn down killing time in distant hotels. The Musketeers have just two back-to-back Big East trips, at Providence-DePaul and at Creighton-Butler. But both are Tuesday-Saturday trips, regional trips, allowing Xavier to return to Cincinnati instead of becoming true road warriors.
On Friday morning, Miller acknowledged his team’s travel demands.
“Here near the end of the road, you’re battle-tested, but at the same time you’re a little road weary,” he said. “Being home late is more of an advantage than being home early in the year.”
Not that he’s trying to dodge any of the challenges awaiting him at Huntsman Center. “These are the types of games we talk about a lot and hope to play in,” he said. “You learn more about yourself in this environment. The winner clearly moves in a different direction than the loser.”
The Pac-12 last strayed from its strict travel-partners alignment in 1985-86. Since then, Arizona and ASU have made every league trip simultaneously. So have UCLA-USC, Stanford-Cal, Oregon-OSU and Washington-WSU.
It has been basketball symmetry, requiring no mess at conference headquarters. Those days may be about to end.
Thirty years ago, Arizona played at USC on January 16 and at UCLA on March 3.
In 1983-84, UCLA played ASU at Pauley Pavilion on January 5 and then flew to Tucson to play Arizona two days later.
Much of the unbalanced, mid-’80s schedules were juggled to fit UCLA’s four or five network TV broadcasts when the Bruins were the only team to get much network coverage.
Now there’s no need to have a travel partner, or to spend most of five days in Colorado and Utah just to keep the league’s scheduling symmetry intact.
Now Arizona could play at McKale Center against Utah on a Wednesday and fly to Cal for a game at Haas Pavilion on Saturday.
The TV programmers will surely find a more attractive, and viewer-friendly way to schedule Pac-12 basketball than currently exists.
The season before McKale Center opened (1971-72) Arizona would play conference road games at then-powerful UTEP and New Mexico on a Friday-Saturday grid. The Wildcats would fly out of El Paso early Saturday morning, eat lunch, take a nap and play the Lobos that night.
It was quick and (often) painful.
Now an Arizona basketball trip is long and (often) painful.