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History-rich Pac-12 marks the end of an era as the conference basketball tournaments take place

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Tara VanDerveer managed to compartmentalize her emotions as she chased down and eclipsed Mike Krzyzewski’s all-time wins record earlier this season, determined to focus only on the moment ahead.

And that's how the Hall of Fame Stanford coach is approaching the final Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament.

Or perhaps it's just too painful to think about this power conference really making the big split at season's end.

“I just can’t even wrap my head around that," said VanDerveer, whose team moved up to No. 2 in the latest AP Top 25 rankings on Monday.

VanDerveer, the face and voice of modern-day Pac-12 basketball, isn’t alone in her feelings. Her resume of three national championships over nearly four decades gives her words added weight as the self-labeled Conference of Champions says goodbye to a historic past with this month's men’s and women’s tournaments.

No longer tying together the teams is a conference history that includes UCLA's run of 10 national championships in 12 years under John Wooden with stars Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. Or USC's Cheryl Miller becoming the Naismith Player of the Year three times while elevating women's basketball onto the national stage.

The conference's more recent history isn't as glorious, but in 2021, the Stanford women beat Arizona by a single point in all-Pac-12 national title game. And the UCLA men made the Final Four the same season before losing to Gonzaga on a banked-in, buzzer-beating heartbreaker from near midcourt.

Maybe each side will go out on a high note this year.

No. 5 Arizona is the clear front-runner on the men’s side, which plays its conference tournament March 13-16. Six ranked teams, including three in the top 10, make up the Pac-12 women's tournament, which is Wednesday through Sunday.

“This conference is one of the most competitive in the country," Stanford graduate student Hannah Jump said. “I think you can’t really go into any game and think, ’Oh, we got this one.' It’s just going to prepare us for down the road, with the NCAA Tournament coming up (and) Pac-12 tournament.”

After those tournaments, attention turns to the future as 10 schools depart, four each for the Big Ten and Big 12 and two — Stanford and Bay Area rival California — for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Only Oregon State and Washington State will remain, though they will continue to play under the Pac-12 banner even while aligning with the mid-major West Coast Conference for basketball.

“I’m really sad that our conference won’t exist because I think it’s the best conference in college athletics,” California women's coach Charmin Smith said. “But the fact that we’re going to the same conference (ACC with Stanford) ... we’ll still have this rivalry.”

Because their conference tournament is first, the Pac-12 women's teams will have to deal with the massive change that's to come a little sooner. Coaches and players were asked in recent weeks what the end of this era means while the men's teams will likely face similar inquiries soon on the Pac-12's last hurrah.

“We all grew up with the Pac-8, Pac-10, Pac-12, and to see it go away is something sad,” Arizona men’s coach Tommy Lloyd said. “But I’m also excited for new horizons, so we’re not going to get sentimental about it. You and I can get sentimental at the end of the year and shed a tear, but now it’s business.”

The Wildcats’ prime competition could come from surprising Washington State, the only other ranked men’s team at No. 18 and one of the two teams that technically will remain in the Pac-12 after this season.

Cougars coach Kyle Smith insisted his team needed to “put our heads down” and concentrate on the task at hand, which for now means trying to make a strong run in the league tournament and perhaps even win it.

Reality at some point will set in.

For some schools, that is the realization of a future in which Oregon-Ohio State will be a conference game, and there will be a natural excitement that comes with such marquee matchups — despite all the new cross-country travel and challenging schedules.

But so much will be left behind for a conference that traces its roots to a Portland, Oregon, hotel in 1915. UCLA coach Cori Close recalled a different meeting in 2012 when Pac-12 women's basketball was at its low point, and the conference coaches agreed on a set of principles to raise the league's profile.

They did just that, and Close could only shake her head and close her eyes thinking it will soon be over after helping take the Pac-12 from "being the last of the Power Fives and then raising up to be the first.”

“Now to see it come to fruition have sustained excellence," Close said, "I’m really humbled and proud to be a part of that.”

Both sets of men's and women's teams have one last chance to make the conference proud.

Then it all changes.

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AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, John Marshall and Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

Mark Anderson, The Associated Press