Commentary

Cooper, Westhead struggle in Pac-12

Updated: February 28, 2013, 9:16 PM ET
By Michelle Smith | espnW

Michael Cooper, Paul WestheadUSA TODAY SportsPaul Westhead's Oregon is 4-24; Michael Cooper and Southern California are 8-19.

From the NBA legacies that defined their careers, to the Los Angeles Lakers' 1980 championship, to WNBA titles, to Pac-12 women's basketball, Michael Cooper and Paul Westhead represent a bevy of basketball intersections.

And now one more.

Both find themselves occupying the same awkward space, the subject of disappointment and "evaluation" by their respective athletic directors, who have to be seriously contemplating whether either will still be head coach next season.

At Southern California, the Women of Troy are having the toughest season of Cooper's four-year tenure.

A program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament field since 2006 is hoping for a miracle finish in the Pac-12 tournament, which opens Thursday. Southern Cal has lost eight straight games, including last weekend's sweep by No. 17 UCLA, which dropped the Women of Troy to 8-19 overall and 5-11 in conference play.

In four seasons, Cooper is 69-56 overall and 39-31 in the Pac-12.

"It has been an interesting season for us," Cooper said Sunday after the second USC loss to UCLA. "I know we've put ourselves out of the running at 8-19, but we are still playing with a lot of fire and a lot of spirit and anything can happen in the tournament."

[+] EnlargeMichael Cooper
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsMichael Cooper's crew has dropped eight straight games. USC's last win was a Jan. 27 home victory over Arizona.

In Eugene, the situation is more dire for Westhead's Oregon Ducks, who haven't been able to rev up any momentum since he arrived to install his famous up-tempo game four years ago.

Injuries, recruiting misses and a lack of depth have resulted in a 2-14 Pac-12 record and 4-24 overall mark with two games to go, and it will likely end up as the worst record in program history. The previous record for single-season losses was 21, which cost Bev Smith her job in 2009.

Yet Westhead -- 50-73 at Oregon and a dismal 20-50 in conference play -- feels like he is coaching a team that is giving him its best.

"They show up for every game ready to go," Westhead said recently following one of the team's rare wins (over Washington State) earlier this month. "I haven't seen the team play like they have a lot of losses, I haven't seen that."

Still, season-ticket holders in Eugene are grumbling and starting to abandon their seats in the stands. An athletic program with NCAA success in high-profile sports such as football, volleyball and now men's basketball doesn't take well to being in last place.

Down in Los Angeles, Cooper was hired when Mark Trakh was fired in 2007 because he couldn't get USC into the NCAA tournament -- but Cooper has fared no better. USC has played difficult nonconference schedules, but has few signature wins. The Women of Troy have won more than they lost, but never enough to get them into the NCAA field. They have recruited top-flight talent, but seen them sidelined with injuries.

A run to the WNIT title game in 2011 has been the bright spot.

In the meantime, teams like California and UCLA have risen up to close the gap with Stanford in the Pac-12, and Colorado has become relevant in two years in the league.

USC, which has a relatively new facility in the Galen Center, a great academic reputation and a proximity to some of the best high school girls' basketball talent in the country, is lagging.

We have got to convince these players that we are committed to the long-term success of our program, but to get there, we have to compete better.

-- Southern California athletic director Pat Haden

USC athletic director Pat Haden knows it, and believes the Women of Troy have the assets to be a national power, like their NCAA championship teams in 1983 and '84.

"I see no reason why we can't ultimately get back to that level of play," Haden said by phone Monday. "But that has not happened this year … nobody is happy with the results so far.

"We have got to convince these players that we are committed to the long-term success of our program, but to get there, we have to compete better."

Haden would not comment on Cooper's future.

"We wait to evaluate coaches after the season," Haden said. "Hopefully we will finish strong."

Westhead's struggles suffer by comparison to the change that happened in the Oregon men's program when coach Dana Altman was hired three years ago.

Altman's Ducks have climbed to the top of the Pac-12, have been ranked nationally much of the season and are filling the university's new Matthew Knight Arena.

Eugene is a community that strongly supported women's basketball during the program's strong years. But attendance is dropping off sharply for the women, down from more than 5,000 a game a decade ago to less than 1,800 a game this season. And sometimes just a few hundred fans are actually in the seats on a given night.

Westhead, who turned 74 earlier this month, is in the fourth year of a five-year contract. It has been reported that buying out the salary of Westhead and his coaching staff a year early would cost Oregon "in the range of $1 million," according to the Eugene Register-Guard. That leads to speculation that Oregon is still a year away from making a change.

The Ducks were once a consistently upper-tier Pac-12 program. They made eight straight NCAA appearances from 1994-2001; their last appearance was in 2005.

The program is a long way from that standard today, leaving athletic director Rob Mullens with a dilemma. Mullens declined an interview Tuesday through media relations representatives.

"We have proven over and over again that, if coaches achieve, they are rewarded," Mullens said to the Register Guard earlier this month. "That's the bottom line.

"With our goal of broad-based excellence, we expect and need -- because of the size of our department -- every team vying for Pac-12 championships and deep runs in the NCAA tournament."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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