I would venture to say that remarking upon the weakness of the Pac-12 in basketball has become something of an annual ritual, but that statement requires a qualification. It used to be that remarking upon the weakness of the Pac-10 was the annual ritual. Then the league went out and added two new members: Colorado and Utah. As a result there's a new name to toss around when the topic of "weakest major conference" arises.
It didn't used to be this way, of course. As recently as three seasons ago the Pac-10 was a very strong basketball conference, one that sent no fewer than six of its ten members to the NCAA tournament. But over the past two seasons combined the league's seen a total of just six teams go dancing, and even that figure was achieved by the skin of the old Pac-10's teeth. USC made the newly expanded tournament field last year as a First Four entrant. Most projections for 2012 envision just two teams from the new Pac-12 making the NCAA tournament: Washington and California. The Pac-12 is indeed "down."
Just how weak is the league this season? People who write pieces for places like ESPN Insider (ahem) like to toss around metric-backed statements like:
The Pac-12 in 2012 is the weakest major conference we've seen in years.
Well, that statement is literally true. The league does indeed sport the lowest Pomeroy rating, by far, of any major conference over the past five seasons.
But let's crack that number open, shall we? The problem with comparing entire conferences to other entire conferences is that you always end up measuring teams that few people are watching -- in this case teams like Arizona State, USC, and especially Utah in 2012. Those programs this season are aberrantly, extremely, and even historically weak, considering they play basketball as members of a major conference. The Sun Devils are rebuilding, the Trojans have been absolutely decimated by injuries, and the Utes are a different case entirely.
There's a lot of happenstance at work when a major-conference program like Utah rates out at merely the level of an average team from a low-low-mid-major league. The Utes were brought to the conference for all the usual reasons: geography, demographics, football...every reason under the sun except, of course, basketball. And as chance would have it the Pac-12 caught Utah at the precise moment when their basketball program had reached absolute rock bottom.
The fact that roughly eight percent of all Pac-12 possessions have been played by a team as bad as Utah has wreaked some serious statistical damage on the league as a whole. Think of it this way: DePaul looks like a perennially weak team to observers of the Big East, but in terms of their standing within Division I the Blue Demons are head and shoulders above the team from Salt Lake City.
But what of the best teams in the Pac-12? In each of the past three seasons, the quality of the league's top five or so teams has actually been fairly constant. That's a clear case of good news, bad news. The good news is even though the conference as a whole has dipped drastically in strength, the top of the league is just as good as it was last year and the year before. The bad news is that's not saying much.
Then again Arizona did make the Elite Eight behind Derrick Williams last season. The Wildcats' run lifted spirits in the conference, certainly, and demonstrated that very good teams can come out of conferences that are "down." Can that kind of surprise happen again in 2012? Let's take a look at the teams that will try to make that same kind of noise in the brackets this month.
Just two short weeks ago I was touting the Golden Bears as a "sleeper" pick who could do some damage in the NCAA tournament. I still think Mike Montgomery's team is better than most people realize, but my opinion of Cal has dipped over the past 14 days. With good reason: this team's performance has dipped. In dropping their last two games of the season, at Colorado and at Stanford, the Bears reverted back to their bad old ways and allowed their opponents to score a lot of points. Against Montgomery's men, the Buffs and the Cardinal were able to rack up a combined 145 points in just 131 possessions, thanks in large part to a microscopic (12 percent) turnover rate. We've seen this particular movie before, and it's called "Cal before 2011-12." The team from Berkeley's customarily been able to score points, and this season is certainly no different. Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez, and newcomer Justin Cobbs form an effective nucleus on offense, one that excels at getting good looks close to the basket. (Think of this offense as the Georgetown of the left coast.) But Cal's not that good on offense, certainly not good enough where they don't have to get an occasional stop on D. I'll be watching the games in the Pac-12 tournament to see if the Bears' late-season slide on defense was just a blip or the start of a worrisome trend. Cal is currently projected as a No. 10 seed by Joe Lunardi.
The Pac-12 owes a debt of thanks to the Huskies. Lorenzo Romar's team has been the closest thing this league has to a quartz movement, as the men from Seattle are, apparently, about to make their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. At the precise moment when the conference as a whole has struggled, Washington has been consistently strong. This year the Huskies won the Pac-12 title outright with an impressive 14-4 record, but a closer look at this team's performance suggests you might want to think twice before you pencil them in for the Sweet 16. U-Dub outscored their conference opponents by just 0.07 points per possession, an unusually small margin for a team that won 14 of 18 games. Romar's defense is the real deal, and Washington is particularly adept at guarding on the perimeter. But with the notable exceptions of C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross, the Huskies have struggled to hit their shots on offense. Tony Wroten has quite rightly attracted a good deal of attention for what is quite clearly an enormous amount of potential. If he translates some of that potential into current performance in the crucible of March, maybe this team can pull a surprise. Washington is currently projected as a No. 11 seed by Lunardi.
For all the drama surrounding their program in recent years, UCLA actually played pretty good basketball in conference action this season -- better, on a possession by possession basis, than that recorded by conference champion Washington, actually. The same two statements can also be made about Oregon. If either team wins the Pac-12 tournament this week, they could prove to be less overmatched in the NCAA tournament than you might think.
Saying a conference's representative "may be less overmatched than you think" is not the highest form of praise, to be sure. Conference strength runs in cycles, and someday soon that cycle will again favor the Pac-12. In the meantime the weakest major conference in the country will have to rely on its strongest teams to pull some upsets in March and boost the conference's sagging profile.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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