Welcome To The Pac-12 Parity Party: How Legit Is One Of The Nation’s Deepest Conferences?
by 18 January 2016, 11:30 AM
Did you have USC and Washington atop the Pac-12 in November?
The Pac-12 has not won a national championship in 19 years. The last time was in 1997, when the Arizona Wildcats, behind Mike Bibby and Jason Terry, took down Kentucky in overtime to cut down the nets in dramatic fashion.
While the past 19 years has not yielded a single national champion, the same dramatic energy that won Arizona the ‘97 title has returned to the west coast for 2016 Pac-12 play. The West Coast, and California especially, is gaining a new reputation for what is possibly the deepest conference in college basketball.
The rise of the Pac-12 is an interesting one. In recent years, the premier conference near the Pacific Ocean has only had a few teams each year talented enough to ride into March Madness, but when they have, they’ve made a lot of noise.
Just take last year’s quartet of Oregon, Utah, UCLA, and Arizona. Oregon only lasted until the third round, but they lost to the eventual runners-up in Wisconsin. The Badgers also defeated the Pac-12 winners, Arizona, in the Elite 8. UCLA lost to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, who lost to the eventual champions, Duke, in the Elite 8. Duke beat Utah in the other Sweet 16 matchup in the south region.
As you can see above, only four teams made it to the tournament, but they did considerably well with three out of four losing to the champion and runner-up. That being said, for a conference in college basketball to gain more national recognition, it helps to have an abundance of teams present in March Madness. And an abundance of teams seem primed to represent the Pac-12 in postseason play this year.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
As of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent projected bracket on January 11, the Pac-12 are expected to have eight teams in March Madness. That would lead all NCAA conferences. Outside of those eight teams, a Pac-12 team is included in Lunardi’s “First 4 Out” and “Next Four” lists. So that constitutes 10 out of 12 Pac-12 programs currently under consideration to make it to the dance.
Among the eight squads currently projected to appear in Cinderella’s favorite sporting event, you’ll find some familiar faces in UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, and Utah—the four teams from a year ago. You’ll also find the highly touted and young California Golden Bears, who were ranked and full of high expectations in the preseason. The final three teams include some surprises, like Colorado and the youthful squads at Washington and USC.
The final three teams are extremely surprising given that Washington and USC were the two worst teams in the Pac-12 last year, while Colorado finished 9th. But what’s more unexpected than the number of strong, competitive teams is the parity that has been exhibited in the league so far. Turnarounds at programs like USC and Washington have brought the Pac-12 to greater heights, and nothing epitomizes this parity more than the current standings as of January 17. Just look at them compared to the preseason rankings.
Pac-12 Preseason Rankings:
Standings as of January 17, 2016:
Oh, what a season it has been so far. Washington and USC have gone from worst to first and are leading the conference in points per game. California and Utah, on the other hand, are ranked 14th and 16th in the country, despite having such high hopes before the season started. Arizona and Oregon remain in good shape and are likely two of the best teams around, but there’s much more behind the parity of the Pac-12 than the above standings.
Here are some of the highlights of the season from just the opening weekend of conference play. On day one, USC destroyed Washington State, Washington topped UCLA in two OT, and Stanford knocked off Utah. Two days later, USC blew a 22-point lead to Washington, UCLA and Utah fell to 0-2, Oregon lost to Oregon State, and Stanford gave up 56 points to Colorado and lost.
In the weeks since, the teams have traded even more blows to convolute popular opinions. UCLA swept the state of Arizona but then got rocked by USC at home; USC has won three straight, including the biggest win under coach Andy Enfield, against Arizona in a 4 OT thriller; the Oregon State Beavers toppled California’s freshmen phenoms but then were defeated by Colorado; Oregon has won three straight; and Arizona gave Washington their first loss, without Allonzo Trier, in a 32-point victory.
So with all this competition and parity, one major flag is raised: is the Pac-12 a very deep, strong conference, or is this simply a down year where the weaker teams have closed the gaps as the giants have digressed?
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
The quality of parity typically is best judged by, as discussed earlier, how many teams make the tournament. It’s not just Joe Lunardi with a west coast bias either. Ken Pom, the king site for basketball analytics, also paints a very strong picture and depiction of the quality of the Pac-12.
Using Ken Pom’s college basketball ratings, nine teams are in his top-70. Outside of his top-100 is only Washington State, with Washington ranked at #93 and Stanford at #72. Washington really seems like the team to watch here, given they sit atop the Pac-12 yet have the second-lowest ranking.
Interestingly enough, unlike Lunardi’s rankings, the Pac-12 does not have the most teams in range for tourney consideration on Ken Pom. While the Big 12 has eight teams in the top-52 teams ranked alone, the loaded ACC still has more teams in the top-70 of Ken Pom, and the Pac-12 and ACC are tied with the most schools from one conference in the top-100 with 11 schools each. The ACC has three more schools than the Pac-12.
That being said, neither this article, nor Lunardi, I imagine, would argue that the Pac-12 is the best conference in the nation. However, it certainly is still one of the deepest in terms of quality, and upon further examination, most of the Pac-12 holds up very well against the best teams in the country.
USC, Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA are among the most efficient offensive teams in the country, all ranking in the top-30 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Utah, Oregon State, Cal, and ASU are all also in the top-100. That gives the Pac-12 more highly-rated offensively efficient teams than the Big 12 and Big East.
On the defensive side, Colorado, Oregon, USC, California and Arizona are all in the top-50 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Oregon State, ASU, Utah, Stanford, and Washington are also in the top-100. Nine teams in the top-100 ties the Big 12 and SEC for the most ranked teams in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency.
Additionally, half of the Pac-12 is in the top-100 in block percentage and three-point shooting, including USC way up at #11. It’s important to have more than a handful of teams in the top tiers of these rankings to exemplify that it’s not a shallow league.
In fact, the standings, numbers, and eye test all back up that the Pac-12 is one of the deepest and most competitive conferences this season. They should be adequately represented this coming March, and the Pac-12 Tournament should be quite the spectacle for drama and plenty of offensive fire power.
Analytics aside, the Pac-12 has plenty of exciting teams, young and old, who have collected an assortment of non-conference bounties this season. The deceased include #20 Wichita State, giant killers Monmouth, #1 Kentucky, #20 Gonzaga, #18 Texas A&M, #20 Baylor, #7 Duke, and Gonzaga again.
Only time will tell how the conference will hold up against the premier talent across the country, but for now it’s clear the chatter about the Pac-12 is deserved and for real. If you can stay up past your bedtime on the East Coast and in the Mid West, there’s some great basketball being played after dark.
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