Re-evaluating the Pac-12

No one's arguing it was a banner season for Pac-12 men's basketball. But perhaps, after a surprisingly competent March, it wasn't as apocalyptic as we had feared.

From my years on the Farm (2004-2008), I remember Pac-10 stars like Ike Diogu, Chase Budinger, Jon Brockman, Chris Hernandez, Landry Fields, the Lopez Twins, Josh Shipp, Aaron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Nick Young, Taj Gibson and James Harden and his magnificent beard. Any of those guys would have been odds-on favorites for Pac-12 Player of the Year this season, and after this cohort graduated or went pro, the conference has undeniably taken a step back.

Early, this year was looking like the conference's worst season yet. Before the first Pac-12 game tipped off, the conference had already lost to New Mexico State, Wyoming, Loyola-Marymount, Middle Tennessee, Idaho, UC-Riverside, Pepperdine, Fairfield, DePaul, Northern Arizona, Fresno State (twice), Boise State, Montana State, UNC Asheville, Cal State Fullerton, Weber State and Cal Poly. The conference of champions' results were worse than many mid-major leagues' and depending on how conference play shook out, the league was in jeopardy of receiving only one NCAA bid.

Nothing that happened between January and early March could change perceptions, as 95 percent of Pac-12 games were within the conference. Come March, the league was lucky to receive a second bid – Colorado had to win four straight to come from the middle of the pack and take the autobid, while Cal just barely earned a NCAA bid, but didn't make the Round of 64 after getting blown away in a play-in game.

With only two teams, both double-digit seeds, in the NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 couldn't do much to impress on the big stage. Cal lost to a fellow 12 in South Florida, while Colorado acquitted itself well enough, upsetting UNLV in the first round and then giving three-seed Baylor all they could handle for 30 minutes.

However, in the lesser tournaments of the NIT and the CBI, the Pac-12 fared surprisingly well. In the 32- team NIT, Stanford won five straight to claim the championship, and Washington won three to reach the semifinals, where they fell in overtime after rallying from 12 down. Oregon won two before running into the Huskies, leaving Arizona, a first-round loser to Bucknell, the only team to lay an egg.

In the 16-team CBI, Oregon State won two before losing to Washington State. Wazzou, meanwhile, reached the best-of-three championship series (though they would ultimately Coug it, blowing their first game victory with consecutive losses to Pittsburgh.)

All told, then, the Pac-12 went 17-8 in postseason play, which is surprisingly impressive. Consider that the only conference of 32 to beat that .680 winning percentage was the Atlantic Sun (6-2, .750), because Mercer happened to win something called the CIT. The Pac-12 beat every single other league out there, including all the power conferences, in postseason winning percentage.

Look also at postseason wins. Of those 32 conferences, only the Big East (20-11) won more games, and they have a 16-team league. (With a 17-9 mark, the Big Ten tied the Pac-12 in wins, but did have an additional loss.) Anyhow, the lowly Pac-12 won more postseason games than the ACC, the SEC, the Big 12 and every other league out there.

Now, I'm not arguing that it was a good year overall for the Pac-12, or that our postseason was one of the best in the nation in absolute terms. After all, we got to run up our record in second-tier tournaments, while more teams from the other power conferences had to slug it out in the Big Dance.

What I will argue, however, is that relative to expectations, the Pac-outperformed every other conference in the 2012 postseason. First of all, no other conference really dominated in the NCAA Tourney, with no league having more than one Final Four team or two Elite Eight teams. Second, it's easy enough for any Joe Schmo to rank the top-25 or 40 teams in the country, but to rank all 300-plus, we really have to turn to the computers. And sure enough, computer rankings more than support the premise that the Pac-12 turned in a strong postseason performance.

Sagarin has the Pac-12 as the sixth-best conference overall, which while not good by any stretch of the imagination, is not cataclysmic. Better yet, his predictor has nine Pac-12 teams in the top 80, and six in the top 52. Frankly, I think those numbers are too optimistic, and Sagarin's other rankings aren't as kind to the league, but those predictor rankings are highly respected, and do reflect the conference's strong postseason performance.

Meanwhile, Warren Nolan's own rankings and simulated RPI both deem the Pac-12 as the ninth-best conference in the league, behind the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley and all the other power conferences, which admittedly is bordering on cataclysmic. Even so, Nolan shows that the RPI ranks four Pac-12 teams in the top 52 and six in the top 80, which while great is, again, not disastrous.

All told then, March may have raised the Pac-12's final grade from an F to a D for all you guys on an old- school grading scale, or for all of us youngsters used to grade inflation, from a D to a C. Hardly the stuff of honor rolls, but at the same time, it's an uptick worth noticing and, perhaps, a promising sign as we look ahead to next winter.


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