College Basketball: Does the Pac-12 Deserve More Love?

The polls don't love the Pac-12, but should they?

Last season, there was Kentucky, who went through the regular season unscathed, while teams like Wisconsin, Arizona and Duke displayed some impressive talent.

This season, there doesn’t seem to be that one team that is a sure-fire National Championship favorite.

The metric we use at numberFire to measure overall team efficiency is nERD -- it's an estimate of a team's score differential against a league-average team on a neutral court. In recent years, perennial powerhouses exceeded the benchmark of having a 19.0-plus score. This included Kentucky in 2012 and 2015, Louisville in 2013 and 2014, and Arizona in 2014. 

This season, there isn't a single program that measures at this elite level, and only number-one ranked Oklahoma has a nERD above 18.0 (presently 18.47).

Parity in college basketball has spread throughout the nation, and this is best displayed in the Pac-12 Conference. The conference’s first place team, Oregon, is separated by only three conference games from the ninth place team, Stanford. 

Does that mean the Pac-12 is a strong conference with talent spread throughout, or has parity created an even distribution of mediocrity?

Down as a Conference?

There are currently just two Pac-12 teams in our nF NCAA Basketball Power Rankings in the top 25, with Arizona at 17th and Oregon at 22nd. The two met last week in Tucson, which saw the Ducks end the Wildcats’ 49-game home winning streak, the then-longest in the nation dating back to February of 2013. 

Next on the list at 27th is USC, where coach Andy Enfield is proving that his quick success at Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 was no fluke. Utah, California and Colorado come in at 40th, 41st and 45th, respectively, based on nERD.

In the AP Top 25, Oregon and Arizona are the lone remaining Pac-12 teams, as they continue to beat up on one-another within the conference. Oregon stands at 16th and Arizona at 23rd with USC and Utah receiving votes.

Inconsistent play has been rampant throughout the conference this season. For example, UCLA has had losses to Monmouth, Wake Forest and Washington State, yet they have tallied wins over Kentucky, Gonzaga and Arizona. Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State University, currently in 11th place in the Pac-12, has non-conference wins over Texas A&M (ranked 13th nationally according to numberFire power rankings), as well as at Creighton and at UNLV. Within the conference, however, the Sun Devils have managed to win only two games.

With the exception of first place Oregon, every Pac-12 Conference team has at least five losses this season. Other than Arizona, the only teams nationally in the AP Top 25 with five or more losses are Iowa State (five losses), Kentucky (six losses) and Wichita State (five losses). Each of those teams are listed among the top 32 in RPI.

So far, within conference play, much like it was in conference during football season, the teams are beating up on one another. And the result: it’s hard to keep them ranked high.

Not Getting Enough Love?

There isn't even one team from the Pac-12 within the top 15 in the nation in any of the recognized polls. But what if there's another explanation for the number of losses that are spread throughout the Pac-12 Conference? Much the same as was seen in the Pac-12 college football season for 2015, many of the member teams are beating up on each other. To prove that the records of the teams isn't a measure of their quality, it's noteworthy that both Oregon and Utah are in the top 15, according to RPI rankings, and 10 teams within the Pac-12 are within the top 70. An 11th team, ASU, is just below with an RPI of 73.

Another measure that goes beyond national ranking is strength of schedule. According to our projections, eight teams within the Pac-12 will finish in the top 30 nationally in strength of schedule. It's likely that Stanford, Oregon and UCLA will finish in the top 10.

Further support for the strength of the Pac-12 is its record against AP Top 25 ranked teams -- the Pac-12 has the nation’s best winning percentage this season. Here's a chart of all conferences in 2015-16 against the AP top 25.

Conference Games vs AP Top 25 Record Win Percentage
Pac-12 36 17-19 0.472
ACC 66 24-42 0.364
Big 12 54 18-36 0.333
Big Ten 60 16-44 0.364
Big East 52 19-33 0.365
SEC 43 13-30 0.302

With only one month of conference play remaining, six Pac-12 teams will make the NCAA tournament this season, according to numberFire bracketology. UCLA was a potential seventh team until they lost to Washington at home last week, but they have time to return to tournament consideration. 

Assuming six teams qualify, this would exceed the four teams that qualified for the 2015 tournament. Further, the Pac-12 Conference has fared well in NCAA Tournament play over the last three seasons. In 2013, they went 5-5 with two Sweet 16 teams, followed by an 8-6 record in 2014 with three Sweet 16 teams, and a record of 8-4 in 2015 with three teams making it to the Sweet 16.

After digging deeper into the numbers beyond national rankings and having faced quality competition each week, it's possible that the Pac-12 may send the most “tournament-prepared” teams into the NCAA Tournament this year. Given the parity that exists throughout the nation, the Pac-12 may create a whole load of madness in March.