Is The Pac-12 The Nation’s Best Conference?Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 2nd, 2014
A week ago now, Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com tried to determine which was the best basketball conference in America this year. He broke down overall records, record vs. top 25 RPI, record vs. top 50 KenPom, record vs. the top 10 conferences, and more. The numbers have changed a bit since then, what with an extra week of games, but the post is still worth a look as conference play has tipped off in earnest this week. Below, we’ll reference those numbers and some of his findings as we try to determine the answer to the following question — Is the Pac-12 really in the hunt for the title of best conference in the nation?
First, understand that this exercise is really sort of meaningless. Conferences don’t advance to the Final Four or win national championships – teams do. And depending on what criteria you’re looking for, you can make all sorts of arguments as to which league is the best. Is it more important to have a grouping of elite teams; or do you want to have a big chunk of teams that are good; or are you impressed by conferences where the bottom quarter of the league is capable of beating anybody? (Note: if you are interested in that last criterion, feel free to throw the Pac-12 with its triumvirate of Oregon State, Washington State and Washington out.) But it is a fun argument to have over a few cold beverages, or over Twitter or, really, anywhere. So, why does the Pac-12 deserve to be in this discussion?
First, be aware that there are some concerning findings. As far as the RPI (you know, that flawed number that the Selection Committee leans a bit too heavily on) is concerned, the Pac-12 is the fourth best conference in the land. Teams like Colorado (seventh), Arizona (ninth) and Oregon (11th) lead the way, but then there is a huge gap down to the next team – Arizona State checking in at 60th. In other words, while those top three teams have done yeoman’s work so far this season, it would have been nice to see somebody else chip in a bit during non-conference play. Still, as we well know, the RPI is a flawed metric (to choose but one adjective beginning with “f”). So let’s look at the thinking man’s basketball ratings. Uh oh, KenPom.com has the Pac-12 as the fifth-best conference. And worse yet, he’s not nearly as high on those top three teams as the RPI, with Arizona checking in at #4, Oregon way down at #23, and Colorado at #29. The good news is that he’s got teams like UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford not that far behind.
But, as Norlander pointed out, if you take a look at all the numbers in the aggregate, the Pac-12 rates pretty well. They’ve won six of their 14 games against teams ranked in the RPI top 25, owning the best winning percentage (.429) against those teams of any league (note: updating numbers since Norlander’s post – the AAC is now .375 in just eight games). They’ve got a winning percentage of .444 against RPI top 50 teams, second only to the Big 12 (.484). And unlike some other conferences, the dregs of the league have avoided the most terrible of losses – they’ve won all of their games against sub-200 RPI teams and are 89-8 (.918) against teams lower than #101 in the RPI. In the end, once you sort through all the numbers, you’re probably left with three conferences that have an argument to claim the mantle of “best conference” so far: the Big Ten, the Big 12, and the Pac-12.
The Big Ten is probably the reigning champion of “best conference” arguments. Last year the league had five teams in the top 15 of Pomeroy’s final rankings. It had one team on each of the top five seed lines in the NCAA Tournament. They put seven teams into the Dance. And they had Michigan playing until the final night of the season. This year, those numbers are down somewhat, but not by a whole lot. They’ve now got five teams in the top 20 of Pomeroy’s rankings (although those teams are weighted more to the back half of that top 20). Ohio State is almost universally regarded as a top five team; Wisconsin isn’t very far behind them, and between those two, the Big Ten is one of just two conferences (the Pac-12 is the other) with a pair of undefeated teams remaining. Beyond that, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan are all highly regarded, with Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota lurking as potential Tournament teams. And, as far as the dregs of the conference goes, while Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State are by no means very good teams, they’re certainly far better than the bottom three teams in the Pac-12.
The Big 12 is, like the Pac-12, something of a newcomer to this argument. Last year, KenPom ranked the league as the sixth-best conference, with Kansas carrying the banner and everybody else lagging far behind. But this season, the Big 12 has the best conference RPI, the best non-conference winning percentage, and KenPom’s got them second only to the Big Ten in conference standings. Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State (the conference’s lone remaining undefeated team) are legitimate, Baylor is also in the conversation as a Top 25 team, but beyond that teams like Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia have a lot to do to prove themselves. Frankly, out of all three of these conferences we’re discussing, TCU is in a class by themselves as the worst of the bunch.
And then there’s the Pac-12. The RPI and KenPom conference rankings aren’t as promising, but there are the two undefeated teams to help make up for that (Arizona and Oregon). Colorado lurks just behind them. And then the group of UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford, California and Utah? I’ll take those five against the middle five of any conference in the nation. Then there are the individual wins. Arizona’s gotten the scalps of San Diego State and Michigan in road games and Duke in a might-as-well-be road game. Colorado took down Kansas at Coors. Oregon’s got a host of good (although not great) wins. And Stanford chipped in a road-win at UConn (that looked a whole lot better before New Year’s Eve). Unfortunately, for each of those, there are the whiffs, like UCLA losing to Duke in New York, and Missouri in Columbia, or Arizona State’s lost Thanksgiving weekend, or Cal losing twice in Maui, or Utah going out of its way to play a ridiculously soft schedule. So, yeah, while you can include the Pac-12 in the conversation for the best conference and make a semi-convincing argument, the league still has some work to do. Given the depths to which the conference dipped in recent years, it hasn’t yet earned the benefit of the doubt. The Big Ten, for instance, has proven its mettle both in regular season play and in the NCAA Tournament during that span. Until and unless the Pac-12 does similarly this season, the conference as a whole should just be happy to be in the conversation.