How Bad is Bad? Evaluating the Pac-12

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2018

During Wednesday evening’s broadcast of the Arizona-Montana game, Bill Walton, while simultaneously running the math for plates on the bench press and waxing poetic about his morning in Utah and evening in Tucson, noted, “This will be a most competitive conference.” I paraphrase; however, the gist remains: Walton was celebrating many of the Pac-12’s teams. He’s a known, if not unapologetic, champion of the Conference of Champions, and was not soon to bash it as many of us have lamented. But regardless of the Big Redhead’s admonitions, this year is looking BAD.  

Is Oregon the Best Worst Team in High-Major Basketball? (USA Today Images)

This is a conference not all that far removed from one of the worst conference performances ever. In 2012, the inaugural Pac-12 season, Washington won the conference regular season, lost in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, and was summarily dismissed by the NCAA Tournament committee on Selection Sunday. The Pac that year owned nine top-100 KenPom teams (zero among the top 25) and two teams that were rated in the 300s. Just two of those teams danced, including a 23-11 Colorado team that entered the Pac-12 Tournament rated 96th by KenPom yet earned the Pac-12 auto-bid by defeating Arizona in an ugly 53-51 championship game.

Gleaning at our current state, the Pac owns just seven top-100 KenPom teams and none within the top 35. Oregon at #38 is the highest team in the league and their confounding if not collegiately unbuild-around-able big man, Bol Bol, is currently injured (although expected to return); UCLA just lost by 29 points to Ohio (following a home loss to Belmont); USC has lost four straight games (including a double-overtime loss to Santa Clara); and on and on. It’s dire.

But Walton said competitive. He didn’t say great. He didn’t threaten Final Fours or #1 seeds — he just noted competitive and to that point I believe he’s right. The Pac’s current anchor, California, rates 189th in KenPom with a modestly respectable -2.34 adjusted efficiency margin. Of course, a negative margin is never good but – and this isn’t sarcastic – it could be worse! I’ve already mentioned the year when Utah and USC were both 6-win teams (not in conference but rather on the season), so the floor of this year’s Pac-12 is higher than it has been in the past. Take last year, for example, when Cal floundered in the mid-200s of the barometric KenPom ratings. Unfortunately, the ceiling is also considerably lower, which is generally the equation for competition! Outcomes will be in doubt and the inevitability of upsets and shocking results will rear its (ugly) head.

What’s most unfortunate is that the caliber of that competition is objectively low. We’ve noted the KenPom ratings and there’s nary an impressive number amongst the 12 teams. In a season where pace and scoring are up (usually two excitement metrics), it’s unfortunate that the Pac-12 has just one team among the top 40 of eFG% (Washington State) and another among the top 25 of either the offensive or defensive efficiency ratings (Arizona, #22 defense). Hell, there’s just one Pac-12 team in the top 50 of 2-point field goal shooting. MAKE A LAYUP!

Just a couple weeks out from conference play tipping off, I mean not to turn you off to the Pac-12 but to remind you that the essence of sport is competition, broadly or conveniently defined as “outcomes in doubt.” And maybe, just MAYBE, the Pac-12 can provide a great deal of that in 2019. Happy New Year.

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