The Wacky Decline of Pac-12 Basketball

To be the best, you've got to beat the best, as the old saying goes. In the Pac-12 Conference this season, however, the motto appears to be something closer to, "To squeak by, you've got to cloak your disadvantages by playing poor opponents and hope not to get embarrassed."

How's that strategy working out? Well, not great. If the Pac-12 were a business, it would be Kodak. The Pac-12 has fallen hard in recent years, and this is a particularly mediocre season for one of the most storied conferences in all of college basketball.

The bad news is that college basketball fans across the country are asking themselves: What has happened to the once-dominant Pac-12 Conference?

The worse news is that even more college basketball fans have entirely written off the Pac-12 Conference. In early January.

The Pac-12 is currently ranked No. 9 out of all conferences in RPI, behind all five other power conferences, plus the Mountain West, Atlantic-10 and even the Missouri Valley. Those are solid, multiple bid conferences, but this is the Pac-12, the premier showcase for basketball on the west coast. It’s the only major barometer for the state of non-professional basketball west of Texas. So if the Pac-12 has gone sour, has the entire game of basketball up and down the west coast? The evidence isn't good, and led one blog to slap the Pac-12 with the tag "glorified mid-major." Ouch.

Things didn’t always look so grim. The Pac-12 began the season as a sparkling carousel with new paint. The nation expected big things out of UCLA, and a healthy season out of schools like Cal, Washington and Stanford. In no time, though, that paint rotted away to reveal rickety mechanics, exposed wires branching out like Wrigley Field ivy and an operator sneaking swigs while working the controls. (I apologize to any drunk carnies who may have been offended by the comparison.) Each team predicted to contend has gone through extreme ups and bottomless downs in a game of Conference Favorite Hot Potato. No one wants to step up and be the best team in the Pac-12. Ranked on KenPom.com behind Utah State, Southern Utah and Utah Valley, it looks like Utah doesn't even want to be the best team in Utah.

The conference's Strength of Schedule is just 2.74, down from 7.19 last season. It’s the lowest for the conference in recorded history, going back to 1979-80 according to Sports-Reference.com. The conference’s Simple Rating System score, at just 6.66, down from 10.07 last season, results from a combination of poor competition and bad performances when it counts, and is the lowest for the conference since 1986-87.

Part of the problem is that there’s no clear leader, or even anything resembling a top tier, to act as the flagship programs of the Pac-12 this season. Cal clearly boasts the most pure talent and looked like the conference’s best team back in mid-November – that is, until they up and fell to Missouri by 39 points and then to UNLV by 17. UCLA started the season ranked, then dropped their first two games in laughers to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee – at home, no less – and started out 2-5. To confuse things further, UCLA beat the Wildcats just last week.

It's been a confusing season with no Pac-12 team able to establish much momentum. Well, winning momentum. USC and new conference-member Utah, however, have been remarkably consistent in their overall sucktitude. Either USC or Utah is dead last in every major statistical category in the conference. And yet, Utah beat Washington State last week while USC lost to Cal by just four points. Go figure.

Good teams win the games that they’re supposed to win. It may not always be pretty, but more often than not, the better team will find a way to prevail. In the Pac-12, that logic is being turned on its head. The poor teams in the Pac-12 are not just beating the spread – they’re winning games, because teams simply aren’t good enough to win when they should.

And the problems aren’t all on the court, either. The Pac-12 is a conference in tempest, if not full-fledged freefall. Freshman Jabari Brown left Oregon, and three different players that transferred out of UCLA are having excellent seasons for their current teams.

UCLA also kicked Reeves Nelson off the team, Washington is dealing with major chemistry issues and Arizona State is just one big mess – the NCAA ruled phenom recruit Jahii Carson academically ineligible and the Sun Devils suspended three players last week.

To further muddle things, UCLA is 7-2 since dropping Nelson, Washington is second in the conference standings and ASU won at USC hours after suspending half of their lineup. Make of that what you will, but it tells me that Pac-12 teams don’t know an advantage when the Team Chemistry Gods hand them one on a silver platter.

Colorado has won all three of their conference games by a total of 69 points, but is probably still the seventh best team in the Pac-12 according to KenPom.com. Oregon State has surprised people with an 11-5 start, but it’s come against the 273rd ranked SOS. Meanwhile, Utah looked very much like the worst team ever to play in a power conference – ever! – but only has a minus-2 scoring margin over their last two games. That counts as a hot streak, in Pac-12 parlance! Just in case you had any misconceptions about this conference adhering to any conventional logic, at all.

At the same time, it’s all kind of fun. There are genuinely talented teams in Cal, Arizona, Stanford and Washington, up-and-downers in Colorado and Oregon State, and programs grasping for a new identity in Utah, UCLA and USC. And you know what? Anyone can beat anyone. No one is safe. Utah knocking off WaZu may not mean much in early January, but it would be the essence of March Madness if a team like that suddenly gets hot in the conference tournament.

The Pac-12 Conference may be nationally irrelevant, a three-bid league at best – but more likely two, or even one according to ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan – and the Washington Generals to the rest of the country’s Globetrotters. But it sure as hell isn’t boring, and there’s something to be said for that. This is supposed to be fun, after all.

So, thanks, Pac-12. I guess.

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