Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona are ranked 5th, 6th, and 7th this week in the AP poll. In the latest championship odds provided by Bovada, they all are in the top 6, with UCLA listed at 2nd and Arizona and Oregon tied for 4th. In our latest NBA mock draft, the top three players were from the Pac-12.
Now, this is a wide-open year in college basketball, as the current betting favorite, Gonzaga, is only at 8 to 1. That means that no one individual team is even given a 15% chance of winning the title, different from some other years where we have had a dominant top team. Still, it’s fair to say that the trio at the top of the Pac-12 is highly thought of. They are ranked higher than any individual team from the Atlantic Coast Conference, largely seen as the best conference in basketball. There is young NBA talent on these teams and they have dominated in conference.
Why then do I say that the Pac-12 is overrated? Well, first, let me say what that doesn’t mean: that the conference sucks. Overrated means to “have a higher opinion of (someone or something) than is deserved.” When the top three teams in the conference occupy half of the top favorites to win the national title, then it means I disagree that they should be viewed quite so favorably.
It’s hard to get past this: every objective, predictive measure has these teams rated lower than where they are currently ranked. Here’s a comparison of where teams are ranked in a large number of ratings, from vote-based rankings to things like the RPI to Pomeroy and Sagarin to several others.
The average of the top three Pac-12 teams in those: Oregon 11th, UCLA 15th, and Arizona 16th. In Pomeroy’s rankings, Oregon is 16, UCLA is 19, and Arizona is 21. In Sagarin, it’s Oregon 14, UCLA 15, and Arizona 19.
There are times when Pomeroy and RPI may disagree on a conference, since they are measuring different things. This year, though, the Pac-12 as a conference is 6th in both, behind all the other power conferences and just ahead of the American.
Let’s go through some of the reasons why. Primary among them is the non-conference results. Here are the combined records of the top 3 teams in each of the top six conferences, against non-conference teams I projected in the tourney in my last projection:
The top three in the Pac-12 played the fewest games against fellow tourney-type teams, and had the fewest wins. UCLA had a huge performance at Kentucky in December; it’s fair to say that without that win, the perception of the conference might be a lot different. We would be debating whether USC beating SMU at home by 5 or Arizona beating Michigan State by 2 on a neutral court or Colorado beating Xavier by 2 at home was the best non-conference win. The Pac-12, overall, is 6-20 against non-conference teams I project in the at-large field as a 12-seed or better.
And the rest of the conference is down, which is why both Pomeroy and RPI have them behind all of the other power conferences. There is a thin middle class, composed of USC and California as tournament at-large possibilities, and Utah (who faces an uphill battle because the RPI rank but is good enough ). After that, the bottom of the conference is weak, and the top three is a combined 20-1 against the bottom half of the league.
That’s a far cry from what other top teams, who might have one more loss than the Pac-12 trio, are facing. The bottom half of the Big 12 includes several teams that are in contention for an at-large spot and capable of beating top teams. Teams like Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Clemson are going to be in the bottom half of the ACC standings. Georgetown, who beat Oregon early in the year, is currently in 9th place (out of 10) in the Big East.
Now, all that said, I think there is an argument, just as the top three in the conference is being overrated in traditional polls and public perception (as represented by title odds), that they are being underrated in ratings like Pomeroy, for a variety of reasons.
Primary among them is injury or absence. Oregon was the expected standard bearer in conference entering the season, and Dillon Brooks was out the first three games (including a big loss at Baylor), and was just working back for the loss to Georgetown. Allonzo Trier of Arizona was indefinitely suspended after a positive PED test in the fall, and just returned last month.
None of the top teams in the Pac-12 are particularly deep, all ranking below average for bench minutes played, despite often playing with good leads in conference. UCLA is in the bottom 10 nationally in bench minutes, with their four top players all averaging over 30 minutes a game. Oregon and Arizona (now that Trier is back) are a little deeper, but Oregon basically uses a 7-man rotation. Arizona uses eight when healthy, though Kadeem Allen’s finger injury temporarily again has them back to seven primary players.
That matters when we are talking ability to make a run in the tournament. One injury, or a game of foul trouble, could have a big impact.
What has happened in the past, by the way, when the Pomeroy ratings have differed from the seedings of top teams from one conference? Over the last decade, there have been three different situations where a conference had its top three teams seeded in the top 4, and Pomeroy’s pre-tourney rankings had those teams below that seed position (i.e., outside the top 4 if a #1 seed, outside top 8 if a #2 seed). Here they are:
- 2016 Pac-12: Oregon (#1 seed, 13 in Pom); Utah (#3 seed, 28 in Pom); California (#4 seed, 25 in Pom).
- 2012 Big East: Syracuse (#1 seed, 7 in Pom); Georgetown (#3 seed, 16 in Pom); Marquette (#3 seed, 19 in Pom).
- 2012 ACC: North Carolina (#1 seed, 6 in Pom); Duke (#2 seed, 13 in Pom); Florida State (#3 seed, 23 in Pom).
Last year’s Pac-12 is the most recent example (and I talked about them likely underperforming before the tournament). They combined for 4 wins, with Oregon advancing to the Elite Eight, Utah getting blasted by Gonzaga in the second round, and California losing the opener.
None of the teams from any of those groups reached the Final Four. Less than half (4 of 9) reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Those groups, by the way, combined to average 3 lottery picks so they weren’t devoid of perceived next-level talent (even if we now are amazed that Dion Waiters was once a top five pick).
The Pac-12 has three of the top teams in the nation. I’m not convinced they are among the top 6 as a group and represent half of the best bets to win the title. UCLA and Arizona are young (we’ve seen that not matter, but also I’m not convinced that simply having a future lottery pick is a key to outperforming either). UCLA is rated very poorly on the defensive end for a top team, and has warning signs because of its reliance on outside shooting. In the tournament, they will be playing higher caliber defenses every round, and these teams will get challenged more than they have in conference play.
It’s been since 2008, when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love were leading UCLA to the Final Four, that a Pac-12 team has even reach that point. You have to go back to 2001 for the last time a current Pac-12 reached the Final Four coming out of a regional other than the one out West (Arizona, San Antonio Midwest Regional). Only one of these three teams is likely to get to play through San Jose this year, with Gonzaga also out West. Collectively, they seem a bad bet when they are so highly valued right now.