Is the Pac 12 a High Major Conference in Men’s Basketball? Is it even the best league out West?
The PAC 12 or in its former days the Pac 10 has always been regarded as the best college basketball conference west of the rocky mountains, but is it time to re-evaluate that belief? Is the PAC 12 still the best college basketball conference out west? Furthermore, are we correctly categorizing the basketball portion of the league in as a high major, or are we just using that term because they are riding the coattails of their football counterparts?
First lets look at the conference’s titles and final four appearances; as at the end of the day that is what leagues especially of the high major variety hang their hats on. A PAC 12 team has not won a national championship in my lifetime, and I am turning 20 in a few weeks. Arizona was the last PAC 12 team to be crowned the best in the land way back in 1997. In the 20 seasons since then the “conference of champions” has only sent six teams to the final four. For comparison the other two high major conferences that most fans regard as the “worst” on average the Big East and SEC have sent 13 and 10 teams to the final fours and claimed seven and four national championships respectively.
However, things get worse for the PAC 12. In the past decade the conference has only had one team reach a final four (Oregon in 2017). In this same time period conferences such as the Horizon League (Butler 2010 and 2011), and Missouri Valley (Wichita State 2013 and Loyola Chicago 2018) good mid major conferences in their own regards, but not typically basketball powerhouses have sent two teams a piece, and the Colonial Athletic Association (VCU 2011) has sent the same number of teams to a Final Four as the PAC 12 since 2009.
Now this is not a good look for the Conference of Champions, but then again the Big Ten has not won a title since 2000, and they are not being threatened to be relegated to the area between high majors and mid majors. The reason the Pac 12 is on shakier ground in my opinion is because of their performance in their own region particularly in postseason play. As we mentioned earlier the PAC 12 is very isolated because of their geography they are the only power six league in the western third of the country. As a matter of fact there is just much less college basketball out there in general. Really only four other conferences have their footprints completely out west (Mountain West, West Coast Conference, Big Sky, and Big West). There are also other conferences such as the WAC and Summit that have some of their teams out west, but not all. This makes scheduling much more difficult for teams in any of these leagues, as they usually end up traveling more. Furthermore, it does not offer a lot of different opponents, so the competition is sometimes not as good unless you are a program that is willing to travel more.
The reason I am examining the PAC 12 and questioning its high major status and it title as the dominate conference out west is because its performance in the NCAA and NIT tournament in recent years. This year the conference went 0-3 with only one team “advancing” to the field of 64 and zero teams advancing to the round of 32. This is unprecedented for a high major. Power six conferences have always had at least one team advance past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament.
You may say Ethan you are taking this out of context its just one bad year, but is it really? I noticed a trend over the recent years. Over the past three seasons the Pac 12 has gone 14-14 in the NCAA tournament good for a .500 winning percentage. At the same time teams from the Mountain West and West Coast Conference (the PAC 12’s two biggest competitors) have gone 12-8 or a winning percentage of .600. This incudes a record of 1-1 head to head between Pac 12 and MW/WCC teams (in 2016 Gonzaga beat Utah and in 2017 Saint Mary’s lost to Arizona). That is a significantly better wining percentage in the NCAA tournament, and its not just the NCAA; this is happening in the NIT too. From 2016-2018 the Pac 12 has a losing record of 8-9 (.47 winning percentage) in the NIT. During that same time the Mountain West and West Coast are 12-10 (.55 winning percentage). The NIT head to head record the past three seasons has been 3-3 between the two leagues and the Pac 12 (2016 SDSU beat Washington, 2017 Boise State beat Utah, 2018 Stanford beat BYU, Washington beat Boise State, Saint Mary’s beat Washington, and Utah beat Saint Mary’s).
So in conclusion the PAC 12 has 22-23 record (48% winning percentage) in postseason play while the two best mid major western leagues have a 24-18 record (57% winning percentage) and in head to head games in the postseason the Mountain West and West Coast Conference hold their own with a 4-4 tie against Pac 12 teams.
I think at this time the Pac 12 still is the best conference out west, but perhaps only by a hair. The only reason I believe the Pac 12 is better is because the power at the mid major level is split between two conferences instead of being concentrated in one. The Mountain West has Nevada (which I personally love the job Eric Musselman has been doing in Reno, and I think after the sweet 16 with the pieces they keep and gain have legitimate final four aspirations), San Diego State, Boise State, and some other formidable teams, and the West Coast Conference has the always relevant and competing Gonzaga in addition to sneaky good Saint Mary’s, and BYU. It is hard to challenge one power when the forces are split in half. That is why I was disappointed to see that Gonzaga did not move to the Mountain West this off season because I think if they did the Mountain West could have most definitely been better basketball league this year, and possibly started a trend for years to come. Going forward I think that the Pac 12 is not really a high major, but more of a in between league for basketball similar to the American, and if the talent is able to be consolidated by the Mountain West stealing away one to three of the top teams in the WCC the Pac 12 can and will be passed for good as the best college basketball league out west.
By: Ethan Hennessy
Picture Credit: DailyDoseofSports.wordpress.com