Of all the major conferences in men’s college basketball, the PAC-12 is easily the most underachieving of them all. While the conference is currently being led by #3 Arizona, the drop off after the Wildcats is significant. In fact, the PAC-12 has no other currently ranked teams to challenge Arizona’s rule atop the standings. The only team outside of Arizona that has a hope of breaking into the rankings would be UCLA, who in the latest polls was listed in the “others receiving votes” section.
Arizona should hope that UCLA can make a run, if only to bolster respect for the PAC-12. Without any other teams that have earned national respect, it might be difficult for the Wildcats to compile a resume that stacks up against the other top teams, not to mention the detrimental aspects of not being challenged throughout the year. Even with their lofty ranking, it seems that the consensus on Arizona is that their dreams of a national title died when they lost star forward Brandon Ashley.
Currently, The Big 10 has five ranked teams–#14 Wisconsin, #16 Michigan, #18 Michigan State, #20 Iowa, and #22 Ohio State—that all fall within a span of nine spots. While none of these teams are in the top ten, the grueling battles that they endure on a nightly basis will have them each prepared for a rough tournament run, if their season should come down to the final minutes.
The ACC has four ranked teams–#4 Syracuse, #6 Duke, #12 Virginia, and #19 North Carolina—with two of them being ranked in the top six teams in the nation. Syracuse and Duke have already posted two of the best games of the season to date, splitting their series in controversial fashion.
The Big 12 offers three teams currently ranked–#5 Kansas, #15 Iowa State, and #24 Texas. Of these, Kansas is probably the only viable title contender, but the presence of the other teams shows that the league is not nearly as individually top-heavy as the PAC-12.
Even the Big East, despite losing core teams like Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Connecticut to conference realignment, has two teams ranked in the top ten–#8 Villanova and #9 Creighton. While these teams do not carry the name recognition of a Duke or a Kansas, they both have the capability to catch fire and put points on the board in a hurry. Their style of play, coupled with the fact that they will be battling for the conference crown all season, makes them a tournament threat regardless of who they are matched up against.
Lastly, the football-obsessed SEC currently has two ranked teams–#1 Florida and #17 Kentucky—with one of them being the top team in the country. When fans of basketball think of power conferences, they rarely think of the SEC, yet these two teams alone give the SEC a reason to be confident that they will have a representative go deep into the tournament each year.
The degradation of the PAC-12 has been steadily occurring over the past five years. You have to look back to the 2008 tournament to find a PAC-12 team in the Final Four, as UCLA (led by Kevin Love) fell to championship runner-up Memphis. As a conference, the PAC-12 enjoyed a respectable showing that season, as Washington State and Stanford also made the Sweet Sixteen, while USC and Oregon were selected for the tournament but lost in the first round.
Beginning in 2009, the PAC-12 has been haunted by disappointing exits from a variety of its schools. That year, five teams again made the tournament. Arizona reached the Sweet Sixteen, while the quartet of UCLA, Washington, Arizona State, and USC fell in the Round of 32. California also suffered a first round exit in 2009.
The following year, the conference only sent two teams to the tournament, as Washington reached the Sweet Sixteen and California lost in the Round of 32.
2011 saw a spark of life from Arizona, as the Wildcats reached the Elite Eight, but both UCLA and Washington lost in the Round of 32.
The lowest point for the conference as a whole came just two seasons ago, as only Colorado made the field and promptly lost in the Round of 32.
Last year, despite the excitement of Oregon and Arizona both reaching the Sweet Sixteen, the conference’s other three teams fell short as California reached the Round of 32 and both Colorado and UCLA lost in the first round.
If you are scoring from home, in the five full tournaments since the PAC-12 saw UCLA reach the Final Four, while also seeing Washington State and Stanford reach the Sweet Sixteen, the conference has a combined tournament record of 20-17. While this is not horrible, the numbers are bolstered by the only school that has achieved consistency over that span—Arizona. If we remove the Wildcats (and their 7-3 record) from the combined tournament record, we see that from 2009-2013 the conference has a record of 13-14.
The PAC-12, mainly due to the success of UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden, has a long history of excellence. Yet, of their sixteen national championships in men’s basketball (11 of which belong to UCLA, and one that belongs to Utah before they joined the conference) only two have come in the last 39 years. It has now been seventeen seasons since Lute Olsen guided Arizona to the 1997 title, and the PAC-12 still leans on the little bit of tradition that the Wildcats have maintained since that season.
With the legend of the old UCLA teams, the weather of California, and the only threat to recruiting in the entire Northwest being Gonzaga, the PAC-12 has no excuse for their poor showing as a whole. Sadly, this season doesn’t promise much better, as Arizona seems to once again be the class of the conference even with the loss of their best player early in the season.
If the PAC-12 ends up gaining any respect this tournament season, it will be on the shoulders of one of the least “Pacific” teams in the conference.