Now that the field is set, we know for certain that the Pac-12 regular season champion Washington Huskies will be playing on ESPN2 and not CBS. They'll be playing in the Not Invited Tournament and not the Big Dance, and the reason for that is that winning the Pac-12/Pac-10 simply isn't what it used to be.
Overall records of 20+ wins used to be considered "good enough" or close to it, back when the UCLA Bruins and Arizona Wildcats were considered powerhouses of college basketball. But simply winning 20 games or even winning the regular season title of a conference that's starting to look very "mid-major-esque" won't guarantee you a spot on the most important bracket of them all. Is it fair?
The Pac-12 might have only had one team worthy of an automatic berth and that was the California Golden Bears, a team that earned a 12 seed and a play-in game. Cal went 24-9, 13-5 in conference, and they lost non-conference games to tourney teams Missouri, UNLV, and San Diego State with a win over Weber State. However, they started the Pac-12 season with a 4-point win over USC, a conference team that went 1-17 in the Pac-12 and finished 245th in Kenpom's rankings.
Furman, Campbell, and Stetson isn't a law firm, it's the name of the three teams ranked ahead of USC in Pomeroy's rankings.
Southern California and Utah (303 in Kenpom) represent the bottom of the Pac-12 and at the top of the conference is Cal, 29th in Kenpom and 38th in the RPI. That's the best that the Pac-12 had to offer. Cal didn't have a top 60 RPI win this season and they lost to six teams outside of the top 60. Think the Huskies are better?
Well, besides the fact that Washington lost to Cal at home, Kenpom has the Huskies as the 6th best team in the Pac-12. UW did go 14-4 in conference, but they were 70th in RPI, 67th in Kenpom, and had no top 60 RPI wins with five losses to teams outside of the top 60. The absolute best mark on their resume is close losses to Duke, Marquette, and Cal. If they had won one of those games or won a single game in the Pac-12 tournament, their fortunes could be different. But they're not.
The Oregon Ducks finished third in the conference and won't be dancing after a 13-5 Pac-12 record. That's because they're 64th in the RPI, 63rd in Kenpom, and don't have a top 60 RPI win. UCLA, Oregon, Washington, and Cal combined to go 0-19 against teams in the top 60 of the RPI. The conference tournament champion Colorado Buffaloes went 2-3 against the top 60. Those wins? Both over Cal.
It's hard to imagine that the Pac-12 would become a mid-major in basketball after fairly recent championships by Arizona and UCLA, and successful runs by Washington, Stanford, and Washington State, but it's easy to understand when you look around and see that none of these teams can boast a high-quality non-conference win. There is no bias when you consider the fact that the best team in the conference is California, and they might not even make the final 64. That Colorado was good enough to win the Pac-12 tournament, and they aren't that good.
The Huskies boast a lot of talent, but they weren't able to show it on the court despite playing in the worst major conference in the nation. The entire western coast of the continental United States will be best represented by teams named Gonzaga, San Diego State, and Saint Mary's, with the West Coast Conference making a mockery of the "big major" Pac-12. (BYU will be the third representative for the WCC, while SD State represents the Mountain West.)
The San Diego State Aztecs alone had six top 60 RPI wins, more than the entire Pac-12 combined.
There is no excuse that the Huskies, or any other team in the Pac-12 for that matter, can make to persuade the tournament committee to award them an automatic berth. The teams, and the conference as a whole, have only one solution towards getting that respect: Get Better. The basketball in the conference simply has to be much better than it has been in recent years. It can't be blamed on players bolting for the NBA or a lack of talent in California or Washington, the teams just have to start playing better basketball and that's when they'll start to deserve the respect necessary to get an automatic berth.
Until then, we'll just have to keep rooting for the other "mid-majors."
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