Pac-12 basketball returns to national relevance with new coaches, smarter scheduling

A season ago, the last place team in the Pac-12 featured a nonconference resume highlighted by a home win over the 116th team in NET.

This season's last-place team defeated No. 2 Baylor in a neutral-site game.

The most maligned power conference in college basketball over the last two seasons may not have a dominant team this season. But the Pac-12 finally has a middle class again, and its lower-tier is benefitting from an influx of new coaches and talent that is lifting the overall fortunes of a league that slipped into national irrelevance in 2018 and 2019.

This week began with the Pac-12 locked in the tightest race in the country, with just one game separating the top five teams in the league. Six teams have at least shared a tie for the conference lead over the last eight weeks, and six enter Thursday's action as projected entrants to NCAA Tournament by CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm. A seventh, UCLA, has emerged on the bubble with nine wins in its past 11 games under first-year coach Mick Cronin.

"Definitely, the league is better," Colorado coach Tad Boyle told CBS Sports. "It's more balanced and it's stronger throughout."

And in some ways, the league is a year ahead of schedule. After two straight seasons of sending just three teams to the NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 CEO Group voted last year to implement scheduling standards starting with the 2020-21 season.

Pac-12 Bracketology

After placing just three teams in the NCAA Tournament for the past two seasons, the Pac-12 has six teams in the bracket as of now, with another team on the bubble, according to the latest latest edition of Jerry Palm's Bracketology. Here are the Pac-12 teams projected to make this year's NCAA Tournament and their projected seeds.

  • No. 4 seed: Oregon (21-7)
  • No. 5 seed: Colorado (21-7)
  • No. 7 seed: Arizona (19-8)
  • No. 8 seed: Arizona State (19-8)
  • No. 10 seed: USC (19-9)
  • No. 11 seed: Stanford (18-9)
  • On the bubble: UCLA (17-11)

The headliner is that the league is moving from 18 to 20 conference games like the ACC and Big Ten have done. Other changes include that, over a five-year span, the average NET ranking of each team's nonconference opponents must be 175 or better. Teams will also be barred from playing in road "buy" games, playing non-Division I opponents in the regular season and from playing road games against nonconference foes with a five-year average NET ranking of 200 or worse.

Those measures are designed to create a floor for the league's scheduling practices. But the metric that Pac-12 officials are advising their teams to pursue won't officially go on the books anywhere. That number is a 75% winning percentage in nonconference games, and the league is making strides toward reaching it.

Deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said the league studied metrics that coincided success for conferences and found that the leagues sending the most teams to the NCAA Tournament were collectively winning close to 75% of their nonleague games. 

The three major conferences that reached that mark last season (Big 12, Big Ten and ACC) sent 21 of their combined 39 teams to the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 finished last among the top seven leagues in nonconference winning percentage at 60.6% and sent just three teams.

But this season, Pac-12 teams are 113-40 in such games, good for a winning percentage of 73.9. Every team except Cal entered conference play with a better than .500 record against Division I teams in nonconference play.

Zaninovich said the league acts in an advisory capacity when it comes to nonconference scheduling. Ultimately, it's up to each school to make a schedule that sets itself — and the league — up for success. To avoid sacrificing strength of schedule in pursuit of the 75% winning percentage, the league suggests that teams in rebuilding mode schedule lighter while teams with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations assemble more challenging slates.

Programs appear to be following that advice. Colorado, Oregon and Arizona -- the three Pac-12 teams ranked highest in the NET -- have schedules ranked among the 10 toughest in the country, per NCAA Stats.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that those three programs are run by the only three coaches in the league who have been leading their programs for a decade or longer. Meanwhile, all three schools with new coaches -- Cal, Washington State and UCLA -- have already improved on their conference win totals from last season.

"The Pac-12 is always going to have one or two or three teams that are very good and very talented," Boyle said. "To me, where it shows is in the middle of the league and certainly at the lower end of the league. When you look at our league this year, Washington State and Cal were both picked 11th and 12th when the season started. But they both hired new coaches who are good coaches and have kind of given their programs a boost, a shot in their arm. They're competitive. It's bolstered the bottom half of the league, it has. Then Mick Cronin comes in and has got UCLA turned around. They're playing as good as anybody in the country right now."

And then there's Washington, which landed two of the top-10 prospects in the class of 2019, according to 247Sports. But even with NBA Draft prospects Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, the Huskies have struggled since losing point guard Quade Green to academic issues after 15 games. Washington still has a season-opening victory against Baylor to its credit.

"They've lost a lot of close games and they're not a last place team because they're very, very talented," Boyle said. "But that just gives you an idea of how good our league is, when the last place team has beaten Baylor. It tells your what you're in for night in and night out."

Ultimately, most agree the fortunes of power conferences are largely cyclical. A season after both placed seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, the SEC and ACC will need strong finishes to avoid significant drop-offs in those totals this year.

Meanwhile, just two years after its teams went a combined 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 is back in position to take some of the bids that those leagues leave on the table thanks to some fresh blood and smarter scheduling.

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