As the Pac-12 Tournament starts, let's take a look at why the only team guaranteed to make the NCAA Tournament is the squad that wins the Conference Championship Game on Saturday.
The Pacific-12 Men's Basketball Tournament is starting on Wednesday, and while it should bring the bubble drama, it won't feature several well-respected teams. The shine is off the Pac-12, to the point where their Conference RPI ranking of 10th is surprising due to how high it is. The West Coast Conference comes in at 11th, but the better teams appear to play in the WCC.
Top Pac-12 and WCC teams, based on RPI (Strength of Schedule in parentheses)
23. Gonzaga (74)
25. St. Mary's (104)
37. California (94)
46. BYU (96)
51. Oregon (90)
54. Washington (82)
A couple things jump out if you peruse the RPI and strength of schedule.
First, none of these teams played anybody outside of conference. The teams that challenged themselves the most this year were Portland, with a SOS of 67 (and finished 7-24 and lost by 24 at Kentucky) and Utah at 68 (they head into the Pac-12 tourney at 6-24 and lost by 28 to Harvard). Teams in the WCC have a hard time scheduling tough non-conference opponents, because teams from the higher profile conferences have no incentive to schedule home-and-home series with teams like St. Mary's. The Pac-12 squads get a few more chances to prove themselves against better teams before the season starts, but the conference is so bad, it takes down every team's strength of schedule rating.
Second, 10 different conferences had two teams with higher RPIs than the California Golden Bears, including the Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, and the WCC. Teams ranked just ahead of Cal at No. 35 and 36? Noted powers Long Beach State and Harvard.
The Pac-12 used to be somewhat underrated heading into the NCAA Tournament, then they'd send three or four teams to the Sweet 16. Now they'll be lucky to send three or four teams -- even two's a stretch, according to some -- to "The Dance." What happened?
There are many reasons why the Pac-12 looks up to mid-majors now, such as a poor TV exposure (yay, Fox!), several players such as Drew Gordon and Elston Turner transferring to schools in other conferences, and NCAA violations effectively killing USC's program -- or at least putting competitiveness on hiatus.
But to simplify matters, here are the two biggest reasons why the Pac-12 is so bad in 2012 after sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament each year from 2007-09.
1. Lute Left
While the fixation on celebrity coaches by certain announcers can be annoying (cough ... Dickie V. ... cough), legendary coaches keep teams at the top with stability and great recruiting. Lute Olson was the anchor of the Pac-10 during his 26-year run, winning 11 conference titles, five NCAA Regionals and one National Championship. Once Olson retired in 2008, the Pac-whatever hasn't seemed the same.
2. Bad Bruins
Ben Howland took blue chip talent and kept their offensive talent under wraps (only Howland could hold Russell Westbrook to 12.7 ppg as a sophomore). That's no crime compared to the lack of discipline that's plagued UCLA in the past few years, as detailed by Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann.
UCLA's fall has been something of a mystery. It has most often been blamed on players jumping early to the NBA (six Bruins have done so in the last four years, including Love and fellow first-round picks Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday), players transferring (five have departed) and even a supposed dearth of quality big men coming out of high schools on the West Coast. Inside the team, however, more fundamental problems have been at work, eroding the sense of unity, leading some players to leave the program and sending the blocks of Wooden's Pyramid tumbling down.
Over the last two months SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams. They portrayed the program as having drifted from the UCLA way as Howland allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale. Fistfights broke out among teammates. Several players routinely used alcohol and drugs, sometimes before practice. One player intentionally injured teammates but received no punishment.
Whether one blames Reeves Nelson, a shallow west coast talent pool or any of the other reasons listed above, the Pac-12 better remedy the situation quickly, or the Pac-12 Network will have trouble getting ratings a year from now.