The Pac-12 is undefeated at the Tournament: Does it mean anything?

Is west coast basketball finally on the upswing? And what does it mean for Cal's rebuilding project?

If you’re looking for Spring Game info, Rob’s got you covered. My summary? So many intriguing young defensive players, so few snaps!

The NCAA tournament selection committee faced a more challenging task than usual this year.

Most seasons, teams will play 12 or 13 non-conference games. Those games carry an outsized level of importance in the aggregate, because they essentially determine conference strength. When the Pac-12 does really well in the non-conference, then conference wins are extra valuable and you get, say, seven teams into the tournament like back in 2017. When the Pac-12 does really poorly in non-conference play, then conference losses hurt your resume and the conference only gets, say, 3 teams into the tournament, like back in 2019.

But this year there were barely any non-conference games period. Worse, because travel was hard most of the non-conference games the Pac-12 DID play were against local small conference teams - your Seattles, UC Riversides, or Idahos. Pac-12 teams played between four and seven non-conference games each, mostly against a collection of teams that were unlikely to impress the NCAA selection committee.

So with that context in mind, it’s not a huge surprise that the conference was lucky to get five teams into the tournament, mostly as low seeds for at-large picks. If Oregon State hadn’t gone on a (still-ongoing) miracle run, the Pac-12 likely would have only sent four teams to Indiana for the tournament. The other P5 conferences sent 9, 7, 7, and 6 respectively, and garnered significantly higher seeds as well.

I don’t necessarily blame the selection committee for underrating the Pac-12, precisely because of the lack of games mentioned above. But for those paying closer attention, there was already evidence that the Pac-12 was on the upswing after a pretty crummy three years stretch since that 2016 high water mark.

The tempo-free numbers at Kenpom and Torvik had the Pac-12 as more or less equal to the ACC, Big East, and SEC (the Pac-12 has now narrowly jumped ahead of all three thanks to their tournament performance) and within shouting distance of the Big-12.

Meanwhile, the conference clearly had a good mix of NBA level talent (Evan Mobley, Chris Duarte, Josh Christopher*) and proven returning veterans (McKinley Wright, Oscar Da Silva, Remy Martin*) that a more subjective look across the conference would indicate an improved level of play.

*That ASU struggled so badly this season with two players likely to get picked in the NBA draft is both an indictment of Bobby Hurley’s coaching AND an endorsement of how much better the rest of the conference is.

So while I’m more than surprised that Oregon State is getting ready for a Sweet 16 game vs. Loyola Chicago, I’m not particularly surprised that USC cruised past Drake, that UCLA has two wins, or that Colorado blitzed an overmatched Georgetown. Hell, all of that is collectively about the only thing my bracket has that’s correct so far. The top of the Pac-12 was legitimately good this year. Hell, Arizona might’ve been involved if they weren’t self-sanctioning, and Stanford might’ve made some noise if Oscar da Silva hadn’t gotten hurt.

Eh, Haase probably would’ve blown it anyway. But still, you get my point.

Thanks to this run of success, something interesting has been happening:

When a normal season is shortened and predictive tools are starved for data, a handful of games can have an outsized impact. Sure enough, Cal has risen from 136th to 125th in the Kenpom ratings entirely thanks to Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA, and USC.

We’re faced with something of a paradox. When Cal entered the Pac-12 tournament, their Kenpom ranking languished at 162, a touch worse than the 153 rank that Cal earned the year prior. Cal had taken a step backward in both the conference standings and in the tempo-free adjusted stats.

But then Cal crushed Stanford (the computers didn’t know that Oscar da Silva was still hurt) and gave Colorado an almighty scare. And then the rest of the conference went ham in Indiana, and all of sudden Cal is ranked 125th in Kenpom and 122nd in Torvik?!

Should we be reevaluating Cal’s 2020-21 season? Did the Bears in fact take a tiny step forward, but we couldn’t see it because the conference was quietly much tougher than we realized?

You probably won’t be surprised that I’d say yes and no. Clearly Cal’s season must be evaluated within the context of the Pac-12, and it’s clear that this was an up year for the conference. Beating Colorado and Stanford, and playing reasonably competitive games with UCLA, USC, and Oregon isn’t nothing. But the goal, ultimately, is to be competitive within the conference just the same, and on that measure Cal clearly came up short. If Cal had bested Washington and Washington State and pulled off a couple of those upset shots, then we’d be having a different conversation.

And the other problem is that the conference might still be on the upswing. We’ll have to see which players move on a which players stick around, but right now USC, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon all have good recruiting classes coming in. In any one game Cal could give a good team a scare, but in the aggregate Cal wasn’t competitive with the top half of the Pac-12. As of right now there’s not a good reason to think that the top half of the conference will take a step back next year. And as of right now there’s no expectation of Cal finalizing a 2021 class that would immediately make Cal more competitive with the top half of the conference either.

If you’re reading this on Monday morning, then later on today you’ll find out whether or not Colorado, Oregon, UCLA, and USC cash in on good chances to make the Sweet 16. USC, and UCLA are slight favorites to do just that, and I’d take the Buffs over Florida St. even if Vegas has them as 1.5 point underdogs. As a card carrying member of the West Coast Elite, seeing this Pac-12 resurgence has been fun, and I won’t deny that I’ll take any reason to try to mine some optimism about Cal basketball.

But it’s also been a reminder that Pac-12 teams can go on a run if the program is managed well and they get a little luck. And it’s a reminder that Cal is well removed from the last time they had a chance to make a run, and a long ways away from rebuilding such that it’s possible to make another run again.