I would venture to say that remarking upon the weakness of the Pac-12 in basketball has become something of an annual ritual, but that statement requires a qualification. It used to be that remarking upon the weakness of the Pac-10 was the annual ritual. Then the league went out and added two members: the Colorado Buffaloes and Utah Utes. As a result there's a new name to toss around when the topic of "weakest major conference" arises.
It didn't used to be this way, of course. As recently as three seasons ago the Pac-10 was a very strong basketball conference, one that sent no fewer than six of its 10 members to the NCAA tournament. But during the past two seasons combined, the league's seen a total of just six teams go dancing, and even that figure was achieved by the skin of the old Pac-10's teeth. USC made the newly expanded tournament field last year as a First Four entrant. Most projections for 2012 envision just two teams from the new Pac-12 making the NCAA tournament: the Washington Huskies and California Golden Bears. The Pac-12 is indeed "down."
Just how weak is the league this season? People who write pieces for places like ESPN Insider (ahem) like to toss around metric-backed statements like: The Pac-12 in 2012 is the weakest major conference we've seen in years.
Well, that statement is literally true. The league does indeed sport the lowest Pomeroy rating, by far, of any major conference over the past five seasons.
But let's crack that number open, shall we? The problem with comparing entire conferences to other entire conferences is that you always end up measuring teams that few people are watching -- in this case teams like the Arizona State Sun Devils, USC Trojans and especially Utah. Those programs this season are aberrantly, extremely and even historically weak considering they play basketball as members of a major conference.
The Sun Devils are rebuilding, the Trojans have been decimated by injuries, and the Utes are a different case entirely.
There's a lot of happenstance at work when a major-conference program like Utah rates out at merely the level of an average team from a low-low-mid-major league. The Utes were brought to the conference for all the usual reasons: geography, demographics, football ... every reason under the sun except, of course, basketball. And as chance would have it, the Pac-12 caught Utah at the precise moment when its basketball program had reached absolute rock bottom.
The fact that roughly 8 percent of all Pac-12 possessions have been played by a team as bad as Utah has wreaked some serious statistical damage on the league as a whole. Think of it this way: DePaul looks like a perennially weak team to observers of the Big East, but in terms of its standing within Division I, the Blue Demons are head and shoulders above the team from Salt Lake City.
But what of the best teams in the Pac-12?