Pac-12 Basketball Is Underrated and the RPI Computers Are to Blame

Peter JensenContributor IIIMarch 28, 2012

Had Stanford held on to beat Syracuse in the Garden, the whole perception of college hoops could be different
Had Stanford held on to beat Syracuse in the Garden, the whole perception of college hoops could be differentPatrick McDermott/Getty Images

Pac-12 basketball became a punch line toward the end of the 2012 college basketball season. In fact, ever since December 2010, the Pac-12 has been practically considered a mid-major conference in college basketball.

The Pac-12 had the 10th—no, that is not a typo—the 10th highest conference RPI ranking at the end of the 2012 season. So according to the all-powerful RPI, the Pac-12 is basically an average mid-major conference. 

The RPI computers, which only rank teams based on who they have played and whether they won or lost, heavily influence the college basketball rankings and all but completely determine the decisions of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. That powerful computer has had Pac-12 teams vastly underrated since early in the season. 

There were a couple of games early in the season in which Pac-12 teams barely lost on trips to the East Coast. Had the Pac-12 teams won, their RPI ranking would be much higher and entire perception of the conference and possibly college basketball in general for 2012 would be different. 

Stanford barely lost to Syracuse in New York City in the finals of the Preseason NIT. It was virtually a road game for Stanford. Syracuse, which ended up at No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, trailed Stanford for the first 36 minutes of that November game.

In the middle of January, when Stanford was 13-2 and didn't have a single vote in the AP or coaches poll, I knew the RPI of the Pac-12 had to be catastrophically low and therefore there would be little chance of the conference placing more than two teams in the NCAA Tournament.  

Don't believe the hype about west coast basketball being soft. If Marquette would have gone to Seattle, it would probably have been more physical
Don't believe the hype about west coast basketball being soft. If Marquette would have gone to Seattle, it would probably have been more physical

There were also a few other deal-breaker games for the conference. On Dec. 7, Arizona lost at Florida in overtime. Florida may have coughed away a trip to the The Final Four last weekend, but the Gators are undoubtedly one of the nation's best teams.

On Dec. 6, the night before the Florida-Arizona game, Washington lost to Marquette in Madison Square Garden when Marquette made a fade-away 3-point shot with five seconds left. Marquette finished second behind Syracuse in the Big East.

So to recap: The top two teams from the Big East, a league that placed nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, nearly lost early in the season to two Pac-12 teams that didn't even get considered for tournament berths. And both Big East teams had the home-court advantage in those games. 

Also, back in December, there was an ACC team that was actually willing to travel out west. And they lost.

Stanford defeated North Carolina State on Dec. 4 in Palo Alto. N.C. State finished with a worse overall record than Stanford. However, unlike Stanford, the Wolfpack not only made the NCAA Tournament, they reached the Sweet 16. 

If those three close Pac-12 losses would have been played out west, the Pac-12 teams more than likely would have won and the RPI rankings would have been vastly different.

Just to give a hint as to how much Vegas takes home court into consideration: The CBI tournament has a best two-out-of-three series to determine its champion. The first game is played at the lower-seeded team and the next two at the higher-seeded team.

Washington State was home for Game 1 on Monday night and was a one-point favorite. The Cougars  by one point. Vegas was pretty spot on with that one. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, and Pitt is a 9.5-point favorite. So in this instance, Vegas considers home-court advantage to be a 10.5-point swing. 

Oregon also was playing lights-out basketball at the end of the season. Just like Washington, Arizona and Stanford, I believe the Ducks had a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth.

All four of those Pac-12 teams had more than 20 wins and were playing winning basketball over the last two months of the season. It wasn't too long ago that the Pac-10 was sending six of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament. In 2009, Arizona was 8-10 in conference and received a bid to The Big Dance.

But in 2012, Big East teams like UConn, which lost 10 of its last 15 games, received a bid to the tournament over the Pac-12 champion of the regular season.  

As for now, the  Pac-12 is 9-2 versus other conferences in the NIT Tournament after Washington lost to Minnesota in overtime in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night. Oregon lost at Washington by two points in the previous round, so that is why I had to specify versus other conferences. 

As for the NCAA Tournament,  the Pac-12 had 1.5 teams in the field. I say 1.5 because you still have to win the game in the First Four to make the field of 64. Cal getting embarrassed by South Florida didn't seem to help the conference's cause. However, the few Pac-12 teams in the tournament over the last two years actually represented themselves quite well. 

To put things in perspective against college basketball's golden child conference, the Big East placed nine teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 while the Pac-12 placed two in 2010. In 2011, The Big East sent 11 teams while the Pac-12 placed 3.5.

In both of those tournaments, there was a game that featured the only team left from the Pac-12 vs. the only team left from the Big East.

In 2010, it was West Virginia vs. Washington in the Sweet 16. Last year, it was Arizona's heart-breaking loss to UConn in the Elite Eight. (That was a game in which Arizona jumped out to an early  lead before Derrick Williams picked up his third foul.)

So to recap, in 2010 and 2011, the Big East put 20 teams in the NCAA Tournament while the Pac-10 placed 5.5. But 18 of the 20 Big East teams got bounced just as quickly as three of the five Pac-12 teams did. Each league had one team left at one point. 

Come to think of it, 2010 seems to be when the tournament began giving a bid to every Big East team with a pulse and simultaneously started awarding very few bids to the Pac-12. 

Is there a correlation between the two?