Productive Cannibalism: The Curious Case Of The Pac-12

As a native of Phoenix and a resident of Seattle, I've spent my whole life in Pac-12 country. Because the games start later out here in the West, and because a college sports fan here just doesn't wield as much clout as in other parts of the country (because your typical Westerner is a little more concerned about getting out and biking, swimming, or mountain climbing — this makes me an atypical member of the tribe, by the way), it's easy for the Pac-12 to be dismissed as second-tier, to not be accorded the weight of respect it deserves. When the Pac-12 doesn't get its due in football or in hoops, you're going to hear from me about it.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the Pac-12 should receive undue praise, either.

One of the biggest debates running through College Basketball Twitter and the College Basketball Internet is, "How weak is this bubble? Is it really as weak as many have been claiming it is?" It's true that several teams have been winning their way into the tourrnament the past week, making the bubble stronger and thereby undercutting the argument that this bubble is historically soft. Yet, as someone who has Pac-12 Network on his cable package, I've been able to watch plenty of Pac-12 basketball this season, which enables me to plant my flag on the bubble argument and insist that, yes, this is one of the weakest — if not the weakest — bubbles I can remember. The Pac-12 forms the central pillar of a "weak bubble" position.

Let's get one thing straight here: This is not meant to say that the ACC is better than the Pac-12 (because it's not… not with all those below-average teams in a bloated 15-team arrangement). This year's ACC is not what the Big East was in 2011, though that's precisely what the ACC is aspiring to become on the basketball court.

This piece is also not attempting to say that the Pac-12's six or seven NCAA tournament hopefuls won't get into the field — they almost certainly will, with California and Stanford taking huge steps toward tournament inclusion by winning one-point home games on Saturday against Colorado and Utah. This is not a traditional bubble exercise of "eye test versus RPI," because in a traditional bubble evaluation, the resume is what should necessarily count. The body of work should always be the measure of a team — you play whom you play, you beat whom you beat, and if other bubble teams don't have as many compelling achievements on the slate, you get in, even if you didn't do anything special. 

It's a point of emphasis I frequently use in my commentary, especially on Twitter: Much as teams often "avoid losing" more than they "win," some bubble teams don't necessarily offer a "superior" resume when compared to other teams; they just have fewer warts on it. Team A might not get in over Team B because it impressed so many people on the selection committee; the more accurate answer is sometimes that Team B impressed fewer people.

Therein lies the curious case of the Pac-12 in the 2013-2014 men's basketball season, and why this conference — following the messy events of Saturday night — will probably get seven teams into the Dance, but only one of them seeded higher than seventh (maybe eight).

The Pac-12 is better than it was in 2010 and 2012. In those two seasons, watching Pac-12 ball was as enjoyable as a root canal. Accordingly, the league put only two teams in the NCAAs those years. This year, the league is better, but it's not where it was in the Stanford-Arizona-Oregon-USC-UCLA glory years of 1998-2003 (with Cal making the Sweet 16 in 1997 as well), and it's not where the league was in 2005, with Washington being a No. 1 seed and Arizona — despite winning the regular season title — being one of the strongest 3 seeds in history. The Pac-12's last truly impressive season came in 2008, when UCLA was the big dog, but Stanford and Washington State were strong, no-joke Sweet 16 teams. USC — coached by the gifted but lawless Tim Floyd — actually played decent basketball.

For whatever reason, Pac-12 hoops is still searching for the strength and quality depth it once possessed. Since 2008, really good basketball has just not been found in copious quantities in this league. One team — such as this year's Arizona squad — might bring the heat, but that's been a rarity over the past six seasons.

Get this: Since the 2008-2009 season, the Pac-12 has produced one team seeded higher than fifth in the Big Dance (Washington, 2009). Arizona will become the second one on Selection Sunday. Whereas other conferences often seem to engage in destructive cannibalism — everyone beats each other up to the point that title contenders or (perhaps) Elite Eight hopefuls get knocked down to lower seeds — the Pac-12 engages in "productive cannibalism," in which a soft middle trades wins in such equal proportion that while no team becomes great, no team becomes really bad, either. RPI numbers retain a certain degree of heft, even if overall resumes lack the eye-popping wins that reflect a stronger bubble. 

This is a great research topic for the offseason, and it definitely deserves more examination over the years and decades, but at first glance, the 2013-2014 Pac-12 season is a case study in "productive cannibalism," a perfect storm in which opportunities and successes have been distributed so evenly that seven conference teams will probably make the field of 68, all while doing very little of note.

The case for a weak bubble and the Pac-12's place at the heart of it begins with this fact: Among non-Arizona NCAA tournament contenders (because Arizona transcends its conference in much the same way that Florida transcends the awful SEC), the Pac-12 boasts only one top-25 RPI win in non-conference play: Colorado over Kansas. That result, of course, was attained before CU star Spencer Dinwiddie went down with an injury. Does this mean Colorado got a terrible break? Of course. Does this still mean, though, that Colorado's quality should be seen as better than it is? No — the Buffaloes should be given quite a lot of empathy, and they have persevered rather well in the face of such misfortune, but in terms of high-quality basketball, has CU provided a raw work product that jumps off the page and impresses an observer? Not exactly.

Show me Arizona State's best non-conference win. Show me California's best non-conference win. Show me Oregon's best non-conference win. Show me UCLA's best non-conference win. Stanford went out and beat Connecticut on the road, the reason the Cardinal will probably make the field even if they lose in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament (though it would be close). For the most part, though, the non-Arizona teams in the Pac-12 don't have a lot of there there. Not a single team in that group — with the exception of Oregon — is currently playing anywhere close to a high level right now.

Pac-12 games — and more specifically, the bubble games in the league — are cringe-fests. Utah tried to blow a lead at Cal on Wednesday night and almost succeeded. Stanford missed five of six foul shots in the closing minutes against Utah on Saturday, only for the Utes to once again bog down in a late-game possession. Cal wobbled before rescuing itself at home against a Dinwiddie-free Colorado team that carried the run of play most of the way. Arizona State lost at Oregon State. UCLA didn't give two flying fire trucks about its game at Washington State, getting drilled by 18. Where's the meat on the bone in this league? Former UCLA big man Josh Smith wants to know.

Here's how "productive cannibalism" has worked for the Pac-12 in 2014:

In a league with one great team and then a bunch of mid- or low-level seeds, a set of relatively unimpressive teams (not compared to the rest of the bubble field, mind you — just unimpressive in general; remember that point of emphasis here) manages to pick off that one great team just enough times to matter.

Cal and Arizona State grabbed Arizona when the Wildcats were still learning how to play without Brandon Ashley. By all means, give the Bears and Sun Devils credit for being opportunistic. Yet, while giving credit to Cal and ASU, also acknowledge that without that huge poker chip of a victory, those two teams would be on the middle of the bubble at best, quite possibly on the bad side of the bubble. The Bears and Sun Devils cannibalized Arizona at home, taking advantage of a small window of opportunity.

On a broader level, the league has simply managed to distribute its wins quite evenly, with most of the league's non-Arizona NCAA tournament teams splitting games at home and on the road. Colorado split with Arizona State. Arizona State split with Stanford and Oregon. UCLA split with Stanford and Oregon as well. Cal split with Stanford. None of these cases even involve Utah, the eighth-best team in the Pac and a team that has fallen to the periphery of the bubble conversation despite a collection of four top-50 RPI wins. Three of those four wins have come — presto! — against non-Arizona members of the Pac-12. In fact, as of this morning (Sunday, March 9), Utah's four top-50 wins are all top-38 wins. That sounds like high-level quality, doesn't it?

Yet, if you've seen the disparity between "Home Utah" and "Road Utah" this season, you wouldn't walk away being impressed with the Utes, much as you wouldn't be impressed with any non-Arizona Pac-12 team on a larger level.

Will and should their various resumes get these teams into the NCAAs? Yes.

Has the level of basketball in the Pac-12 been impressive on a level commensurate with the reality that this league will get at least six, possibly seven, teams into the field of 68? You be the judge.

I call this productive cannibalism. I call it "good mediocrity."

It's not "mediocrity." No, it's something better than that… but don't tell me it's excellence. This isn't 2008 or 2001 in the Pac-12.

Strong bubble? With this kind of RPI-flavored special sauce? Please.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.