Before the selection show began, Lorenzo Romar told his team to prepare for disappointment.
It was March 2012, and the Washington Huskies had won the Pac-12 regular season championship with a 14-4 league record. They were 21-10 overall. But they had so few quality victories — and, just as importantly, the rest of the Pac-12 had so few quality victories — that their league championship meant nothing to the selection committee. And, as Romar figured, the Huskies were left out of the tournament field.
He brought that up again Thursday by way of comparison. This year, he said, couldn’t be more different than that disastrous 2011-12 season.
“I would think it’s the complete opposite now,” Romar said, “(and) that there are many quality wins and high RPIs — good RPIs. And so there’s no question in my mind that there will be a number of teams from our league in the tournament.”
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Such a statement can be made with confidence based simply on the Pac-12’s nonconference record. Several league teams have already claimed significant victories. UCLA took down then-No. 1 Kentucky, and won at Gonzaga. Utah beat Duke at Madison Square Garden. Arizona State beat Texas A&M at home and won at Creighton and UNLV. Arizona won at Gonzaga. Oregon beat Baylor. USC beat Wichita State.
Indeed, times have changed. ESPN’s RPI rankings list 10 Pac-12 teams in the top 71, and seven in the top 50. RealTimeRPI lists the Pac-12 as the No. 2 conference in the nation, a mere .0038 of a point behind the Big 12 for the top spot. Six teams enter league play with two or fewer losses, and two others have lost only three games. No team has lost more than four.
“I think we have a strong top, an equally strong middle, and whoever finishes at the bottom, I think they’ll be among the better bottom teams that have finished in the Pac-12 in recent seasons,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose Wildcats own a 12-1 record and are ranked eighth nationally as league play begins this weekend.
Arizona, the preseason favorite and reigning Pac-12 champion, still looks like a reasonable pick to win the conference title, though that race appears more open than it did a year ago.
Despite losing Delon Wright, Utah again looks like a top-20 team, led by the interior presence of 7-foot sophomore Jakob Poeltl and an experienced core that includes Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor. UCLA recovered from early losses to Monmouth, Kansas and Wake Forest to beat Kentucky and Gonzaga, and the Bruins have assembled perhaps the league’s most offensively potent starting five. Oregon looks competitive again. So does Colorado. California and Washington are young but talented. USC, which finished in last place last season, has a far more athletic roster and carries an 11-2 record into the first weekend of Pac-12 play.
Four teams — Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Utah — received NCAA tournament bids in 2015. It seems likely the league will surpass that number in 2016.
“I think we’ve had some marquee wins as a conference, which is important,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “As you look down from top to bottom, there’s not an easy team on the schedule.”
Washington, Stanford and Washington State each have four losses — so does UCLA, but the Bruins have played a considerably more difficult schedule, for which they will likely be rewarded — and seem to be in need of the most improvement.
But the league’s national profile is such that any team could vault into NCAA tournament contention with a strong Pac-12 season. As Romar knows, that wasn’t the case four years ago.
“You fight like cats and dogs during the conference,” Romar said, “but in the nonconference, everyone’s pulling for everyone. We want everyone to go undefeated in the nonconference for that very reason. It helps your chances in March. So I’ve been pleased with how things have gone.”