The Pac-12 was the worst major conference by a mile last season. Early returns say things will be much different this year.
The Conference of Champions has posted a 23-3 record so far, with wins over Memphis (Oregon), Illinois (Arizona), Baylor (Washington), Iowa State (Oregon State), Nevada (Utah), and UNLV (Cal).
Its three losses weren’t bad, either. Washington State lost as a road underdog to Santa Clara, Oregon State was defeated by a good Oklahoma team in Portland, and Arizona State lost to Colorado in China, which is being counted as a non-conference game.
The Pac-12 currently has four teams ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2016-17 season. There were times last year when it had none.
Arizona coach Sean Miller saw this kind of improvement coming after Mick Cronin (UCLA), Mark Fox (Cal), and Kyle Smith (Washington State) were hired this offseason and some talented newcomers were sprinkled into the conference, alluding to Washington freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, who are both projected to be first-round picks in June’s NBA Draft.
“Well, if you would have asked me late in the summer, early fall, I would have told you that I think the Pac-12 this season will be deeper and better,” said Miller, who did say similar things before the start of the season. “We have some really good coaches in our conference, maybe the best group of coaches that we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. That’s not taking it away from any of the coaches that were once here and no longer, but I’m saying more one through 12, not just a few. Every program seems to have somebody (good) in charge of it. A couple of the new hires, those guys come from winning backgrounds, and they’re excellent at what they do. You can already see it.
“And I think we have some veterans that are returning, a good group of newcomers. I look at the newcomers at Oregon and Washington and they’re good teams. I mean, there’s a couple guys that are going to play in the NBA next year that are on their teams. So I think we have a talented conference, and in the non-conference season the days of cheering against each other have long ended.
“We want every team in our conference to win, and we want them to win the most games possible. And that’s only going to help Arizona, it’s only going to help our conference when we get into February and March. And I think we’re off to a good start. It’ll be interesting to see the rest of this month to play out.”
One thing that Miller probably liked to see is the new Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast challenge that will pit Colorado (TCU), Washington (Oklahoma) and Oregon (TBD) against Big 12 opponents in Las Vegas in 2020-21 and then again in Dallas in 2021-22.
That same year, Arizona, Arizona State, and USC will face Big East teams in Las Vegas, with the return games taking place in New York City in 2022-23.
The Pac-12 recently implemented new standards for non-conference scheduling as well. They are:
- no regular-season games against non-Division I opponents
- no road games against opponents with five-year NET ranking average worse than 200
- no road games where the Pac-12 team is the ‘buy’ opponent, i.e. they’re getting paid to play on the opponent’s home court in a one-off matchup
- a team’s entire non-conference slate can’t have a five-year NET ranking average below 175
“(Deputy commissioner) Jamie Zaninovich, he’s really worked hard with (commissioner) Larry Scott in the Pac-12 office to look hard at strategies and non-conference scheduling to educate not only our coaches, but the administrations in our league to make sure that they understand the value of that non conference, winning percentage, playing smart away games, smart home-and-home series,” Miller said. “We’re so much further up the ladder than maybe we used to be in terms of our overall thinking and we’re united. We have a conference that understands that we have to work together in the non-conference season.”
But it’s one thing to schedule tough games, it’s another to win them. So far, the Pac-12 is doing that too.
“I’m glad to see we’re off to a good start and hopefully we can continue and hopefully we can represent the Pac-12 and continue to do a good job,” Miller said. “This past weekend (against Illinois) was a Big Ten versus Pac-12 opportunity and we helped our conference, so we want to continue to do that.”
Arizona has non-conference games against Baylor, Gonzaga, St. John’s and potentially Wake Forest or Providence remaining depending how the Wooden Legacy shakes out.