Pac-12 men’s basketball largely underrated nationally despite depth, quality of conference

It’s almost March, which means it’s time to start the top-seed speculations and bubble squabbles for which teams should make the Big Dance.

What goes down on Selection Sunday is one of the most polarizing and perplexing moments in sports. No one really knows or wants to take the time to figure out how the selection committee operates, but one thing is for certain: The debate will rage on.

I, however, refuse to take part in that debate because, for all intents and purposes, it is fruitless. The selection committee will do its thing regardless of who was snubbed and how much outcry there is in the media.

 

 

Instead, I find it more productive to point out the lack of interest in West Coast basketball, which is manifested in the lack of national television appearances and national television viewers the Pac-12 and its regions draw.

A recent press release from ESPN showed that through Jan. 9, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU televised a total of 249 NCAA Division I men’s college basketball games. Of the 56 metered markets tracked by ESPN (including Phoenix and Los Angeles), the closest to a Pac-12 market in the top 30 markets (meaning markets that garnered the most viewers) was Las Vegas, which was tied for 23rd with five other markets.

Markets like Tulsa, Okla., Richmond, Va. and Dayton, Ohio, were all in the top 30, even though two of those markets (Dayton and Tulsa) haven’t had a team in the AP Top 25 all season. Tulsa is barely over .500, while Dayton and Richmond don’t have 20 wins.

Now you might say the diversity of sports entertainment (and things to do in general) in places like Los Angeles and Phoenix detract from the amount of viewers of Pac-12 basketball. There’s nothing else to do in Tulsa or Dayton, right?

Well, there are also a lot less people in those markets, and the programs in those markets have won a total of zero national championships.

Meanwhile, ESPN and CBS continue to fill their prime time and weekend programming with teams from the ACC and the Big Ten while the competition and high level of basketball being played out west goes largely unnoticed.

Before the season began, ASU coach Herb Sendek said he thought that the Pac-12 might be the best conference in the nation. At the time, I thought he was being a little (or a lot) hyperbolic. But now, with two weeks left in conference play, it’s a sentiment he continues to reiterate and I’m pretty convinced he might be right.

For starters, Joe Lunardi’s bracketology breakdown has six Pac-12 teams in the tournament as of Monday, Feb. 24, including ASU with a No. 9 seed. That’s after the Sun Devils fell to Colorado and were blown out by Utah during the weekend.

The only conference with more teams in the dance according to Lunardi is the Big 12 with seven. Meanwhile, USA TODAY has similar numbers, but in its projection ASU has an eight seed. According to CBS Sports, the Pac-12 has the third-best conference RPI and is ahead of the ACC.

The Pac-12 could finish with eight 20-win teams, which should be just about the same number as the ACC (the Pac-12 has three less teams total) and the Big-12.

And while the Pac-12 might not have a rivalry as heated as Duke and North Carolina, it does have a rich history.

This history includes the team with the most NCAA Division I championships (11) and the most Final Four appearances in UCLA. In fact, UCLA has won just one less national championship than all of the ACC put together (12, not including Syracuse, which won its championship before joining the ACC).

Now I know that this might seem heavily weighted toward one team (UCLA, whose success came many years ago), but North Carolina and Duke account for nine of the ACC’s 12 championships so arguing that the ACC is the best conference based on two powerhouses isn’t completely convincing, either.

And let’s not forget about the storied Pac-12 tradition down south (as if UA fans would let us forget), along with up-and-coming programs like Oregon, dubbed the University of Nike with its gaudy facilities and ability to attract high-talent recruits and Colorado, where home court advantage is the real deal (The Buffaloes are 16-2 at home this season).

This season alone, Utah took No. 3 UA to overtime and Oregon took then-No. 1 UA to the last possession. Meanwhile, Cal managed to beat the Wildcats in a wild finish and ASU did the same in an arguably even wilder finish, so it’s not like all of the games are duds or the conference is top heavy.

So what is it about the Pac-12 that doesn’t seem to draw viewers, even in its own regions? Your guess is as good as mine, but if several teams make runs in this year’s tournament, that could all change.

Let’s hope.

Reach the columnist at npmendo@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza