Not an Easy Road
The Pac-12 Conference has it's work cut out for it. Playing on the west coast, the Pac-12 Conference has it tougher than any of the other major conferences in collegiate sports. The conference members play in prime time, pacific coast time, meaning everyone on the east coast is already asleep when their games are in full swing.
This lack of coverage and exposure causes problems when national writers, fans, and analysts attempt to distinguish Pac-12 teams from the rest of the country, as it is obvious that they have seen far less of the Pac-12 play. Only the most diehard followers can stay up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM EST on a weeknight. Pac-12 games are not conducive to the ESPN/television-ratings nature of NCAA sports in today's world.
However, especially in football and basketball, the big bread-winner sports of college sports, the Pac-12 can certainly hang with the best of the best.
In the 2016 football season, one of the unsung members of the Pac-12, the Washington Huskies, made the College Football Playoff. They were legitimately one of the four best teams in the country by year's end. USC also had a tremendous season after instituting Sam Darnold as starting quarterback. The Trojans actually finished the year ranked ahead of Washington in the final AP poll of the season. With two of the top four teams in the nation, it is hard to argue that anyone was better at the top than the Pac-12 in 2016.
Though the season was a weaker one for some of the conference's normal contenders, Stanford had a solid season, Washington State was very competitive, and Colorado was tremendous. The Buffaloes came out of nowhere to contend for a playoff spot themselves by the end of the season. If the Oregon Ducks rebound in 2017, the Pac-12 will certainly be a conference to be reckoned with, and perhaps the best in the country.
Final Four Favorites
In men's basketball, the elite talent at the top of the Pac-12 Conference creates an explosive dynamic. The prize possession of the 2016-17 season is definitely UCLA. The Bruins are perhaps the most offensively talented team in the country and should challenge for a spot in the Final Four this month.
UCLA is led by freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. However, the team is so deep with scorers that six different players average more than 10 points per game, led by senior Bryce Alford. And UCLA is shooting 53.6 percent from the floor as a team. That mark leads the entire country. The Bruins also rank third nationally in scoring, first in assists, second in three-point shooting, and fifth in scoring margin. There isn't anything they can't do on the offensive end.
UCLA isn't alone, either. Arizona and Oregon are both top-15 teams this season. Each is an elite defensive team, supplying the yang to UCLA's yin. While Arizona has the 12th-best scoring defense in the nation, Oregon's field-goal defense ranks 12th, as the Ducks lead the nation in blocks per game.
Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
If there is one shortcoming of the Pac-12, it would seem to be in depth of quality teams. UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon are the only three Pac-12 schools that rank in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Any reviews by Sportsbook Review would reveal that no one in this conference is a smart bet after the top three schools. By the end of the season, the conference may only have three invitations to the NCAA Tournament.
That is hardly the resume of an elite conference. However, sports are all about winning championships, and the Pac-12 is one of the premier conferences in 2016 in terms of that objective. Its football teams were right on the precipice of title contention, with one even making the playoffs. And basketball is primed to have a Pac-12 team battling late into March.