With the absolute dominance of Gonzaga and the general decline of the Pac-12 over the last decade or so it has been clear that the Pac doesn’t have a stranglehold on basketball out west. It may only be the top 2-3 teams in some of the lower conferences like the MWC, WCC, and WAC but usually the absolute best of those leagues would be at the very least competitive against a normal Pac-12 slate.
That leads us to this idea:
San Diego State has wins over UCLA and Arizona State by 15 and 12 points, respectively. I renew my annual call for a promotion and relegation scheme for the Pac-12, MWC, and WCC. An incredible 12-team hoops conference awaits....— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) December 11, 2020
We start with the caveat that of course there’s no way it would ever happen. Nonetheless though it’s an interesting thought exercise to get a sense for which programs have consistently been among the Best in the West. How to go about it?
Obviously, we can’t use overall record. The strength of schedules are too dramatically different and if we’re imagining hypotheticals where the teams have been playing in different conference alignments then they wouldn’t track year-over-year. Instead we’ll use the KenPom adjusted efficiency margin ranking. That metric takes into account strength of schedule as well as on court performance to give an indication of good a team actually is taking into account all the context around them.
Next, we’ll set the time period as the start of the Pac-12 conference: 2012. For that first season we’ll say that everything happened exactly as it did in reality. Except in 2013 we will take up to the bottom 3 teams in the KenPom rankings and replace them with a team that did better from one of those other conferences. If the 10th place team in the new Pac-12 was better than the 3rd best team from the combined lower conferences then they get to keep their spot and only 2 teams would get relegated.
I’m expanding the definition of the West a little by including any state that has a current Pac-12 school in it plus Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and New Mexico.
With all that said let’s take a look at the results.
IN: New Mexico (20), Gonzaga (21), Saint Mary’s (34)
Out: USC (220), ASU (230), Utah (302)
Just Missed: UNLV (37)
The relegations coming in 2013 are based on the results of the 2012 season which you might recall is when Washington won the regular season title but didn’t make it into the NCAA tournament. Why? Partly because the Pac-12 had 3 teams worse than your average worst team in the Pac-12 from most seasons. USC, ASU, and Utah were all atrocious and their relegation happens immediately.
New Mexico is probably the biggest surprise for most of the 3 teams to take their place but they had some really nice seasons under Steve Alford to eventually get him the UCLA job and this was part of that run. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s as the clear upper class of the WCC also get in while UNLV (coached by current UW assistant Dave Rice) missed by only a few spots and would’ve gotten in if we’d set the relegation limit to 4.
IN: Colorado State (22), San Diego State (31), UNLV (38)
OUT: Washington (81), Washington State (90), Oregon State (97)
Just Missed: Boise State (54)
Final: Gonzaga (5), Arizona (14), Saint Mary’s (21), Colorado State (22), New Mexico (23), San Diego State (31), Oregon (35), UNLV (38), Colorado (45), UCLA (46), Stanford (48), California (56)
It was a much different situation for the Pac-12 the following year as no team finished worse than 115th at KenPom so the schools cast out were more of fringe NIT types rather than abjectly bad basketball programs. Unfortunately we see Washington wind up as a team that gets cut when they go 18-16 and earn a #6 seed in the NIT.
UNLV gets it done with a similar record to move into the Pac-12 while Colorado State and San Diego State also both have NCAA tournament level seasons and move up in the ranks as well. Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, and New Mexico continued to be top-25 teams and so they all get to stay as well.
OUT: Colorado (67), UNLV (79), Colorado State (128)
Final: Arizona (2), UCLA (14), San Diego State (23), Gonzaga (24), Oregon (28), New Mexico (33), Stanford (34), Arizona State (39), Utah (40), BYU (49), California (60), Saint Mary’s (65)
It’s pretty clean cut going into the 2015 season. Arizona State and Utah both managed to fight their way back up to the top of the conference after getting booted back in the first year of this experiment. And there are two obvious cuts to make way for them as UNLV and Colorado State had their stay in the limelight only last a single season before things fell apart.
The 3rd spot ends up going to BYU as they manage to edge out Colorado for the 12th spot in the conference. Gonzaga and New Mexico get to breathe easy but Saint Mary’s only finished 2 places above Colorado in order to keep from getting relegated down.
IN: Boise State (47), Colorado State (72)
OUT: California (113), New Mexico (137)
Final: Arizona (4), Gonzaga (7), Utah (8), BYU (28), San Diego State (31), Stanford (39), UCLA (40), Oregon (45), Boise State (47), Arizona State (65), Saint Mary’s (67), Colorado State (72)
Once again this is a pretty cut and dried result. New Mexico finally collapses in their second season without Steve Alford at the helm and get replaced by fellow Mountain West member Boise State. None of the other original Pac-12 schools come particularly close to making it back into the fold in place of Cal who dropped off in Cuonzo Martin’s first year with the team. Colorado was the closest at 92nd in KenPom but their in-state rivals Colorado State managed to finish 72nd and so take the last spot instead.
IN: California (28), USC (49), Colorado (57)
OUT: Arizona State (93), Stanford (101), Colorado State (144)
Just Missed: Oregon State (64), Washington (66)
Final: Oregon (12), Arizona (19), Gonzaga (21), California (28), Utah (33), Saint Mary’s (34), San Diego State (46), USC (49), BYU (52), Colorado (57), UCLA (69), Boise State (90)
Now here we get some chaos. For the first time we see 3 of the original Pac-12 schools fighting their way back into the rankings. And it would’ve been more if we had made the rule that an unlimited # of original schools could get relegated back up in a given year. But alas, we didn’t which was unfortunate for UW. The Huskies made the NIT as a #3 seed with freshmen Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss teaming up with senior Andrew Andrews. Had it come the previous year it would’ve been good enough to vault UW back in but instead it ended up as the 13th best record in the West. Due to the high turnover there actually ended up 2 schools that finished behind UW and still got to keep their spot.
5 of the teams in the most recent Pac-12 saw pretty significant drops: UCLA, Boise State, Arizona State, Stanford, and Colorado State. But with the 3 team relegation rule only the final 3 lost their spot. Boise State stays in the big leagues despite both Washington and Oregon State finishing 20+ spots higher in the rankings. Meanwhile, Cal rebounded with a pair of 5-star freshmen, USC finally started to turn the corner under Andy Enfield, and Colorado’s slow and steady approach finally got them into the race to sneak back in.
IN: Nevada (54)
OUT: Boise State (94)
Just Missed: New Mexico State (84), Colorado State (86)
Final: Gonzaga (1), Oregon (10), Saint Mary’s (15), UCLA (16), Arizona (18), Utah (47), USC (53), Nevada (54), California (62), Colorado (72), San Diego State (78), BYU (80)
Those in search of carnage will have to look elsewhere to find it. Boise State’s stay of execution only lasted a single year as they are out after another finish in the 90’s of the rankings. The 5 worst teams of the original Pac-12 schools all ended up 100th or worse so none of them could dethrone the Broncos or even San Diego State and BYU who finished in a range that was eminently beatable. The 80th ranked finish by 12th place in the West BYU is the worst we’ve seen so far even though Boise State skated by the previous year with a worse ranking because of the relegation rules. The benefactor? Eric Musselman’s Nevada team which ascended to the top of the Mountain West.
IN: Arizona State (49), New Mexico State (60), Boise State (61)
OUT: Oregon (75), Colorado (114), California (244)
Just Missed: Montana (72)
Final: Gonzaga (10), Nevada (25), Arizona (28), Saint Mary’s (32), Arizona State (49), San Diego State (50), USC (51), UCLA (56), Utah (58), New Mexico State (60), Boise State (61), BYU (73)
The Wyking Jones era got off to a rough start as Cal collapsed to 244th overall and easily opened up a spot. Colorado also struggled with their only sub-100 KenPom ranking in the decade of Tad Boyle’s tenure. More surprising though is that Oregon finally loses their perch in the upper echelon in the worst season under Dana Altman since his first in Eugene.
Who takes their place? First, a shout out to New Mexico State (my mom’s alma mater) who becomes the first WAC team to crack the big leagues. Go Aggies! (Also shout out to Montana who fall on the just missed list and so narrowly miss out on being the first Big Sky to take part in this experiment).
Arizona State finally hit its stride with Bobby Hurley to make the NCAA tournament and claim another spot. That leaves us with the yo-yo Boise State Broncos who re-enter the new Pac-12 again. This was a weird year with 8 teams from the West finishing between 49th and 61st in the rankings. The Huskies actually finished ahead of ASU in the conference standings but their 98th finish in KenPom didn’t match their 21-13 final record due to strength of schedule and margin of victory concerns.
IN: Oregon (28), Utah State (38), Washington (48)
OUT: Utah (109), San Diego State (125), Boise State (139)
Just Missed: Colorado (63), San Francisco (67), Fresno State (71), Oregon State (81), San Diego (90)
Final: Gonzaga (2), Nevada (27), Oregon (28), Saint Mary’s (31), Utah State (38), Washington (48), New Mexico State (53), Arizona State (57), USC (82), BYU (86), Arizona (94), UCLA (102)
It finally happened!!! The Huskies are back in with the big boys after an extended purgatory on the backs of Jaylen Nowell, Matisse Thybulle, and Noah Dickerson. Once again the Huskies’ KenPom ranking lagged behind what their record would’ve indicated and so they take the last spot just behind Utah State despite having crushed the Aggies in the NCAA tournament.
This was another chaos year as 6 of the reigning Pac-12 programs that finished in the top-75 the previous year fell to 80th or worse. With an infinite number of relegations there would’ve been 7 teams that moved into/fell out of the rankings this year as everyone but San Diego in the just missed category would have ended up replacing USC, BYU, Arizona, and UCLA. Fortunately for those last 4 schools Utah, San Diego State, and Boise State ended up finishing even worse and so their down year doesn’t result in them getting booted from the upper crust.
IN: San Diego State (6), Colorado (35), Stanford (43)
OUT: UCLA (78), Nevada (85), New Mexico State (91)
Final: Gonzaga (2), San Diego State (6), BYU (13), Oregon (17), Arizona (19), Colorado (35), Saint Mary’s (38), Utah State (41), Stanford (43), Washington (54), USC (55), Arizona State (63)
For some reason it always seems like there’s an every other year trend in terms of chaos versus stability. Maybe it’s because most teams have a 2-year window with a core group before they graduate or turn pro. Whatever the case may be the top-12 teams in the West end up taking the 12 spots. I know many of you are likely wondering how the Huskies who finished in 12th place in the actual Pac-12 standings manage to keep from getting relegated. Fortunately the KenPom rankings take into account entire season performance and Washington was really good in the 1st half of the year. They also lost a ridiculous number of close games which made their record much worse than would’ve generally been expected.
Obviously things might have changed to a greater extent had the Pac-12 tournament made it past the first round and had there been an NCAA tournament. We ended up seeing a little bit of a comeback for the original Pac-12 here though as they pick up a spot with Colorado and Stanford entering the remade conference and UCLA bizarrely leaving it despite finishing 2nd in the conference standings because of their atrocious non-con play. It ends up being a little depressing that none of the original Pac-12 schools ended up as one of the top-3 overall in the West.
IN: UCLA (39), Boise State (55), Colorado State (67)
OUT: Saint Mary’s (79), Arizona State (98), Washington (181)
Final: Gonzaga (1), Colorado (16), San Diego State (20), USC (21), BYU (22), Oregon (39), UCLA (41), Utah State (45), Arizona (49), Boise State (52), Colorado State (61), Stanford (70)
Obviously we have the postseason to contend with before this list is 100% final but unless Colorado State drastically falls off or Saint Mary’s makes a huge leap we can consider this pretty close to finalized given the gaps between the teams. With Washington’s dreadful season they of course fall off the list and UCLA rebounds up to take their spot. Arizona State’s injury-plagued season from hell sees them booted in place of Boise State while Saint Mary’s ends their long run in the top-12 teams in place of Colorado State.
10- Arizona*, Gonzaga
9- Oregon*, Saint Mary’s, UCLA*
8- BYU, San Diego State
6- Colorado*, Stanford*, USC*
5- Arizona State*, California*, Utah*
4- Boise State
3- Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, Washington*
2- New Mexico State
1- Oregon State*, Washington State*
I starred and bolded the Pac-12 schools just to make it visually a little easier to see where those teams fall. Overall this paints a pretty clear picture of the hierarchy in the region over the last decade. Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA have been the standard bearers for the conference but Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, BYU, and San Diego State have generally been right there alongside them (or above them).
Then there’s a pretty clear gap before we get to half the conference sitting in the middle. Colorado and Stanford have mostly been mediocre at their worst while the other 4 schools have had a stretch of 2+ years where they were terrible alongside a sustained stretch of at least above average play.
Washington falls a tier below those schools pretty clearly in 10th in the conference. New Mexico and Utah State each had 3-year runs at or near the top of the Mountain West while Colorado State has managed to have 3 separate times where they fought their way back into the top-12 which isn’t an easy feat for a school like that.
Finally, bringing up the rear are Oregon State and Washington State. The Beavers had 2 additional years where they managed to enter “Just Missed” territory so at least they’ve been close a couple times led by Tres Tinkle and the Thompson brothers. The Cougars are having their best year right now since the middle of the Ken Bone era and we’ll see if Kyle Smith is able to fully rise them up from the bottom of the conference.