This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In football, this would become a case of the Pac-12's victimizing itself. In basketball, parity is not nearly as much of a problem.
That's because there's plenty of room for the conference's teams in the NCAA Tournament field, unlike the College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 did enough good work in the nonconference schedule to absorb the internal competition that has allowed only Oregon (7-2) to win more than two-thirds of its games, as of the halfway mark of league play.
Oregon's recent road sweep of Arizona and Arizona State gave the Pac-12 standings some degree of clarity. Conclusion No. 1: Instead of a six-way tie for third place, there's now a four-way tie for second. Conclusion No. 2: Oregon is well-positioned to win the conference's regular-season title, but all kinds of jockeying will occur below the Ducks.
That's good stuff. February will be fun in the Pac-12, and the same is true of the conference tournament in Las Vegas. The intense competition will create some mediocre conference records and lower seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but I've become convinced that seeding is irrelevant, below the top two lines. So the Pac-12 potentially having a bunch of members in the middle or lower tier among at-large selections is fine. These teams will be toughened in advance of March as a result of having to deal with one another.
ESPN.com's Bracketology projects eight teams from the Pac-12 in the NCAA field: Oregon (No. 3 seed), Arizona (No. 6), USC (No. 6), Utah (No. 7), Colorado (No. 8), Washington (No. 10), California (No. 11) and UCLA (No. 12). The last two spots are precarious, yet the Pac-12 is the deepest conference in the country. The Atlantic Coast Conference has nine projected entrants from a 15-team league.
As the second half of Pac-12 play begins Wednesday, defending Arizona (5-4) is in sixth place, within two games of the lead. So that's the logical cutoff point for title contenders. Among those four teams tied for second, USC and Washington have slight scheduling edges over Utah and Colorado based on the number of remaining games against other teams expected to make the NCAA field, with a formula that factors in the home/road splits of those contests.
My projected order of finish now is Oregon, USC, Utah, Washington, Arizona and Colorado. But if any of those teams can beat another on the road, it easily could move up.
In football, the Pac-12's scheduling variable is created by divisions, with each team annually playing half of the other division's schools. The basketball schedule is not quite a double round-robin, as every team faces seven opponents twice each and four opponents once each. Utah's one-time opponents this season are USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona. That turns out to be a mild disadvantage overall, even though not playing at Arizona is a break for the Utes. That's because a visit to ASU would offer a Utah a good chance for a road win.
Generally, those scheduling issues will even out for everybody, and 18 conference games will offer enough chance for any teams to separate themselves. That's unlikely to happen, though, except in Oregon's case.
Last season, Utah and Oregon tied for second at 13-5, three games behind Arizona. One of the current 6-3 teams would have to produce a phenomenal second half to finish 13-5 this year, because the league is so much deeper and more talented. Arizona definitely has dropped off, but just about everybody else not counting Washington State, which keeps getting worse, week by week is improved over 2014-15.
That wouldn't be said about Utah a couple of weeks ago, but the Utes have regained the defensive identity and home-court aura that powered them last season. Merely matching last year's conference record would be impressive, as competition is tougher.