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Featherston Breaks Down The ACC vs. The Pac-10!

I'm getting damned sick and tired of hearing ESPN commentators regurgitate the same tired praise of the "mighty" Pac 10 Conference over and over. Loudly proclaimed before the season's first game as the best conference in America, the network's talking heads aren't going to let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of their agreed-on story line that the Pac 10 is the nation's most powerful conference.

It's very much like the ESPN stampede in 2006, when the network anointed the Big East that season as "the greatest conference of all time". Never mind that the 2006 Big East was not the nation's top-rated conference (the Big Ten was) and that the greatest conference of all time fizzled in the NCAA Tournament with a mediocre 11-8 record with no teams in the Final Four.

But the key point is that the Big East was rewarded with eight NCAA bids in 2006. If you think the Selection Committee isn't influenced by a season of hype from the nation's biggest media source in college sports, well, I've got a seat on the John Edwards campaign bus that I'm willing to sell you cheap.

I fear the same thing is happening again. I believe the ACC - without a protector on the Selection Committee this season - is once again going to be burned by the ESPN hype machine. The network and their many hangers-on have decided that the Pac 10 is the best conference, period. So when Pac 10 teams beat each other up, it's portrayed as evidence of the strength and depth of the league. The ACC is weak or mediocre this season. So when ACC teams beat each other up, it's more often portrayed as evidence of the league's lack of strength.

Let me make one thing clear. I'm not going to rip the Pac 10. It's a strong league this season and MAY be the best in the country. I just don't think the case is quite as clearcut as Pac 10 cheerleaders such as ESPN's Steve Lavin try to make out.

Before we crown a league that hasn't produced a national champion in the last decade (and with less Final Four entries over than span than any other BCS conference), maybe we should look at the league a little more closely - and compare it with an ACC that every "expert" agrees is down, down, down this season.

What's the case for the Pac 10?

The Polls

Well, it starts with preseason perception. When the first AP basketball poll was released back in November, the Pac 10 was strongly represented:

  • No. 2 UCLA
  • No. 10 Washington State
  • No. 12 Oregon
  • No. 17 Arizona
  • No. 18 Southern Cal
  • No. 23 Stanford

That's pretty impressive - six out of 10 Pac 10 teams in the rankings.

The only problem is that once the games starting being played, the Pac 10 proved to be a bit less formidable than the preseason prognosticators suggested. Oregon plummeted faster than Rudy Guiliani's presidential chances. Southern Cal opened the season with a homecourt loss to Mercer and disappeared from the rankings. Arizona

continued to waste talent at a prodigious rate and also fell out of the rankings.

Last week's AP poll included just three Pac 10 teams:

  • 5. UCLA
  • 9. Washington State
  • 14. Stanford

UCLA has pretty much held it own, despite a crippling run of early season injuries and Washington State has treaded water on the edge of the Top 10 - although this week's homecourt losses to Cal and Stanford should knock the Cougars down a peg or two (the Cougars are 17th in the new coach's poll).

Only Stanford, bouncing back from an early season loss to Siena, has improved its preseason standing.

By comparison, the ACC started the season with little regard - beyond North Carolina. In the preseason poll it was:

  • 1. North Carolina
  • 13. Duke
  • 21. N.C. State

As of last week, it's:

  • 3. Duke
  • 4. North Carolina

(although it's likely to be No. 2 Duke, No. 3 UNC when the new poll is announced)

True, N.C. State has fallen from sight and, after brief December sightings, both Miami and Clemson have disappeared too. Still, three months into the season, the "down" ACC has trimmed the Pac 10's edge in ranked teams from 6-3 to 3-2. And the two ranked ACC teams are ranked higher than any Pac 10 team.

The computers

Split decision here.

Both Jeff Sagarin, who ranks leagues based on mean strength (meaning he gives more weight to the strength of the teams in the middle than to those at the top and the bottom) has the Pac 10 No. 1. Ken Pomeroy, who averages all teams equally, also favors the Pac 10 as the nation's top conference.

On the other hand, the RPI - which merely measures winning percentage and the winning percentage of your victims (and your victims' victims) - ranks the ACC ahead of the Pac 10 as the nation's best conference.

I respect both Sagarin and Pomeroy. From what I understand of their methods, I think both present strong evidence in favor of the Pac 10.

On the other hand, the defenders of the Pac 10 tend to dismiss the RPI as irrelevant without really explaining why.

I think if we look at the actual records of the two conferences, we might get a clue as to why the RPI sees the ACC as superior to the Pac 10.

First, check the leagues' overall non-conference records.

The Pac 10 is 97-25 for a winning percentage of 79.5 percent.

The ACC is 127-37 for a winning percentage of 77.4 percent.

Edge to the Pac 10.

But the NCAA only considers Division 1 wins in its deliberations. The Pac 10 is 2-1 against non-Division 1 teams, while the ACC is 2-0 in such games. So throwing out the lower level games actually helps the Pac 10, since it gets to discard an embarrassing loss.

But it reminds us that the quality of competition is as significant as the actual outcome.

There's another way of comparing the records of the two leagues and that's by head-to-head matchups. Unfortunately, there have been just two ACC-Pac 10 matchups this season: UCLA beating Maryland on a neutral court in Kansas City and Virginia beating Arizona on its own home floor.

We'll skip for the time being the horselaugh generated by the fact that the ACC's last place team should beat one of the Pac 10 "powers" on its home floor. Instead, the closest thing we can get to a head-to-head matchup is to compare the two leagues against all the other so-called power leagues - the Big East, the Big 12, the Big 10 and the SEC (as well as each other).

We see a pretty significant disparity - the ACC at 29-18 in such games; the Pac 10 at 15-14. Not only is the ACC's advantage in winning percentage striking, but so is the fact that the 12-team ACC has played an average of four BCS opponents each, while the 10-team Pac 10 has played less than three BCS opponents each.

The ACC advantage extends to the strongest of the mid-major leagues. ACC teams have played 21 games against teams from the Atlantic 10, the Missouri Valley, the Mountain West, the Horizon and Conference USA. The Pac 10 has played just 10 games against the five highest-rated non-BCS conferences.

The fact is that the ACC and Pac 10 have achieved very similar records against vastly different opposition - in this case, the ACC has played a significantly stronger non-conference schedule.

Team by team

Of course, Pac 10 defenders will tell us that the strength of the Pac 10 is its depth of strong teams (although, as we have seen, that depth extends to three teams in this week's rankings).

At the same time, ACC critics (including many of its own fans) like to point to the league's bad losses and suggest that there are few worthy powers beyond the top two. As we go team by team in the Pac 10, let's see if we find any similar embarrassments to N.C. State's terrible losses to New Orleans and East Carolina, Maryland's dog game against American or BC's inexplicable loss to Robert Morris.

Before we start, let me assert two points with confidence:

(1) The ACC is stronger at the very top. So far this season, Duke and UNC from the ACC and UCLA from the Pac 10 have established themselves as legitimate Final Four contenders. I can't say the same about Washington State (the second highest rated team in the Pac 10) or Arizona (the second-best RPI team in the Pac 10). More about them later - but even the Pac 10's strongest defenders would concede that the ACC has two first-rate powers to the Pac 10's one.

(2) The ACC is stronger at the very bottom. This is not even debatable. No ACC team is nearly as bad as 6-13 Oregon State. The Beavers have not only failed to beat a single top 100 RPI team, they've lost to non-Division 1 Alaska Fairbanks (the only BCS school to lose to a non-Division 1 team) and the lost to No. 290 RPI team Tennessee State by 17 - just to put that in context, Tennessee State lost by three to North Carolina Central.

The ACC, on the other hand, is the only league in America in which every single team has a winning record - well it did until Georgia Tech lost Saturday to drop to 10-10. It's the only league without a losing team.

Those two points out of the way, the case for the Pac 10 has to come down to the strength of the eight teams in the middle - those teams squeezed between legit power UCLA at the top and legit dog Oregon State at the bottom.

Let's look at those teams one by one. Keep in mind one thing: When it comes to measuring the strength of a conference, we're talking about what these teams have done out of conference. Winning within the league is only a measure of parity, which can be good if the league's strength is established ... but is less impressive if a league is mediocre.

[Note: All records as of Feb. 1, 2008]:

Washington State (17-3): The Cougars garnered a lot of attention for their 26-8 record last year. Touted as one of the nation's most over-achieving teams, WSU returned four starters and is, indeed, a smart, well-coached team.

But are they top 10?

Going into Pac 10 play, WSU had exactly two wins against top 100 opponents. Both were good wins - on the road at Baylor and Gonzaga. There aren't any bad losses on the record, unless you count a conference loss to No. 77 California at home.

Still, if you ranked all the teams in the ACC and Pac 10, WSU would be vying with Stanford for fourth at this moment - better than of the ACC's middle echelon. I'm sure there are some Pac 10 apologists out there that would like to move the Cougars into the top rank with UCLA, Duke and UNC - but I don't see it.

Stanford (17-3): Another sure NCAA team and vying with Cal as the fourth or fifth team on that mythical ACC/Pac 10 poll.

Still, like WSU, the Cardinal played just two top 100 opponents outside the conference - beating No. 93 Cal Santa Barbara at home and beating No. 66 Texas Tech in Lubbock. Balanced against those two so-so wins is a loss to No. 109 Siena.

That's not an impressive non-conference resume. They've gotten off to a fast start in the Pac 10, which has polished their image - although Pac 10 teams beating Pac 10 teams is hardly evidence of a league's strength (only its balance).

Southern Cal (13-7): Before anybody gets too carried away with bad ACC losses, keep in mind that this team lost to No. 284 RPI Mercer ... at home.

Then the Trojans upset UCLA in Pauley. To me, this is very much like Maryland in the ACC. The Terps (a very similar 13-8) started slowly with a young team and scored an equally impressive upset on the road, winning at UNC.

Southern Cal has a good non-conference win over Oklahoma (at home), but beyond that, their best showing was in an overtime loss to Memphis.

Arizona (15-6): The Pac 10's second-best RPI team (after UCLA) has to be an embarrassment to any ACC vs. Pac 10 comparisons. This year's homecourt loss to Virginia comes a year after the Wildcats lost at Virginia (in the first game ever played in John Paul Jones Arena), then were blown out by a shorthanded UNC team in Tucson.

Good thing Arizona postponed a scheduled visit to the Dean Smith Center until next year.

[Note: Arizona had to play several early season games without star freshman guard Jerryd Bayless, who was injured. I just wanted to make it clear that Arizona was at full strength for the Virginia game and that Bayless led the 'Cats with 21 points. It was Virginia that was shorthanded, playing as it has all season without starting center Tunji Soroye.]

The schedule is very good (hence the high RPI rating) with losses to Kansas and Memphis. The best non-conference win was a homecourt victory over Texas A&M (which is hopeless on the road).

Arizona State (14-6): The Pac 10's equivalent to the ACC's Miami - a bad team in 2007 that used a weak non-conference schedule to build a deceptive record.

Herb Sendek's young team does have one quality win - a homecourt victory over Xavier. But that's the team's only non-conference game against a top 100 opponent ... and it's balanced by losses to non-top 100 opponents Illinois and Nebraska.

Like Miami, ASU is starting to fade in conference play, although they do have a satisfying win over in-state rival Arizona.

California (12-7): Nothing special - at least not until beating Washington State in Pullman earlier this week.

Outside the league, the Bears' best wins were a homecourt victory over San Diego State and a win at Nevada.

Washington (12-9): The Huskies would be the worst team in the ACC.

They lost to every decent non-conference team they played (Texas A&M, Syracuse, Pitt) as well as half-decent Oklahoma State. The team's only top 100 win outside the league was to No. 88 Cal State Northridge.

Oregon (12-8): The Pac 10's answer to N.C. State - a top preseason team that has flopped badly.

It started with a loss at St. Mary's and continued with losses to non top-100 teams Nebraska and Oakland. Balance that against one good win - at Kansas State.

The Ducks are off to a 3-5 start in the Pac 10, leaving them - like the dysfunctional Wolfpack - fighting for their NCAA lives.

So there you have it - Washington State and Stanford are certainly solid and Southern Cal seems to be surging. But when you balance teams by actual accomplishment, let me suggest these pairings:

  • Maryland=Southern Cal
  • Miami=Arizona State
  • N.C. State=Oregon
  • Duke>Stanford
  • Washington State> (banged up) Clemson
  • Virginia Tech=Cal
  • Boston College=Arizona
  • Wake Forest, FSU>Washington
  • Virginia, Georgia Tech>Oregon State

The only place I'll concede a clear edge to the Pac 10 is Washington State No. 24 RPI) over a Clemson team (No. 27 RPI) that's been crippled by injuries. But I'd argue that matchup is cancelled by Duke's clear edge over Stanford (and the ACC's edge at the bottom of the league).

I know some Pac 10 apologists will argue with some of my other pairings. Is 12-7 Boston College really in the ballpark with 15-6 Arizona?

Well, to start with, Arizona is really just 14-6 since one win is non-Division 1 and doesn't count. Both teams have one loss to a team outside the top 100. BC's best RPI win - a victory over No. 20 RPI Rhode Island - is better than Arizona's best non-conference win over No. 30 Texas A&M. Arizona did play Kansas tougher than BC did, but both teams lost to the Jayhawks. Both teams lost to Virginia, although to be fair, the Eagles fell in Charlottesville, while the Wildcats lost to the Cavaliers at home.

It's hard to see where Arizona is so much better that BC. The Wildcats do have a significantly better RPI, but if you're going to start believing RPI now, why not when it shows that the ACC is the better conference?

To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure which is the better conference. But I AM sure that there's far less difference between the ACC and Pac 10 than the commentators would have you believe.

I think those are the two best leagues, despite the recent surge of ESPN love for the Big East. Let me quickly summarize the ACC vs. Big East argument - ACC is 11-6 head-to-head against the Big East; the ACC has a better non-conference winning percentage against a stronger list of opponents (the Big East is 20-23 against the other BCS leagues; the ACC 29-18); the Big East is the fourth-rated BCS conference; it's not as strong either at the top or at the bottom - although with 16 teams, it's bound to have a lot of good teams in the middle.

It's frustrating to deal with perception. My jaw dropped Saturday when Jay Bilas, usually ESPN's most rational voice, suggested that the ACC and Big Ten were the two weakest BCS conferences. Look, I know you can make a rational argument for the Pac 10 as superior to the ACC and while wrong, I can see how somebody mike take a superficial look at records and think the Big 12 and Big East are better ... but Jay, how can you begin to believe that the SEC is stronger? The nation's No. 5 RPI conference is 17-24 against other BCS leagues (with a losing record to every other BCS conference, even the Big 10) and despite having a heavy homecourt edge, it's 5-7 against the ACC head-to-head.

All of this mindless blathering is dangerous. As I said, I believe the Selection Committee is influenced by the stampede of the ESPN commentators. The perception is that the Pac 10 - the least successful major conference in the modern era - is a superpower this year. Not even a record of non-conference mediocrity was able to shake that view. Now that conference play has begun, there's nothing that can change it - as Pac 10 teams fall, it only means that other Pac 10 conquerors are proving their worth.

Without the warped perception, we can see that the Pac 10 race is very much like the ACC race - a bunch of finely balanced teams beating each other up.

But anyone want to bet that the Pac 10 will receive significantly more bids from the NCAA Selection Committee than the ACC?