NEW YORK — Mike Neighbors loves to crunch numbers.
Washington's analytics-minded coach was impressed with what the Pac-12 Conference accomplished in the non-conference portion of the season. The teams went a combined 114-21 (.844), and the Pac-12 has seven teams ranked this week, including the No. 9 Huskies. That's the most in conference history and doesn't even include the three other Pac-12 teams that are sitting just outside the Top 25.
Moreover, the conference has an average RPI of 33.1 — more than 13 places better than the second-ranked Southeastern Conference.
"We don't have a top-five team, but a whole bunch in the top 20," Neighbors said. "That was the plan, make sure we have great depth so that every night in our league there's a quality game."
Now that they're done beating up on the rest of the country, the Pac-12 will begin conference play Tuesday when Washington hosts Washington State. Neighbors, who led his team to the Final Four last season despite finishing fifth in the conference in the regular season, thinks the race for the Pac-12 title is up for grabs.
"It's wide open, more so than ever," he said. "Comes down to who plays where, who you play twice, who you don't play twice. The league race is wide open. I think much like last year. You might have a team finish fourth or fifth in our league and peak at the right time and go deeper than the conference champion does in the NCAA tournament."
There are no easy weekends in the Pac-12 anymore.
"It's a bear," Neighbors said laughing. "A big, cuddly bear."
Chris Dawson has seen the conference grow in her 16 years at the Pac-12. She's served on the women's basketball selection committee, including chairing it last season.
"The conference has probably always been deeper and stronger than was widely acknowledged," Dawson wrote in an email. "So, it's great to see the efforts of so many of our coaches and teams recognized in the national rankings. There is a lot of excitement about Pac-12 women's basketball, and the credit is due to the talents of the coaches and the institutional support they have received. The Conference competition will be amazing!"
Cal became the eighth different team from the conference to get ranked Monday, entering the Top 25 at No. 21. The undefeated Bears are off to the best start in school history at 12-0. Coach Lindsay Gottlieb knows the schedule will get tougher over the next few months with conference play starting. Besides the Bears and Washington, UCLA is 10th, Stanford 13th, Arizona State 18th, Colorado 20th and Oregon State 22nd in the poll, with Oregon, Southern California and Utah just outside the Top 25.
"It's unbelievable. We could have 10 teams in the tournament and you don't know who they are right now," Gottlieb said. "I've watched scores and film already and there's not a weak team in our conference. There are some scary good teams. We begin in Arizona and they are 8-2 and were picked to finish 12th in our conference. It will be interesting to see how this thing plays out."
Both Gottlieb and Neighbors think some really good teams could finish with eight or nine conference losses and still should make the NCAAs.
"We might not have a team that anyone is talking about right now for the Final Four and I'm OK with that," Neighbors said. "There are a whole bunch talking about potential Sweet 16 teams. If you can get there, anything can happen. Trying to get to that second weekend is key. When you get there now, you got a four-game chance to make history."
This article was written by Doug Feinberg from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.