Pac-12 Feature: 'MikeBall' Seeing Returns for Pac-12 Teams

Washington Athletics

If Major League Baseball has “Moneyball”, Pac-12 women’s basketball has “MikeBall”.

Washington head coach Mike Neighbors is a guy who has always loved data. If there are numbers to crunch, he is your guy. Leaving the numbers to Neighbors has turned into big dividends for the Pac-12.

Neighbors’ work developing a mathematical picture of success for the Pac-12 inspired conference coaches to change the way their programs scheduled in the non-conference seasons and has strengthened the conference from top to bottom.

“It’s one of the most productive things we’ve done,” Close said. “The best part about this story is Mike’s selflessness, but also the coaches putting the conference above themselves.”

The proof is in the power rating.

The Pac-12 has the best conference RPI in the country, with five teams ranked among the top 16 in the country and seven in the top 40 according to the NCAA’s women’s basketball RPI.

The Pac-12’s conference RPI is better than the next conference – the Big 12 – by a margin of 50.75 to 66.7.

“Now we all just hope we get rewarded for it,” Neighbors said. “At the end of this, we want to see our league getting multiple bids in the NCAA Tournament like other conferences that have had great years and strength across the board.”

Neighbors’ dive into the numbers began when he was an assistant coach under Kevin McGuff at Xavier in 2007.

Xavier teams were consistently earning No. 8 and No. 9 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and Neighbors wanted to break it down.

“We needed to know that statistical profiles of No. 2 seeds and No. 3 seeds all the way down,” Neighbors said. “I took the previous 10 years, looked at every piece of data and built a profile of a No. 2 seed. We knew it was tougher in the Atlantic 10 because of our conference RPI. And then we went out and created our own non-conference conference schedule. We played 11 BCS schools. We went and played Duke and Stanford and Michigan and Florida.”

That effort raised Xavier’s profile and seed, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2010.

A year later, McGuff and Neighbors went to Washington. Neighbors went to the Final Four and sat in the Pac-12 coaches meeting to discuss the league’s RPI, which has consistently been rated lower than other major conferences, such as the Big 12 and the SEC.

Neighbors made a case among his new colleagues for balanced scheduling and for the value of non-conference wins.

“He came in with this huge packet, with color-coded graphs. The message was, ‘Everybody needs to get eight or nine wins (in the non-conference) and you need to play the best teams you can beat’,” Close said. “Everyone was brainstorming. Everybody understood this has to be bigger than just your team. We have to help each other.”

Close said she didn’t imagine that after two years, the impact would be felt so quickly and clearly.

Eleven Pac-12 teams entered the 2016 conference season with winning records. Heading into this weekend’s conference matchups, the conference’s overall winning percentage is .715.

For the seventh consecutive week, the Pac-12 had five teams in the Associated Press poll, marking the longest stretch of weeks that five schools have appeared in the poll in conference history.

“The non-conference schedule was a resounding assurance that we are on the right track,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “You can schedule tough, but then you have to go out and do it and teams have gone and out and proved it.”

The Pac-12’s RPI is the second-best in the last 25 seasons and the best since the conference expanded to 12 teams back in 2011.

The Pac-12 coaches hope all of this translates into NCAA Tournament bids.

“At the end of this, we want our team to get multiple bids, like other conference who will get 70 percent of their teams in,” Neighbors said. “We are going to have great 9-9 or 8-10 teams in the Pac-12 and we hope they are rewarded accordingly for the strength of the league.

“Maybe Stanford loses a few games. Arizona will beat some people and Utah’s success will not be a surprise and that will be viewed as a good thing for us.”

Gottlieb said she sees many teams up and down the league who are better than expected.

“This league is healthy and strong all the way through,” Gottlieb said. “I hope people will be credited for big wins. And that teams battling each other tough will not be viewed as a sign of weakness.”

Draw a line between the Pac-12’s success this season and the level of talent in the league.

“Our ability to keep the best West Coast players on the West Coast has helped us,” Neighbors said. “We have star players on every team and some teams have multiple stars and any win in this conference is valuable.”

“It’s as deep as it’s been. Top to bottom, it’s one of the best leagues in the country in the last five years,” Neighbors said. “This reminds me of the years when the SEC would get seven or eight teams into the tournament.”

All of this strength and depth makes competing in the Pac-12 a challenge every day.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. 

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