Pac-10 Disaster: One Bid League?

January 14th, 2010
The Pac-10’s Disastrous Week

After what can only be described as a truly awful start to the new year, the Pacific 10 Conference is now staring at the possibility, albeit right now still a remote possibility, of fielding only a single team to the represent them in the NCAA Tournament.  

How bad is it? As it stands now, the power conference has just a single team - Cal - in the latest RPI Top 50.  The Bears seem to be the Pac-10’s only Tournament sure-thing at the moment, with a 10-5 record and in first place early in conference play.  None of Cal’s losses can truly be considered eye sores (Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico, Kansas) - an overtime defeat to UCLA at home last week the only arguable exception.  Which means, barring a total collapse, the Golden Bears will be playing meaningful games in March.  But what if they win the Pac-10 Tournament? Is there any other Pac - 10 team that seems certain to follow them to the NCAA’s? Right now, not really.

Oregon already sports losses to Montana, Portland (who despite a hot start and even a Top 25 ranking, have lost six of their last ten), and a defeat at home to Oregon State - who themselves sit at 7-8, with losses to Sacramento State, Texas A&M-CC, Illinois-Chicago and Seattle.  Add in a drubbing at the hands of Missouri, and the Ducks have more bad losses than quality wins, something that gives them little margin for error with the bulk of their conference schedule remaining.

Washington, who once was expected to vie for the Pac-10 title and began the season ranked in the Top 15 in both polls, has now dropped three in a row to start conference play 1-3.  They lost both games in their Arizona trip last weekend by 17 points each.  Even if they can right the ship in the next couple weeks, the Huskies conclude their regular season by playing five of their last seven on the road, including against Cal and an Oregon team that already beat them in Seattle by 11.  This could make things very difficult for them because teams are judged by the NCAA Selection Committee in some part on how they close.

UCLA began the season about as bad as their worst detractors could hope for.  They opened with a double overtime loss to Cal State Fullerton at home, and proceeded to lose six of their next nine games, most notably double digit losses at the hands of Portland and Long Beach State.  At 7-9, and 2-2 in the conference, UCLA has to go on a tear the rest of the way to get back into the bubble conversation.  Ditto 8-8 Arizona and 8-7 Stanford.  

Of course, USC decided to punish their own players and coach, neither of which had anything whatsoever to do with the OJ Mayo fiasco, by banning them from the postseason this year.  The motives for this travesty have been well-debated elsewhere, but lets just say that if the NCAA decides to go easy on the program over their football improprieties, every basketball fan in Southern California should be up in arms. In any case, since the announcement came down, USC has lost two in a row and could well cease to be a factor in the regular season until they find the motivation to do so.  

Which leaves us with Washington State and Arizona State as the Pac-10‘s best hope for as many as three NCAA Tournament bids.  Both teams have 12 wins, are 2-2 in conference, and can probably put themselves on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble by winning half their remaining games.  However, neither team has shown much potential for doing so of late.  The Cougars came into Tempe last weekend and limped out after a 71-46 trouncing in which Klay Thompson was held to just nine points.  ASU for their part could only manage 37 points in a loss to USC, before the aforementioned two impressive wins against the Washington schools at home.  

So the question remains: Out of the 34 at-large berths that will be handed out for the NCAA Tournament, who would get left out in favor of a second or even third Pac-10 team?

Do you bypass a seventh team from the Big 12, or the seventh or even eighth team from the Big East (two vastly superior conferences) for the Pac-10’s runner-up? The Mountain West and A-10 could have as many as four worthy programs.  The underrated Missouri Valley Conference could have multiple bubble teams, as could C-USA.  Let’s also not forget about the so-called Bracket-busters, the unlikely schools from smaller conferences that win their respective tournaments, and NCAA automatic bid, leaving the conference favorite to accept an NCAA at-large invitation, and one less spot on the bubble.

Again, it would be unlikely that the NCAA would make such a proud and tradition-rich conference, one that boasts 16 basketball championships, to suffer the indignity of being a one-bid league.  But no matter what eventually happens behind the closed doors of the NCAA Selection Committee, the dismal season of the Pac-10 should make for one of the more interesting, and passionate, bubble debates in quite a while.