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December 20, 2010 at 7:04 AM

Follow these steps and five Pac-10 teams will dance in March

We know the Pac-10 is down. Okay, old story.
The conference lost many good players to the NBA. Another old story and yet, the coaches and the league office has shouted this refrain for the past two years. They need to get over it.
The league has just 17 seniors, which is something I didn’t realize until USC coach Kevin O’Neill brought it up last week. UCLA, Washington State and Stanford don’t have a senior and California and Arizona have just one. Still I’m not exactly sure how significant that is.
What’s more alarming is the absence of impact freshmen. There’s top notch first-year players all over the country, including Duke’s Kyrie Irving, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Kansas’ Josh Selby and Kentucky’s Terrence Jones. With the exception of UCLA’s Joshua Smith, the Pac-10 rookie class is bare.
But enough of the bashing and take a look at what happened this weekend.
UCLA beat No. 16 BYU. USC nearly upset No. 3 Kansas. Arizona won at North Carolina State. Washington State won at Santa Clara.
When it seemed as if the Pac-10 would send two teams to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, six teams have positioned themselves for a tournament berth with a little over a week remaining before conference play begins Dec. 29.
No one is suggesting the Pac-10 will send six teams. Heck, the conference may not have a ranked team for the second straight week when the polls are released today.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if 3-5 teams made it to the Big Dance. Yes. Five teams. I’ve been critical of the conference recently for good reason, but even a Pac-10 pessimist has got to admit six teams have a great chance to make the NCAA tournament.
Here’s the blueprint.

— Washington lost three games on the road to teams currently in the top 25 by a combined margin of 13 points. Otherwise, the Huskies have been sensational. In seven wins, they’ve won by an average of 32.7 points. Their strength of schedule is 38th so the competition hasn’t been totally cream puffs. Virginia and Portland could help UW’s RPI ranking (51) if they win a few games this season. Still the Huskies (7-3) are very much in control of their destiny. Because they held firm in the big non-conference games, Washington doesn’t have to win the Pac-10 Tournament to make it to the NCAA tournament. Improving last season’s 11-7 conference record will certainly help. If the Huskies were 12-6 in conference, then it would likely end the regular season with a 21-9 record, which assumes they beat Seattle University in February. Remember what their record was last season before the conference tournament? That’s right, 21-9. Unlike last season, the Huskies have three close non-conference defeats against strong teams that should impress the selection committee.
— Arizona (10-2) could start Pac-10 play next week with more wins than anyone else. The Wildcats have one more remaining non-conference game and it should have no problems taking care of Robert Morris (4-6) at home on Wednesday. Arizona is similar to Washington. It’s pounded some bad teams and it’s strength of schedule ranks 135. When the Wildcats faced tough opposition, they lost by double digits on the road at Kansas and BYU. Still no one disputes Arizona isn’t good enough to win the Pac-10 regular-season title. And regardless of what anyone says, the conference champion will always receive a non-automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats also have tradition on their side. They made 25 straight tournament appearances dating back to 1985 before missing the Big Dance in 2010. In 2007, the selection committee invited Arizona after it finished seventh in the Pac-10 and in ’09 it went dancing after finishing fifth.
— Washington State (8-1) has the best record in the Pac-10, but it doesn’t have much of a reputation outside the Northwest. That could change this week. The Cougars play in the Diamond Head Classic and potentially all three games are on national TV. If WSU gets by Mississippi State (7-3) on Wednesday, it will play No. 9 Baylor on Thursday. That’s a very winnable game for the Cougars. They beat Gonzaga, which is their best win of the season, and the Zags toppled Baylor 68-64 on Saturday. Winning this tournament puts WSU in the national discussion. Posting a 2-1 record this week isn’t so bad either just as long as its two wins against the right teams.
— Big game Tuesday for USC. Not sure if the Trojans are catching Tennessee at a good time. The Vols are stumbling, losing their last two games in a pair of upsets to Oakland and Charlotte. Last week Tennessee was ranked No. 7 and it will surely tumble when the polls are released later today. Still for the Trojans (6-5) it would be a significant achievement if they can fly across country and pull out a win in Knoxville, Tenn. USC has already beaten No. 20 Texas, which partly compensates for losing at home by 20 points to Rider. If Tennessee is ranked and USC wins, then that’s two wins against ranked opponents, which is something no other Pac-10 team can claim. The Trojans missed the NCAA tournament in 2010, which snapped a three-year streak. In 2009, they finished 9-9 in the Pac-10 and 22-13 overall, and received an automatic NCAA berth after winning the Pac-10 Tournament.
— Cal (6-4) has the best RPI (36) and strength of schedule (5) than anyone in the conference. The Bears won the Pac-10 regular-season title last season and they knocked off Louisville 77-62 in the first round of last season’s NCAA tournament. Cal has made two straight NCAA tourney appearances, including a 2009 berth when it finished 11-7 in the the conference and 22-11 overall. If the Bears can pull off the monumental upset on Wednesday and topple No. 3 Kansas and take care of business against Hartford, then they would finish the non-conference season with an 8-4 record. They’d need a top-three finish in Pac-10 play and a decent showing in the conference tournament for a 20-plus win season.
— UCLA’s 86-79 win over No. 16 BYU changed everything for the Bruins. Suddenly UCLA (6-4) can seriously think about returning to the Big Dance this season. In a few months, the one-point loss at Kansas when officials made a lousy call in the final seconds is going to look better and better. And a four-point loss against Virginia Commonwealth may actually help in a small way if VCU continues its early success. Unfortunately, UCLA’s defeat at home to Montana is an ugly wart. The Bruins RPI is 109, but that will change if they have success in the Pac-10 play. And let’s be honest, the NCAA selection committee has a soft spot for traditional powerhouses. UCLA has a signature in a semi-neutral setting (the BYU game was played at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calf.) If the Bruins finish strong and they’re among the top three in the conference, they’re in.
So here’s a reasonable scenario in which four Pac-10 teams receive a NCAA tournament berth.
Arizona or UCLA – the traditional powers with a national reputation – finish at least 12-6 in league play, 1-1 in the conference tournament and at least 21 wins overall. USC, Washington State or Cal capture another big win against a ranked non-conference opponent, win the regular-season crown, but bow out early in the conference tourney. Washington does what we suggested above and lose in the Pac-10 Tournament final.
Including the conference tournament winner, which receives an automatic invite, that’s four teams dancing in March. Heck, maybe five.
Will it happen? Probably not. But is it possible? Absolutely.
Klay Thompson is emerging as a star this season. He’s put the Washington Cougars on his shoulders and carried them to another win Sunday, an 85-79 victory at Santa Clara. Thompson tied the game with a three-pointer with 17 seconds in regulation to force the extra period. He finished with a team-high 23 points.
— The Pac-10’s other non-conference star has been Arizona sophomore Derrick Williams, who led the Wildcats to an impressive 72-62 win at North Carolina State. He finished with 22 points.

Comments | Topics: top 25, UCLA


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