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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

February 16, 2012 at 11:01 AM

Loyola spices the NCAA at-large picture

Unexpectedly — well, maybe not so unexpectedly — Loyola Marymount went to Saint Mary’s Wednesday night and dropped the Gaels, 75-60, which not only has huge implications for the West Coast Conference basketball race but possibly at-large bids affecting both the WCC and the Pac-12.

Loyola is an astonishing study unto itself, a team that has won seven road games in the WCC, a ridiculous accomplishment for a team that won’t win the league. The Lions are 17-10 and 11-4, and have a convincing early win against UCLA plus one over Saint Louis.

They’re not a threat to nab an at-large berth. But they might be a threat to win the WCC tournament title. If that were to happen, it would expand the NCAA-tournament bubble and make the scramble for at-large bids more competitive.

Gonzaga will make it in any case, barring a complete collapse. BYU is a bit iffier — pending a date next Thursday at GU’s Kennel — and I’m wondering again about Saint Mary’s. We’ve been through this rodeo before.

The Gaels lost by 14 at Gonzaga last week, got a competitive game from Santa Clara Saturday night, and then fell flat against Loyola. Now comes Saturday’s BracketBuster game at Murray State. It’s a game that has lost some luster in recent days, but perhaps gained more importance at the same time, as both teams’ at-large credentials could be called into question with a defeat.

Saint Mary’s (23-4) got banged up against Loyola, as guard Stephen Holt left with a knee injury of unannounced severity. If the Gaels drop one at Murray, no doubt they’re going to be reminded of last year, when they skidded down the stretch and saw a three-game WCC lead over Gonzaga melt into a co-championship. And then the Gaels failed to make the NCAA tournament.

They dropped to No. 31 in CBSSports.com’s RPI ratings Thursday. Their non-league scheduled included not only two-non-Division 1 teams, but six others with sub-200 RPI rankings. So a loss at Murray State, and another loss, say, before the WCC-tournament final could jeopardize an at-large spot.

If Loyola were to win the WCC tournament, it would stir debate about whether the WCC could nab an unprecedented four NCAA bids, which doesn’t seem likely. If it did come about, it would slim the chances of other bubble teams, which are sure to include some from the Pac-12.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see the WCC getting two bids — Gonzaga and somebody else.

Of course, Gonzaga stands to benefit from the Saint Mary’s loss to Loyola Marymount. Entering a weekend at Santa Clara and San Francisco, the Zags are now in position where, if they win out (finishing at home against BYU and on the road to San Diego), they can do no worse than tie for a 12th straight regular-season title.

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