Parity in Pac-12 basketball is rearing its head, and that may end up to be less than good news for the league’s NCAA-tournament berths, which are important in several ways: To the individual programs, to the national image of the league, and not least, to Pac-12 finances.
You might recall this phenomenon in Pac-12 football, when the overall strength of the conference prevented a second team from going to the last round of Bowl Championship Series games. One of Stanford’s losses was to a Utah team that won two league games, and more devastating, unheralded Arizona whomped Oregon to keep the Ducks out of a possible Sugar Bowl berth.
Now fast-forward to hoops, where this weekend, Oregon and Colorado, two teams that would have been considered shoo-ins for NCAA berths just a couple of weeks ago, are reeling and neither is anything close to an NCAA-tournament certainty. At one time, the Buffs were top-10 RPI material, while Oregon was ranked No. 10 nationally when 13-0.
Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest post on ESPN.com is headlined: “Oregon no lock for NCAA tourney.” You’d figure the Ducks would snap out of a a five-game tailspin Sunday at Washington State, but even at that, Oregon will need to play some defense and find some inside game in the second half of the Pac-12 season to make it.
Then there’s unfortunate Colorado, which lost its best player, Spencer Dinwiddie, to a season-ending knee injury 13 days ago at Washington. Remember, what matters now to the basketball committee is how the Buffs do without Dinwiddie, not before, and so far, the results haven’t been positive. CU was blown out by Arizona State Saturday, completing a lost weekend in the desert to fall to 15-6 and 1-3 without Dinwiddie.
On the other hand, you say, teams like Washington and Arizona State have risen lately. True enough, but there are caveats associated with both. The Huskies (13-8) got precious little done in the pre-conference portion of the schedule, and still have rugged road trips left to the mountain schools and the Oregons. ASU (15-5) is still viable, but even with a weekend sweep of Utah and Colorado, has only two victories against the RPI top 100.
So the Pac-12’s doomsday scenario would put, say, three teams into the NCAA — Arizona, Cal and UCLA — with a lot of the next level tearing each other apart. Not necessarily likely, but possible.
Expect two things with February and March ahead: Some severe campaigning by the league coaches, advocating for the overall prowess of the league, and more importantly, a league tournament in March where some of the second-level teams need wins to keep themselves from the throes of the NIT and CBI.