Nothing like a Six Pac

For years the Pac-10 has felt that it has been disrespected by the rest of the nation and hasn't received its due when it comes to getting teams into postseason play. This year could be a completely different story if six of the league's teams make it into the NCAA Tournament come March.

When determining who gets in the Tournament and who gets left out, the NCAA Selection Committee takes a number of variables into consideration. The one area that is held in the highest esteem is a particular team's RPI ranking.

Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is a computer formula based upon a number of things, including strength of schedule, win-loss percentage and the win-loss percentage of a team's set of opponents. Since there are only 34 at-large berths for teams to get into the Big Dance, RPI becomes very critical to a team's chances of making it in.

This year, to make it reasonable and fair, we will take a look at teams within the RPI top 40, simply because that is the number closest to how many at-large teams will be included in the Tournament.

In the Pac-10, all six teams making a case for consideration happen to be RPI top 40 teams, Arizona the highest at number six and USC being the lowest at the cutoff line of 40. No other league can claim as many as six teams in the top 40.

Other than Arizona and USC, the Pac-10 has UCLA at 19th, Oregon at 28th, and then Cal and Stanford at 30th and 31st respectively. As it turns out, five teams (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and USC) from the Pac-10 find themselves ranked in both the ESPN/USA Today and AP polls. Only the Big XII can match that number.

Of all the years the Pac-10 has quietly protested that it should have had more teams get into the Tournament, this would be the year that the biggest uproar would be made if all six teams don't get in.

In three of the past five years, the Pac-10 has seen four of its member schools advance to at least the Sweet 16 in the same Tournament (1997, 1998 and 2001). No other conference can come close to matching that feat. Also, the Pac-10 can claim two National Championships since 1995 (UCLA in '95 and Arizona in '97). Only the SEC, with Kentucky in 1996 and again in 1998, can match that.

The odd thing is that in all those years where the Pac-10 had four teams advance to the Sweet 16, never has it seen this many teams ranked so highly in the RPI heading into the season's stretch run.

The simple translation of that is simple: The time for six teams is now.

Here is the case for each of the conferences six possible candidates for spots in the 2002 Tournament.

Arizona: 15-6 overall record with a nation-leading nine wins against RPI top 50 teams. Arizona has defeated seven teams ranked in the top 25 and has done all of this with the league's youngest roster and the nation's second toughest schedule (according to the RPI). The Wildcats are currently playing their best basketball of the season and should be one of the favorites for the conference's automatic berth with a good run in the Pac-10 tournament in early March.
Chance of making The Dance: Lock.
Likely seeding: Two or Three.
Tournament Ceiling: Final Four run.

Oregon: 16-5 overall record. Seven wins vs. RPI top 50 teams, which ranks tied for third (along with Duke) in the nation. Oregon has destroyed Arizona twice but has three "bad losses" on its ledger on the road against UMass, Portland and Minnesota. Losing on the road to Washington won't help either, but the demolition of teams like UCLA (by 29 points) and Arizona (by 30 and 10 points, respectively) most certainly will. The Ducks are alone atop the conference standing currently but face two daunting road trips to the Bay Area schools this week and then rematches against the LA schools in a couple weeks. With its three-headed perimeter monster (Luke Ridnour, Freddie Jones and Luke Jackson), look for the Ducks to go no worse than 2-2 on those two road trips.
Chance of making The Dance: Lock.
Likely seeding: Four or Five.
Tournament Ceiling: Elite Eight.

Stanford: 13-6 overall record. The Cardinal's RPI ranking of 31 seems a bit low, but considering that they have played only the 47th hardest schedule in America and have only three wins vs. RPI top 50 teams to show for it, maybe it's justified. Stanford is playing much better basketball of late and lost a heartbreaker at home to Arizona last Saturday that kept the Cardinal from gaining serious momentum down the stretch. With Casey Jacobsen scoring the way he has been and center Curtis Borchardt down low, expect Stanford to be a very "tough out" in the Tournament.
Chance of making The Dance: Lock.
Likely seeding: Seven or Eight.
Tournament Ceiling: Elite Eight.

UCLA: 15-6 overall record. The preseason favorite Bruins have managed to play like, well, like UCLA so far this year. The Bruins can look unstoppable at times (beating No. 1-ranked Kansas by 10 last month) and then turn around and look downright silly at others (blew a 20-point lead to Arizona late in the second half to lose by ten and then losing by 29 at Oregon). There is no telling which UCLA team will show up in March, but it is almost certain that Jason Kapono and crew will be among those in the field of 65. Never has a team with a top 20 RPI ranking missed out on making the Tournament and UCLA is currently 19th.
Chance of making The Dance: Very likely (95%).
Likely seeding: Anywhere from a Four to an Eight.
Tournament Ceiling: There isn't one, but most likely nothing past the Sweet 16.

USC: 16-5 overall record with quality wins over Stanford and UCLA. The Trojans have the lowest RPI ranking of all six Pac-10 candidates at No. 40. However, with the way senior forward Sam Clancy has been playing, USC has the kind of player capable of putting the team on his shoulders for a deep Tournament run. USC made it to the Elite Eight last year before losing to Duke and expect nothing less in 2002. Other than a 17-point loss at Arizona last month, USC's only losses have been very close and could easily have turned out in its favor (loss to Cal by one in overtime and then at Oregon by four in the last few seconds). The Trojans' key to making a big push in the Tournament is the play of senior point guard Brandon Granville. If he is on his game, USC can play with anybody.
Chance of making The Dance: Near lock.
Likely seeding: In the 6-8 range.
Tournament Ceiling: Elite Eight.

California: 15-5 overall record with a No. 30 RPI ranking. The only thing keeping the Bears from being a lock for the Tournament is its relatively weak schedule (ranked 86th overall as of now). Cal has won big games over Stanford and at USC and played Oregon close on the road in Eugene before losing by four points late. Bad losses to South Florida (by 20) and at Stanford (by 20) could hurt Cal's chances, which are already the most questionable of the six conference teams. The guess here is that if Cal wants to assure itself of a Tournament berth, it needs to play very well in the Pac-10 tournament by at least winning one game. If the Bears make it to the championship game on Saturday March 9th, expect the Pac-10 to get all six of its candidates in.
Chance of making The Dance: Bubble team with 65-35 odds.
Likely seeding: In the 9-11 range.
Tournament Ceiling: Second round.

When it is all said and done, expect to see the Pac-10 get its six teams into the Tournament and for most of them to make some noise.

The knock on the conference this year is that there aren't any dominant teams like a Duke or a Kansas. However, I say that that is the case all over the country as well. There is a huge drop off in talent after Duke, Kansas and Maryland. After that, anybody can make a run at the Final Four, including three or four teams from the Pac-10.

The 2002 Tournament is going to be crazy, but the Pac-10 will make its presence felt. There is no doubt that it is deserving of getting six teams in.

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