As we come down the stretch, it's time to start thinking about positioning for the NCAA tournament. As usual, there is concern among Booties about whether the Pac 10 will get a fair shake when the Selection Committee meets in a month.
First, let's dispense with some myths. The Selection Committee has never displayed the kind of East Coast bias that the media has displayed. The Pac 10 has traditionally gotten a fair shake from the Committee, based on the Committee's stated criteria for selecting at large teams. And, contrary to popular belief, the Committee really does examine the qualifications of teams on an individual basis, with little if any regard to the conferences in which they compete. Recent history shows that the Pac 10 has received as many as five bids in a strong year for the conference. The ACC has received as few as three bids. It would be a mistake to assume that the historic norm for the Pac 10, i.e. three to five bids, with four seemingly the most frequent outcome in recent years, will be a reliable guide this year.
Below is my brief analysis of the six teams that appear likely to receive bids. I have listed the teams in approximate order from the strongest to the weakest, according to the Committee's criteria. However, there is almost nothing separating numbers 2 through 5 in these rankings, and those teams could be seeded in any order if the tournament were held today. If the field were selected now, these six teams would almost certainly make the field. Obviously, much depends on the remaining 5 or 6 conference games each team will play, and it bears repeating that a team's record over its last 10 games is closely scrutinized.
1. Arizona. The only question is where the Cats will be seeded. Arizona bears some resemblance to last year's Maryland team in that it will enter the tournament with a lot of losses but having played a very difficult schedule. Arizona is ranked 8 in the current RPI. Winning the conference outright and winning the Pac 10 title could garner Arizona a #1 seed, but it probably can't afford to lose more than one remaining game, if that. A 2, 3 or 4 seed seems likely.
2. Oregon. The Ducks will be a difficult team to seed. Oregon went 0-3 in nonconference road games, losing to Umass, Portland and Minnesota. On the other hand, Oregon has beaten Arizona twice, and has beaten Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC at home. Because the Committee places great emphasis on quality road wins, Oregon may be seeded lower than the casual fan might surmise from the Ducks' home wins over the other top teams in the Pac 10. Oregon's RPI is a relatively unimpressive 35. Figure Oregon to be seeded somewhere between 4-6.
3. UCLA. At #21, UCLA has a higher RPI ranking than either Oregon or Stanford. However, UCLA is utterly lacking in respectable road wins. The home win over Kansas is nice, but again, home wins don't count as much as road/neutral wins. UCLA could help its seeding immensely with a quality road win or two down the stretch. UCLA is probably looking at a seeding in the 4-6 range.
4. Stanford. The lack of high profile road wins will hurt, though the Card did beat UCLA at Pauley. Stanford has decent road/neutral wins over Michigan State, New Mexico and Purdue. One factor working in Stanford's favor is that unlike several other Pac 10 teams which avoided road games at all costs or scheduled patsies, Stanford played some decent teams away from Maples (including the foregoing, plus Texas and BYU). Stanford's RPI is 31. Look for Stanford to be seeded between 5 and 7, unless it can pull an upset at Arizona, which could go a long way toward a 4 seed if Stanford loses no more than one remaining game.
5. Cal. Cal, like Oregon, is a tough one to peg. On the one hand, Cal has an RPI of 26, suggesting that it is a lock to make the tournament and garner a decent seed. On the other hand, Cal only played one road game before conference play started – an ugly loss to South Florida. Cal's best wins are on the road at USC and at home against Oregon. Given Cal's lack of quality road/neutral wins (or even road/neutral games), expect Cal to be seeded lower than its RPI might suggest. 8 or 9 sounds about right.
6. USC. Despite recently occupying first place in the Pac 10, USC may have the weakest case of all for making the tournament. The Trojans' RPI is a bubblicious 44. USC played an undistinguished preconference road/neutral schedule, going 4-1 with a loss against Fresno State. SC has quality home wins against Stanford and UCLA, but needs a quality road win to improve its tournament qualifications and secure a decent seeding.