Still, the best way to analyze the conference race is to look at the teams in head-to-head-comparisons, comparing records and remaining schedules.
Best Chances in the Pac-10, as of February 25th:
Current Pac-10 Record: 12-4 (1st)
2/28 at USC
3/2 at UCLA
Oregon held serve against the Washington schools at home, as they had to.
They now go to L.A. this weekend, and on Thursday, essentially play for a share of the Pac-10 title against USC. If Oregon wins on Thursday, they have 13 conference wins, which absolutely guarantees them a tie for the Pac-10 championship – and guarantees that USC can't win the conference title. All Oregon needs, actually, is one win on their L.A. road trip and it gets at least a piece of the title. If they don't get a win against USC on Thursday, a win against UCLA on Saturday does it. The problem is, Oregon is not greatly impressive on the road.
But in head-to-head, Oregon probably has a better chance at winning the conference than anyone, since all they need is one win this weekend to guarantee at least a tie. Among the three teams tied for second, one game behind Oregon, with five losses each are USC, Arizona and Cal. USC definitely has the best chance among those three, with really only one tough game remaining on its schedule (Oregon) and the game at home. In head-to-head comparison of USC and Oregon, it's really a subjective call. Do you think that Oregon has a better chance of winning at least one game in L.A. against USC or UCLA, or does USC have a better chance of beating Oregon at home? You probably have to give the edge to Oregon, since the laws of physics say that the more attempts you have of accomplishing something the better your chances.
If Oregon finishes in a tie with USC for the title, it would depend on their records against the team that finished behind them, since they split their series this year. If the team behind them is Arizona, Oregon wins it since they swept Arizona this year.
Current Pac-10 Records: 11-5 (2nd -- tied)
3/2 Oregon State
USC could just about have wrapped up a share of the Pac-10 title with a win over Cal Saturday. But of course, in this year, USC was destined to lose and make it more complicated.
With USC losing to Cal, it gives Arizona, Cal and UCLA a chance at still winning the Pac-10 title, or at least a share of it. And it makes Oregon the team to beat – both in the conference, and, for USC, on the court, this Thursday. Next to the Duke game last year in the NCAA tourney, this is probably the biggest game for USC since Henry Bibby became head coach; if he gets the win, he probably at least has a tie for the Pac-10 title.
Among the teams with 5 losses, USC has the easiest course. USC has one tough game remaining, and its at home. Arizona has two tough games, both at home. Cal has two tough games, both on the road.
If they shared the Pac-10 title, USC would probably lose a tiebreaker to Oregon, but win a tiebreaker against Arizona. USC and Arizona split their games against each other this year, but USC split against Oregon while Oregon swept Arizona, which means they'd win a tiebreaker against Arizona if USC and Arizona tie for the Pac-10 title with Oregon finishing right below them. Got that?
Current Pac-10 Record: 11-5 (2nd -- tied)
If Arizona wins both its game at home, it has a chance to win the Pac-10 title, but a very, very slim one.
Try to follow this, because I barely can: Oregon would have to get swept in L.A. for Arizona to have a chance. So, say the Ducks get swept and Arizona wins both this weekend. Arizona finishes ahead of Oregon at 13-5 and 12-6, respectively. But if USC wins both (which would probably happen in this scenario since Oregon is stipulated as getting swept), USC is also 13-5. So, then Arizona and USC tie for the Pac-10 title. The tiebreaker would then go to whom did better against the team that finished below them. If that's Oregon, Arizona loses the tiebreaker. But UCLA probably finishes 12-6 (based on the scenario that Oregon got swept in L.A.). So, UCLA and Oregon are tied at 12-6. The winner of their tiebreaker for third place would then determine the tiebreaker for first place, which, at this point, in this scenario, is far too difficult and confusing to try to determine. Suffice it to say, quite a bit has to happen for Arizona to win the Pac-10. And quite simply, if Oregon wins one game in L.A. it eliminates Arizona from the Pac-10 title since Oregon beats them in a tiebreaker.
Current Pac-10 Record: 11-5 (2nd -- tied)
2/28 at ASU
3/2 at Arizona
Among the teams with 5 losses Cal has the toughest schedule, facing two tough games on the road to finish the season against ASU and Arizona.
It's even a toss-up whether Cal could finish higher than UCLA in the Pac-10 standings. Yes, Cal has one less loss, but Cal has two tough games left, both on the road. UCLA has one tough game remaining, and it's at home. What's more favorable? Cal also is playing well, beating USC and UCLA this weekend, but those games were at home. Cal has been sporadic on the road, losing at Washington the weekend before.
If Cal beats ASU this Thursday, it forces UCLA to have to beat Oregon to tie with the Bears in the Pac-10. If they then also beat Arizona on Saturday, Cal is 13-5, definitely finishing ahead of UCLA and in the thick of the tiebreakers among the top four teams in the conference.
Current Pac-10 Record: 10-6 (5th -- tied)
2/28 Oregon State
UCLA kept itself alive with the win at Stanford Saturday. If it had lost that game, it would have been out of contention for the top spots in the Pac-10 completely and almost assuredly relegated to sixth place in the Pac-10. But the Bruins won, and put themselves in a better position to finish higher than Stanford. They now have a very outside chance to actually still win the Pac-10 championship, a shot at second, and more realistically, a better shot at 3rd or 4th.
To win the Pac-10, they'd have to beat Oregon on Saturday, following a win by USC over Oregon on Thursday. USC, then, would have to get beat by Oregon State on Saturday. Okay, longshot scenario.
It's pretty unlikely that UCLA can come in second, too. In one scenario, Oregon would have to get swept, Arizona would probably have to get swept at home against Stanford and Cal with a combination of Cal then losing to ASU. UCLA would then finish behind USC for second, but would then have to win some very impossible-to-determine tiebreakers with Oregon and Cal to finish in second. In the other scenario, Oregon wins the Pac-10, and that happens with USC losing to Oregon, Arizona losing to Stanford or Cal (or both) combined with Cal losing to Arizona and/or ASU – while UCLA beats Oregon.
Put it this way, if UCLA beats Oregon next Saturday, they have an outside shot at 2nd or 3rd. If they lose to Oregon, they finish probably no better than fourth and probably fifth.
Current Pac-10 Record: 10-4 (5th -- tied)
2/28 at Arizona
3/2 at ASU
Stanford really took the biggest tumble in recent weeks in the Pac-10 race by getting beat at home by both UCLA and USC this weekend. They fell from tied to first to tied for fifth. That's why, last week, while they were tied for first in the standings, I had them picked to ultimately finish fourth.
But having dropped both of those games, fourth might be an over-estimate. They are tied for fifth with UCLA currently, but UCLA has only one tough game remaining and one easy one, both at home. Stanford has to go on the road for two tough games, against Arizona and Arizona State.
Just Playing for Seeding in the Pac-10 Tournament
Really, though, where someone finishes in the Pac-10 conference now, because of the tournament, is only good for three things: 1) Pac-10 tournament seedings, 2) overall record ramifications for the NCAA tournament and 3) some kind of diluted bragging rights.
And really with the way this conference has been this year, your Pac-10 conference seeding really isn't that significantly different if you're seeded from 2nd to 7th. Really the only significant advantage in the seeding is if you're seeded first and you get to face Washington or Oregon State in the first round of the tournament (more than likely Washington). After that, does it really matter? There's still possibility of a little advantage to finishing second in the conference, since you'd get the second seed in the tournament and then play ASU. But ASU beat UCLA a week ago and played Arizona tough this weekend. They're not a push over. And then, between the third and sixth seeds, anyone could beat anyone in the first round of the conference tournament. And then, when you get to the second round, again, anyone can beat anyone.
In other words, the conference tournament has really rendered the Pac-10 conference schedule this year incredibly inconsequential. With the top six teams so close and just about any of them able to beat another on any given day, the 18 games that each team played in the conference schedule is reduced to very little significance. The games this weekend are only really significant to determine who gets the #1 (and maybe #2) seed in the Pac-10 tournament, and the teams' win-loss records in regards to seeding for the NCAA tournament. But there's very little significance in the difference between finishing 2nd or even 5th in the conference standings. In fact, a team that finishes fifth in the Pac-10 conference, with a better run in the conference tournament and a few other favorable indicators, could very well end up seeded higher in the NCAA tournament than the team that finishes second in the Pac-10 standings.
Again, the Pac-10 tournament has robbed Pac-10 conference play of its significance. This year, in the first year of the conference tournament, there is still a lingering buzz about the significance of each Pac-10 game. But in years to come, as the conference tournament continues to dilute its significance, Pac-10 conference play will get less interesting and compelling.