Sizing up Cougs' chances at March Madness

IT'S NO SHOCKER after the Cougs' face-plant against Stanford that ESPN bracketology guru Joe Lunardi dropped WSU from his latest March Madness forecast. In his previous iteration of the list, the Cougs were one of the last four teams in the field. Still, they remain within sniffing distance because Lunardi is now classifying them one of his "first four out."

The others in that grouping are Oklahoma State, Memphis and New Mexico. Which, if you're a Cougar, means you want them to lose every game from here on out.

Given the way the Cougs have lost to Oregon and Stanford in the span of the last week, being one the "first four out" actually seems pretty favorable. That's especially so when you consider that the "last four in" to Lunardi's newest bracket -- Boston College, Richmond, Michigan State and Wichita State – aren't exactly playing like world beaters either.

Alas, Eamonn Brennan, who is ESPN's designated "bubble watcher," said today that even though the Cougs are in Lunardi's "first four out," he doesn't see things being that close for Ol' Wazzu. As such, he's dropping the Cougs (16-8 overall and 6-6 in conference) completely from his "bubble watch list."

Of the "first four out" teams, Brennan writes: "Washington State just lost to Stanford at home Thursday. Memphis lost at Marshall on Jan. 29 and at home to Tulsa on Feb. 2. Neither résumé is good; this week I dropped Wazzu from the Watch entirely. New Mexico still has a ton of work to do. Only Oklahoma State feels plausible here, and even that seems like a bit of a stretch."

The next four after that are UAB, Clemson, Butler and Colorado State -- a group that Brennan dubs "even uglier" than the grouping WSU is in.

Add all that up and Brennan basically has eight teams he doesn't like very much looking to knock out four other teams is also doesn't much like for the final four slots into March Madness.

So with that being the case, couldn't a nice run down the stretch by the Cougs punch their crimson ticket to the Big Dance?

Not likely. The Cougs need to have a great run down the stretch.

Here's why ...

Up above, in the paragraph where Brennan says the Cougars' resume isn't attractive, he's actually saying they don't have quality wins to their credit. The easiest measure of judging that is to look at the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) of each team. The lower a number the better.

A look at today's RPI standings bears out Brennan's assertion about the Cougs. Of the 12 teams that bracketology expert Lunardi right now considers to be somewhere between the last four in to the last eight out, WSU's RPI -- at 79 -- is far and away the worst. Only Richmond, New Mexico and Clemson, at 71, 68 and 63, are even close to that high. Seven of the others have an RPI in the 30s or 40s, and one is in the 50s.

What this suggests is that, contrary to some of the optimistic among us, a 4-2 finish to the regular season and a first-round win in the Pac-10 Tourney isn't going to cut muster for the Cougs unless -- unless -- they beat all or some combination of Arizona, Washington and UCLA. Those three teams, you see, have solid RPIs.

Arizona, at a 15 RPI, is the crème de la crème. A Cougar win in Tucson -- where the Wildcats have not lost this season -- would be huge. Very huge. In fact, maybe beating Arizona is all the Cougs need to do to punch their ticket if they take care of business against Cal, ASU and USC. Beating the Huskies, with a 38 RPI, in Seattle would be big but damn near epic if the Cougs take care of Arizona the week before. And beating UCLA (40 RPI) in Pullman in the season finale on March 5 could prove critical.

Until Selection Sunday, of course, it's just a bunch of speculation. It tells me the Cougars have a reasonable shot at March Madness. But they're going to have to show some mettle on the road -- as well as at home, based on what we saw in Thursday night's calamity -- if that is to become reality.

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