It’s down to a five-week sprint to Selection Sunday (and even less for the Big Ten and some one-bid leagues that begin their conference tournaments in February). By now, it’s not hard to size up the serious postseason contenders for much of the country.
The Big 12 projects plenty of strength. The Big Ten is extremely top-heavy. The massive ACC is poised to enjoy the unveiling of the 68-team field thanks in large part to its sheer size. The Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley, typically leagues in contention to send multiple teams to the tournament, may have only one representative this season.
Then there’s the mystery league with few sure things. In the Pac-12, it’s a given Arizona is good (it has lost just once since a feeble showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November). On the flip side, California and Washington State (combined league record: 2-17) are not.
But for nearly everyone else? There’s just enough question marks to think things could go in any direction during the first weekend of the tournament. The key is getting there in the first place, and non-RPI analytics measures (which have become somewhat influential with the selection committee the last three years) aren’t particularly kind to some of the league’s borderline teams.
Oregon’s trip to the Final Four last year was the first for a Pac-12 school since 2008, before the league expanded with the addition of Colorado and Utah. But the conference has done a decent enough job in March over the last four seasons, with 10 of its 21 NCAA representatives making it out of the first weekend. Here’s how the league has fared in the past 10 seasons:
|Year||Bids||Sweet 16 or better|
|2017||4||Oregon (Final Four), Arizona (Sweet 16), UCLA (Sweet 16)|
|2016||7||Oregon (Elite Eight)|
|2015||4||Arizona (E8), UCLA (S16), Utah (S16)|
|2014||6||Arizona (E8), Stanford (S16), UCLA (S16)|
|2013||5||Arizona (S16), Oregon (S16)|
|2008||6||UCLA (F4), Stanford (S16), Wash. St. (S16)|
*- First year of expansion from 10 to 12 teams.
Arizona (19-4, 9-1) owns a seven-game winning streak entering Saturday’s trip to Washington, and the star power of Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier will likely help keep the Wildcats on track to earn a solid seeding and a trip to San Diego for the opening weekend of the tournament.
Beyond that, there’s four groupings of teams with varying degrees of hope now that everyone in the Pac-12 has reached the midpoint of conference play.
The Trojans looked like one of the bigger disappointments nationally when the calendar turned to 2018, even with a Diamond Head Classic championship in Hawaii on Christmas. But Andy Enfield’s team has won eight of nine entering a three-game trip to UCLA and the Arizona schools. If Southern Cal (17-6, 8-2) avoids a tailspin, it should be fine.
Arizona State (16-6, 4-6) has taken the opposite route to the season. Since going 12-0 before Christmas, the Sun Devils haven’t won consecutive games. Bobby Hurley’s bunch still boasts some impressive victories (Kansas, Kansas State and Xavier), and it lands in the top 40 of analytics measures like KenPom.com and the Sagarin ratings. Still, the Sun Devils can’t afford a complete collapse down the stretch.
Oregon and UCLA provided star power for the Pac-12 last year, only for graduation and NBA defections to all but ensure a step back this season. Both enter the weekend at 15-7 (UCLA is 6-4 in the league, while Oregon is 5-4), though neither team’s work to date is going to overwhelm the committee.
The good thing for both teams? Opportunities. Oregon still has a home-and-home with Washington (more on the Huskies shortly), and will also face Arizona, Arizona State, Southern Cal and UCLA this month. UCLA gets two shots at Southern Cal plus a trip to the desert to face the Arizona schools.
Unlike the Ducks and Bruins, opportunities to impress will be at a premium for both teams down the stretch. Utah (13-8, 5-5) has picked up a couple solid victories this season (at Arizona State and at home against Missouri), but has few chances to add to that before the Pac-12 tournament. The Utes still have home games against Southern Cal and UCLA, and a trip to Washington might help.
As for the surprising Huskies (16-6, 6-3), they’re shaping up to be a much-discussed team in early March. Washington won at Southern Cal and toppled Kansas in a de facto road game in Kansas City. The RPI isn’t an issue for the Huskies (No. 43 entering Friday), and their only loss to date that could cause any problems is a home setback against Stanford.
But analytics measures are unkind to Washington, which is No. 88 in both the KenPom and Sagarin rankings (though it checks in at No. 37 in KPI Sports). The Huskies get Arizona at home Saturday, a vital game for a team that will be done with the Arizona and Los Angeles schools for the regular season after this weekend.
It’s a long climb for both of these teams, even if they finish a bit above .500 in league play. Colorado (12-10, 4-6) took damaging losses to Colorado State, Iowa and San Diego in nonconference play. Stanford (12-11, 6-4) was a massive disappointment before league play, dropping games to Eastern Washington, Long Beach State and Portland State (it also accounts for Cal’s lone Pac-12 victory).
Neither is a realistic at-large candidate, but both are capable of derailing others. Colorado swept the Arizona schools at home last month, while Stanford defeated both Arizona State and Southern California.
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