Midway through the Pac-10 season, only two games separate the top nine teams.
The balance makes the league unpredictable and interesting to watch. But it may mean bad news when the NCAA selects its tournament bracket, because no one has emerged from the mire of mediocrity.
“It’s probably the worst-case scenario for the NCAA,” said California coach Mike Montgomery, whose team shares the lead with Arizona.
There is, as coaches like to say, a lot of hoops to be played. But RPI guru Jerry Palm thinks Montgomery is “absolutely right.”
In an Internet projection, Palm has only one Pac-10 team — Cal — in his bracket.
“Nobody is taking control of the league in conference (play), and without that, this could be a one-bid league,” said Palm, editor of CollegeRPI.com.
The Pac-10’s automatic NCAA berth goes to the winner of its conference tournament, which will be staged March 10-13 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Only nine teams will compete; Southern California has declared itself ineligible for postseason play as part of the self-imposed sanctions for violating NCAA rules involving former player O.J. Mayo.
The Pac-10 has never drawn fewer than two bids since the NCAA tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985. But that could change next month.
With few notable nonconference victories, the league did little to earn respect in the fall semester. The latest RPIs are discouraging for a conference whose image has been taking a beating since before Thanksgiving.
The Golden Bears are the league’s highest-ranked team in this week’s RPIs, at No. 24. The Wildcats are next, at No. 53.
Five Pac-10 squads are ranked at No. 100 or lower, including longtime powerhouse UCLA. The Bruins check in at No. 126 — one rung above Long Beach State, which defeated UCLA by 11 points.
The bottom line: Pac-10 teams receive little credit for beating each other.
“I just think the league is better than people want to give it credit for,” Montgomery said after the Golden Bears’ 76-72 loss at Arizona on Sunday.
“To be very honest, there’s several teams that, if they finish up top, it’s going to hurt everybody because of the way it’s going to be viewed,” Montgomery said. “Because they’re not giving us any credit for playing each other in the league. So now, teams that have been viewed to be not very good by the pundits all of a sudden are beating people, and that means nobody’s any good, and that’s the problem.”
Consider UCLA, the Pac-10’s most storied basketball school.
Most years, a win over the Bruins would be a highlight on a team’s NCAA resume. No longer.
The Bruins are 10-11 overall, with losses to Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State. But at 5-4 in the Pac-10, UCLA is only one game off the conference lead.
The Pac-10’s quandary reminds first-year Arizona coach Sean Miller of his time at Xavier. The Musketeers were often judged on how they performed outside the Atlantic 10 but given little credit for conference success.
“I thought those days were really over for me, but nonetheless here we are,” Miller said Tuesday on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference.
Miller hopes the NCAA selectors will take note of his team’s rugged nonconference schedule.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Wildcats and Golden Bears have played the league’s toughest schedules, as measured by the RPI.
Cal’s schedule ranks No. 1, reflecting trips to Kansas and New Mexico and neutral-site games against Syracuse and Ohio State. Arizona’s schedule is No. 8.
The schedule tested the youthful Wildcats early on — they started 6-7 — but Miller hopes it will pay dividends on selection Sunday.
“Performance is the best indicator to get into the tournament,” Miller said. “You can’t buy your way into the tournament. You can’t politic your way into the tournament. You have to perform.”
Four Pac-10 teams — Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State — played schedules ranked below 100. Unless one of them wins the Pac-10 tourney, they may have scheduled themselves into the NIT.
“One thing you can control as a program and coach is who you play in the nonconference,” Miller said. “You can’t play a weak nonconference schedule and then complain about not being in the NCAA tournament.”