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By Joe Nelson
In the past three NCAA tournaments the Pac-10 and the SEC have each produced three Final Four teams (UCLA ’06, ’07, ’08; Florida ’06, ’07; LSU ’06). In that time frame the much more talked about and presumably stronger conferences, the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, and Big 12, have only produced one Final Four team each. So far this season neither the Pac-10 nor the SEC appears to have a championship contender and in reality neither conference has proven it has a team that is a complete lock to even earn an at-large bid into the tournament. These are the Pac-10 teams in the mix for tournament spots, look for a SEC article coming in the next few days. All of these teams would be best served to finish the season strong as neither conference is likely to secure a great deal of bids with fairly poor overall rankings by most measures.
UCLA: The Bruins have made three straight final fours and have been highly ranked all season long. They are currently tied for the lead in the Pac-10 at 7-2 (through Feb. 3) and they did not have a bad non-conference loss, losing to Texas and Michigan away from home. Are they a lock for the NCAA tournament? Probably, but the schedule is tough in the coming weeks. UCLA is likely to lose a few games over the course of the next eight games and the early season schedule did not build that strong of a resume.
The best non-conference wins came against Miami, Ohio and Southern Illinois and the losses to Texas and Michigan do not look as strong as they once did. In Pac-10 play UCLA lost to both Arizona State and Washington and they have to play both of those teams again in addition to facing USC and Washington State at home and Stanford, California, and Arizona on the road. A non-conference game against Notre Dame will also be a challenge and a loss could give the Big East some pull when it comes down to selecting bubble teams. UCLA is 0-3 against teams ranked in the top 25 by the Sagarin ratings and they have the weakest strength of schedule of any team in the Pac-10 so they will not compare favorably should the conference standings end up with a handful of teams with similar records.
WASHINGTON: The Huskies have also put together a strong profile and sit tied for the conference lead at this point in the season. Washington beat UCLA which is currently their chief calling card but there is not much quality in the non-conference schedule as the Huskies beat Oklahoma State but lost to Kansas and Florida, two teams with very similar overall profiles to Washington at this point in the season. Washington has suffered a few suspect losses and still must travel to the Bay area and Los Angeles for four dangerous road games that could shape the season.
Washington lost its opening game of the season against Portland and conference losses against California and Arizona will not help as both of those teams appear headed towards the wrong side of the bubble. Washington has built a strong conference record but they played an easy first half of the conference schedule with four home games in the first seven contests and both Oregon schools on the road adding to the win column. Washington has stronger index numbers than UCLA at this point with a tougher overall schedule but they also have looked like a team that can definitely lose to mediocre teams at times as well.
ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils started the year 12-1 and were a team growing on the national radar. The lone early loss seemed respectable enough losing against Baylor another team that was valued highly early in the season. There were no great wins but beating BYU, Nebraska, UTEP, Charlotte, and San Diego State carried some weight. ASU has not held up in Pac-10 play however and making the tournament is not a given for this team.
The Sun Devils are 5-4 in league play and losing on the road at California and at USC could have been forgiven but getting swept by the Washington schools at home hurts the cause. Arizona State gets revenge opportunities on the road with those teams but the remaining home schedule is tough. The next two road games are against Oregon and Oregon State and avoiding a bad loss is paramount for a team that will likely land near the bubble. USC and California likely would lead Arizona State in the Pac-10 pecking order right now based on the head-to-head wins.
CALIFORNIA: The Bears are headed the wrong direction having lost four of the last five and the home loss to Oregon State will be an ugly stain on the resume. Cal did pick up a few decent non-conference wins over Utah, UNLV, and Nevada but losses to Missouri and Florida State could be problematic for comparisons sake as those teams will be taking up at-large spots before the Bears are considered. Getting swept in Los Angeles was not an ideal result but the Bears can make up for it by winning four of the next five in a set that features three home games and road games in Oregon.
The closing schedule is brutal for Cal which could ultimately keep the Bears out of the dance. Cal must host USC and UCLA then go to Arizona and Arizona State before the Pac-10 tournament. Cal needs to stop the losing streak immediately and the opportunity to pick up a big win is waiting a big game against Washington this week.
USC: The Trojans are currently sitting ahead of California and Arizona State in the conference standings and a recent string of wins in five of the past six games has USC looking like a legitimate threat for the postseason. The surge could be short lived as five of the next seven games are on the road and falling back to mediocrity could happen pretty quickly. The loss at Oregon State and a loss to Seton Hall do not help the profile but as Oklahoma rises in the rankings, USC’s one-point loss in Norman looks more impressive as well.
Wins over New Mexico State and Georgia Tech help the cause a bit but in reality the Trojans need to score a win over one of the top teams in the Pac-10 to get a boost. The schedule ahead does not look promising but USC does own a strong strength of schedule rating having played five top 25 rated teams so far this season.
ARIZONA: The Wildcats already have eight losses and some of them do not look very good, but wins over Gonzaga and Kansas could go a long way if Arizona can finish the season strong. Beating Washington was critical and beating USC and UCLA in the coming weeks at home is essential to even garner consideration.
Arizona does not have any horrible losses but falling to UAB, Texas A&M, UNLV, and Stanford could add up to a NIT bid and the end of the nation’s longest NCAA tournament streak. Arizona has played nine games against top 50 teams, which is as many as anyone in the conference. Arizona is currently 4-5 in Pac-10 play and getting to 11-7 is probably necessary and a very tall order.
Stanford and Washington State have both played respectably and will be spoiler threats but either would likely need a near perfect finish in addition to a Pac-10 tournament run to even make the radar. Oregon State has emerged as a bit of an upset threat with a couple of nice wins in an encouraging season but are far from tournament consideration while Oregon is on pace for a disastrous year but in fairness has played by many measures the #1 toughest schedule in the nation.