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Jeff Eisenberg

The Pac-10 may be in better shape than you think

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You may have heard, oh, about 457 times in the past two months that the Pac-10 was in jeopardy of only sending one team to the NCAA tournament.

In fact, it was such a foregone conclusion only a week or two ago that no one outside the league seems to have noticed that Arizona State and Washington have suddenly joined Cal as legitimate at-large contenders.

By virtue of its top 25 RPI and its first Pac-10 title in 50 years, Cal is probably a shoo-in at this point despite a complete lack of marquee non-conference wins. Eight wins in 10 games have bolstered Arizona State's case, while Washington has also won eight of 10 to complement a non-conference victory over Texas A&M.

Neither the Sun Devils (22-9, 12-6) nor the Huskies (21-9, 11-7) should feel even remotely safe at this point, but the Pac-10 tournament creates a scenario where one of the two has a great chance to play their way in. If Arizona State beats seventh-seeded Stanford and Washington beats sixth-seeded Oregon State, the two will square off in the semifinals with the winner in fairly good shape for a bid assuming the bubble doesn't shrink dramatically between now and then.

"Anybody who applies the eyeball test to the games that are played can certainly conclude that right now our league is a lot better than what it was back in November and December," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek told the Arizona Republic. "The quality of our play is a great deal better than we've been given credit for, and I understand that because all we've done is play each other for the last two months. There's been no opportunity to measure us against outside competition."

Is Sendek right? Is talk of the Pac-10's demise exaggerated? Is the conference better than we think? Well, Arizona State may be better, but the league itself is still 2-13 against Top 25 teams, hasn't put a team in the rankings since Jan. 11 and remains less talented than it has been in years, maybe decades.

What has changed is two-fold: The conference's top three teams have finally achieved some separation from the even more mediocre middle of the conference, and bubble squads from other leagues have performed so poorly of late that the cut line has receded all the way back to Washington and Arizona State.

There's still definitely a chance that the Pac-10 only gets one bid, especially if neither Arizona State nor Washington makes the final or if Cal crushes the team that gets there. After all, we are talking about an Arizona State team whose best non-league win is San Diego State and a Washington team that started conference play 0-5 on the road before winning its final four.

But the fact that we're even discussing the possibility is a sign of progress in a season in which there haven't been many.

"I think Arizona State and California should be in," UCLA coach Ben Howland said after his Bruins lost to the Sun Devils on Saturday. "Washington is probably on the bubble, but they are a team that is hot right now."

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