December 19, 2011
The most telling indictment of the Pac-12's non-conference futility this season requires a brief history lesson.
In the past five seasons, 18 of 19 Pac-10 teams that won 11 or more conference games earned an NCAA tournament bid with Arizona State's 2009-10 team serving as the lone unlucky exception. This season, there may not be a team in the league with an impressive enough resume to reach the NCAA tournament with an 11-7 conference record and many wouldn't feel entirely secure at 12-6 either.
If the Pac-10's nadir was thought to be the 2009-10 season when only regular season champ Cal and conference tournament winner Washington made the NCAA tournament, this season could yet challenge that one. The Pac-12 is currently ninth in league RPI and has a pathetic 12-33 record against teams in the top 100.
Stanford (9-1) would be in the best position of any Pac-12 team entering conference play if it can defeat Butler at home on Thursday, but the Cardinal's lack of marquee wins would require a strong conference season to validate their record. The best teams Stanford has beaten so far are NC State, Oklahoma State and Colorado State, all three of which are more likely to land in the NIT than the NCAA tournament.
Cal (8-2) also currently lacks either a bad loss or a marquee win, though the Bears have a final chance to earn the latter out of conference this week when they visit UNLV. If Cal loses, it will enter Pac-12 play with victories over middling Georgia and improved Denver as its crowning non-conference achievements.
Oregon State (8-2) was in the midst of an impressive start to the season until it lost to woeful Idaho at home last week. The Beavers' neutral-court victory over Texas may be the strongest win any team in the league has posted, but the majority of their other victories aren't even against quality mid- and low-major programs.
Arizona has played probably the strongest schedule of any Pac-12 team, but the Wildcats (7-4) don't have enough to show for it. A home win over struggling Clemson, a virtual road win over St. John's and a true road win over New Mexico State serve as Arizona's best non-conference ammunition because the Wildcats lost to the likes of Mississippi State, San Diego State, Gonzaga and Florida
And then there's underachieving UCLA and Washington, preseason conference favorites who are both 5-5 without a quality win between them. It's too early to say both need to win the Pac-12 tournament to play in March, but it's difficult to envision a scenario where either fights their way back into the at-large picture without a minimum of 13 conference victories.
Some analysts are already pondering the possibility of the Pac-12 only being a one-bid league in March. That's probably unrealistic, but the odds of the league getting more than two or three bids grow slimmer by the day.
What will determine the Pac-12's fate is how the league race breaks.
If three of the above teams get to 12 or 13 league wins and separate themselves from the middle of the league, then three or more NCAA bids would be very feasible. If the league champ is the only team who reaches that threshold and the rest of the pack finishes in a clump in the middle, then it could be 2009-10 all over again.