As the Pac-10 begins its third straight week without a team in the top 25, a handful of stories have appeared about how the beleaguered league is no better than a year ago when it produced only two NCAA tournament berths.
There's little doubt the Pac-10 is still the worst of the big six leagues, but perhaps we're forgetting just how bad this conference was a year ago.
Entering the start of conference play last season, eventual champion Cal had four losses, Arizona and UCLA were a combined 11-13 and the league as a whole lacked signature wins. Aside from a strong showing by postseason-ineligible USC against Tennessee, the Pac-10's best non-league wins were Arizona State slipping past San Diego State and Washington defeating Texas A&M.
Lower-division teams like Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford have suffered some RPI-killing losses again this season, but the Pac-10's better teams enter conference play in considerably better shape than a year ago. Five Pac-10 teams have currently cracked the RPI top 60 and the league has produced victories over the likes of Texas, Tennessee, BYU, Temple, Baylor and Gonzaga.
For the Pac-10 to convert this slight uptick into a respectable number of NCAA tourney berths, the key will be for the league's top four or five teams achieving separation from the dregs of the conference.
A year ago, first-place Cal lost five league games, 10th-place Washington State won six league games and fifth place and ninth place were only separated by just a single victory. That jumbled mess in the middle of the standings only reinforced the notion that the Pac-10 was mediocre from top to bottom.
There's no guarantee that Washington's road woes won't continue in conference play or that maddening inconsistency won't continue to plague USC and UCLA, but the bottom line is this.
Based on the tournament's expansion to 68 teams and the Pac-10's performance in non-league play, four NCAA bids is not out of the question and it's more likely the conference produces three bids than one or two.