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Pac-12 Basketball Bubble Watch: How Many Teams Will Go Dancing?

Joey Kaufman |
February 23, 2012 | 11:33 a.m. PST

Contributing Writer

A strong performance in the Pac-12 Tournament could punch a Dance ticket. (Rina Laxa/Creative Commons)
A strong performance in the Pac-12 Tournament could punch a Dance ticket. (Rina Laxa/Creative Commons)
It's hard to believe, but with the NCAA tournament just a couple weeks away, there is in fact a Pac-12 bubble. OK, get your laughs in. Now let’s move on.

Certainly, the 2012 season hasn't been particularly kind to the conference, which went 2-31 against the RPI top 50 over the course of nonconference play and 0-15 against the top 25. Simply put, nobody really boasts any marquee out-of-conference wins.

But alas, the Pac-12 does get on automatic bid each March (hear, hear!), and the selection committee is faced with the challenge of filling 37 at-large berths, so in other words, a couple teams are going to crack the field. Let’s not our kid ourselves – it won’t end up being a one-big league. The bubble, as you probably heard last year, is pretty weak.

So let’s take a closer look at the questions that still remain.

How many teams from the Pac-12 will actually make the field of 68?

That's tough to say and that likely depends on who eventually wins the Pac-12 tournament next month at Staples Center.

Allen Crabbe's 15.6 points per game are fifth in the conference. (Dinur/Creative Commons)
Allen Crabbe's 15.6 points per game are fifth in the conference. (Dinur/Creative Commons)

Nobody in the league is really a lock to crack the tournament at this point, but California is probably the closest thing to one. At 22-6 overall and currently in a first-place tie with Washington, the Golden Bears have the highest RPI of any team at 30. (For reference, RPI is a ratings system that ranks teams based on three factors: the team's record, its opponents' record and its opponents' opponents' record.)

Should the Golden Bears, who are projected as a No. 9 seed in the Big Dance by ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, fail to secure an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament, such a scenario would likely free up a spot, allowing a potential third team from the Pac-12 to secure a berth.

Perhaps most importantly, Cal stumbling helps other teams in terms of a quality win. Should a team beat Mike Montgomery's squad, they’d record a victory over an RPI top-30 team. Exciting!

So to some degree, Cal losing once in the Pac-12 Tournament helps because A.) A fringe team, say Colorado or Oregon, can snatch the automatic bid and B.) Someone can grab a quality win.

And to an extent, this is all assuming the Golden Bears will, in fact, secure an at-large bid no matter how they fair at Staples – finishing the regular season 3-0 would certainly help their cause. Either way, I would be surprised if they didn’t end up in the NCAA Tournament.

So then who’s left?

Ah, yes. There are other teams. Let’s start with those who probably have the best bet at snatching an at-large bid.

Exhibit A: Washington. The Huskies boast the second-highest RPI of any Pac-12 team at 52. The problem, however, is that they don’t really boast a single quality win. They went to overtime against Nevada but lost. They fell by just two points to No. 11 Marquette. They stumbled against No. 7 Vanderbilt. They lost by six to No. 5 Duke. They lost to Cal and only play the Golden Bears once in the regular season.

So, their best win? Probably a 76-70 win over Oregon in Seattle on Dec. 31. It likely isn't comforting, though, that the Ducks routed the Huskies in the teams' most recent game on Feb. 9.

But because of those close games against some top-10 teams, Washington's 19 overall wins and the mere fact they have been to the tournament the last three years, it will be tough to keep the Huskies out. Lunardi has them as a No. 11 seed currently, but there is still a lot of time left. With a lack of marquee wins, they really can’t afford many more losses.

Kyle Fogg has led Arizona in scoring with 12.8 PPG (Shotgun Spratling/NT)
Kyle Fogg has led Arizona in scoring with 12.8 PPG (Shotgun Spratling/NT)

Exhibit B: Arizona. Even without Derrick Williams, who was the No. 2 pick in last June's NBA draft, the Wildcats have managed to amass 19 wins thus far. But like Washington, they lack any signficant wins. They were upended by No. 12 Florida in overtime in December. They faced Gonzaga in Seattle but lost. Similarly, they fell to Mississippi State, which is currently on the bubble as well. But unlike the Huskies, they do have a win over Cal in Berkeley, which should provide a boost.

To have a shot at an at-large bid, they'll likely need to finish the regular season with wins over USC, UCLA and Arizona State – and they appear more than capable of doing as much. Any one of those would be a bad loss. If they can do that, they will have finished with eight wins in their final nine games. Coupled with a win or two in the conference tournament, they should be in good shape.

While Washington and Arizona's hopes for at-large berths are largely predicated on closing the regular season with wins over the L.A. schools and their in-state rivals, Colorado and Oregon face tougher climbs to playing themselves into the tournament.

They don't have to necessarily secure an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament, but they do need some help.

What do they need to do?

Colorado: As of right now, the Buffaloes, even at 18-8, aren’t exactly a tournament team. They're just 3-4 on the road in conference play, which isn’t exactly reassuring. But fortunately for the Pac-12's newest member, the schedule could prove beneficial down the stretch. Over the next two weekends, they’ll play Stanford and Cal in Boulder, followed by trips to Oregon and Oregon State – three RPI top-100 teams.

If they win three of those, they’d put themselves in a good position. With three wins, they'd finish 7-2 over the course of February and March. Couple that with two wins in the Pac-12 Tournament and a trip to the conference semifinals and that might be enough to get the Buffaloes a bid.

Oregon: The Ducks really have to beat Colorado at home on March 1. I’m hesitant to call a regular season game a "must-win," but that will be close. Both teams arent going to snag at-large bids; it's just not going to happen. And unlike Colorado, Oregon doesn’t have many opportunities left to compile RPI top-100 wins.

Their best bet is likely to sweep their remaining three games against Oregon State, Utah and the Buffaloes. If they don't do that, they'll be in trouble. But whereas some of their conferences foes have the chance to build upon their resumes, the Ducks really don’t. 

Jared Cunningham and the Beavers would need to run the table. (Beaverbasketball/Creative Commons)
Jared Cunningham and the Beavers would need to run the table. (Beaverbasketball/Creative Commons)

As for the rest?

Teams like Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA have to win the tournament to play themselves in. They're not getting at-large bids. It will be tough to win four games in four days, but no team in the conference is unbeatable.

So what happens?

In Larry Scott’s perfect world, a team like Oregon beats Cal in the Pac-12 title game. That scenario cements the Golden Bears’ at-large bid, while the Ducks snag the automatic bid. And then the selection committee possibly sends Arizona or Washington to the First Four.

There are still a few variables. There are other bubble teams. There are other conference tournaments, as well. The order will shuffle, but a couple Pac-12 teams, say two or three, should end up dancing next month.


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