It’s the question on everybody’s mind.
The conference has been weak since Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and company left early to dominate the NBA. Two teams reached the NCAA tournament in 2010 — four last year (one of which was USC, perhaps the last team selected). Currently, ESPN’s predictions have three Pac-12 teams in, with a fourth (Oregon) as one of the first four out. Sports Illustrated has just two teams in — Cal and Washington — and Arizona has one of the first four out.
There has even been talk of only one Pac-12 team dancing this year. I don’t see that happening.
For starters, it’s not just a lack of talent on the West Coast — all of college basketball is weak. For instance, after North Carolina, Duke and Florida State, the ACC is pretty barren. The SEC is likewise top-heavy, with Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt as the only sure-fire tournament teams.
With zero top-25 teams, the Pac-12 is obviously the worst of the Big Six conferences. But the Pac-12 is a lot better than people let on. While no conference squad will reach the Final Four — and even a Sweet Sixteen appearance is probably unlikely — I wouldn’t be surprised to see a solid first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the Pac-12. But which teams will make it? And how many?
It would take a meltdown, in my opinion, for Cal not to dance. The Bears are currently first in the conference and have the best RPI. Cal has 11 votes in the AP poll and 21 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, so the squad is teetering just outside of the top 25. Bracket projections have Mike Montgomery’s club in the eight-to-10 range for seeding. If the Bears win their next three to take the conference, they should be in. Even if it only wins two of its next three, the team has accomplished enough this season to warrant a bid.
But with a thin bench, Cal probably won’t win the Pac-12 tournament and receive its automatic bid. Washington is probably the favorite even without Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas, who was the tournament MVP each of the last two years after leading the Huskies to both titles. If Washington wins its next three games to clinch at least a share of the conference title, there might be a little less motivation for the Huskies — even though they too are on the bubble.
The best-case scenario for the Pac-12 is that neither Cal nor Washington wins the tournament, meaning in all likelihood three conference teams will make it. Arizona would seem the logical choice, but Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State could all catch fire. Heck, Staples Center is practically a home game for UCLA — maybe the Bruins will make a run.
Let’s go back to Arizona, perhaps the most interesting case. The Wildcats are two games out of first place, tied with Oregon and a half-game behind Colorado. But they are peaking at the right time, winning five of their last six, including an upset of Cal in Berkeley. Arizona’s next three are against the L.A. schools and then in Tempe versus Arizona State — the Wildcats should win all three, giving them 22 wins.
Getting four Pac-12 teams in the NCAA tournament is a long shot. The only foreseeable way would be if the Bears and Huskies share the conference title and Arizona loses in the tournament final to a fourth team. My guess: three teams — Cal as an 8 seed, Washington, a 10 and Arizona, a 12.
It’s only February, but let the madness begin.