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Pac-10's hopes for the NCAA tournament have downsized

Arizona and UCLA seem definite for big berths, but slumping Washington will need some help, while USC and California probably must advance to the conference title game and then hope.

March 08, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • USC's Maurice Jones drives past Washington's Venoy Overton during the Trojans' 62-60 victory Saturday. USC and Washington are among the Pac-10 teams that are facing an uphill battle when it comes to qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
USC's Maurice Jones drives past Washington's Venoy Overton… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

Somebody needs to make up his mind.

In successive years, Staples Center will have played host to the Pacific Nine Conference tournament, the Pac-10 tournament and, next season, the Pac-12 tournament.

Conference officials are hoping for a Pac-4 or a Pac-5 mentality when NCAA tournament bids are extended Sunday, but that decision is out of their hands.

Top-seeded Arizona and second-seeded UCLA are considered locks regardless of what happens in the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament that starts Wednesday. The next tier of teams has some work to do to ensure the Pac-10 isn't regarded as a two-bit — and a two-bid — conference for a second consecutive year.

"I think the league probably ends up with three bids," said Jerry Palm, an independent Ratings Percentage Index expert who also formulates NCAA tournament projections. "The max is four, and probably requires an upset winner."

If the Pac-10 were a job applicant, its resume probably wouldn't make it past the initial screener. It features one ranked team — No. 16 Arizona — and it is seventh in conference RPI. Pac-10 teams didn't exactly stack up against the power conferences, going 2-4 against the Big East, 0-1 against the Big Ten, 5-11 against the Big 12 and 2-4 against the Mountain West.

But hey, there's always that 15-0 mark against the Big West. Not that it will do much to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.

"At the end of the day, if the conference is not very highly thought of, if they're battling to get three teams in, I don't know how they're going to get four or five in," said California Coach Mike Montgomery, whose Golden Bears (17-13) probably need to win the Pac-10 tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.

Washington, the preseason conference favorite, finished third and is plummeting faster than native-son-turned-UCLA-freshman Joshua Smith's popularity in Seattle. The Huskies have dropped six of their last 11 games and will be without Venoy Overton in their quarterfinal Thursday against Washington State after the senior guard was suspended for allegedly supplying alcohol to a minor.

Combine that with an official NCAA RPI figure of 47 and the Huskies (20-10) might be looking at a double-digit NCAA tournament seeding in some faraway nook (hello, Cleveland?).

"I feel confident," Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said of his NCAA tournament chances, "but that doesn't mean if you're confident you get in the tournament. We have to go out and make sure we finish this out."

Joe Lunardi, ESPN's famed "bracketologist," projects Washington with a No. 10 seeding playing in Charlotte, N.C. Tobacco Road could be the end of the road if the Huskies don't turn things around quickly.

Fourth-seeded USC boasts victories over Texas, Arizona and Tennessee. Too bad the Trojans also have losses to Rider, Texas Christian and Oregon State.

Relegated to a seven-man rotation, USC (18-13) is probably two wins and two bodies short of feeling good about its NCAA tournament chances. After voluntarily sitting out last season's conference tournament because of self-imposed sanctions, merely showing up isn't going to be enough to get the Trojans into the expanded field of 68.

USC probably needs to advance to the Pac-10 title game to even become a topic of discussion on Selection Sunday, and that would probably entail a freaky Friday upset of Arizona in a semifinal. But the Trojans do have this going for them: They are the only conference team to defeat Arizona, UCLA and Washington this season.

"They're a dangerous team right now going into this tournament," Bruins Coach Ben Howland said of his crosstown rival. "I think they've really come on here at the end of the year."

Howland said the Pac-10 deserves four or five NCAA tournament bids, though he acknowledged it hurts that USC and Cal, both vying to get into that mix, play each other in a quarterfinal.

The fifth-seeded Golden Bears could use a five-point plan to impress the selection committee, though it certainly wouldn't include their five-point half against Notre Dame this season.

"All we can do is play SC on Thursday and whatever happens, happens," Montgomery said. "I don't even concern myself with scenarios and arguments. It means nothing."

Washington State (19-11) could be getting back 30.9 points of scoring production in Klay Thompson and Reggie Moore, the guard tandem who sat out the Cougars' loss to UCLA last weekend. Thompson has been reinstated after a one-game suspension because of a citation for marijuana possession, and Moore has resumed practicing on his sprained right ankle.

The sixth-seeded Cougars are listed among Lunardi's "Next four out" of the NCAA tournament, meaning they have more ground to make up than USC, which is merely "First four out" material.

A loss this weekend, and Washington State could be just like most of its Pac-10 brethren: on the outside looking in.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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