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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Is Long Beach livin' at-large?

Long Beach State has positioned itself for an NCAA berth even if it doesn't win Big West automatic bid. Still, 49ers had better win conference tournament to make sure.

February 14, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Long Beach State guard James Ennis scores on a layup during a victory over Boise State in November. The 49ers could make their NCAA tournament hopes a lot less complicated by winning the Big West Conference tournament.
Long Beach State guard James Ennis scores on a layup during a victory over… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Syracuse is solid and Kentucky is kinetic, but several scenarios remain unresolved as college basketball marches toward March and the NCAA tournament.

Here's a look at a few still-to-be-answered questions:

Has Long Beach State done enough to earn an at-large invite?

It's bad enough that we haven't had pro football around here since 1995. Now it seems we're having to beg, borrow or barter our way into the annual NCAA ball.

UCLA, "old faithful" as the NCAA used to call it, missed the tournament two years ago and isn't getting in this year without a ticket or a miracle run to the Pac-12 tournament championship.

Two years ago, a lonely Southland annexed Santa Barbara, less than 100 miles from L.A., as our next-door, wine-tasting neighbor. And UC Santa Barbara's Gauchos did us proud — until, um, opening night, when they lost by 17 to second-seeded Ohio State.

This year's expectations have been offloaded onto Long Beach State, dominating the Big West Conference even as it's losing ground in the RPI rankings — now in the 40s. The 49ers (19-6, 12-0 in conference play) once seemed a decent bet to earn an at-large invitation if they didn't secure the Big West's automatic bid.

Our revised advice: win the conference tournament.

"I don't really like their chances," Jerry Palm, who runs collegerpi.com, said this week of Long Beach's at-large candidacy.

Long Beach State has done everything a mid-major has been told to do. It has played the toughest nonconference ledger imaginable — Kansas, North Carolina, San Diego State, Kansas State — and scored wins over Pittsburgh and Xavier.

Palm's point is this: not winning the Big West automatic bid would mean Long Beach had lost a game to a Big West opponent between now and the NCAA tournament.

"Right now the best thing you can say about them is they don't have any bad losses," Palm said. "That won't be true if they need an at-large bid."

Saturday's nonconference "bracket buster" game at Creighton could bolster Long Beach's credentials, but not as much as it would have before Creighton did a free fall out of the Associated Press top-25 rankings.

An at-large berth is possible, Palm thinks, if Long Beach wins Saturday and goes undefeated all the way to the Big West tournament title game.

"Then," Palm said, "maybe."

Could Connecticut become only the fifth team since tournament expansion in 1985 to miss the field the year after winning the national title?

Florida failed to make it the year after winning in 2007, and North Carolina went 16-16 the season after driving off with the 2009 title in Detroit.

Connecticut (15-9, 5-7) has lost six of its last seven and Coach Jim Calhoun, approaching his 70th birthday, is out of the lineup with a back problem. The school has already been banned from next year's tournament for failing to meet academic standards.

The good news: UConn plays four of its next six at home, and the Huskies finished 9-9 in the Big East last year and still won the NCAA title.

Problem: Kemba Walker, last year's dynamo, is in the NBA.

Will Harvard repeat its 2011 stumble?

The curse of Bill Bradley continues to haunt Harvard as it tries to harvest Jeremy Lin's karma to earn its first NCAA bid since 1946.

Princeton knocked Harvard out of last year's tournament with its one-game playoff victory to capture the Ivy League crown.

Princeton beat Harvard again last Saturday, knocking the Crimson out of the top 25 with an upset win.

Harvard (21-3, 7-1) still controls its automatic-bid fate but another league loss or two is not advisable.

Could Northwestern be shut out again?

Northwestern hosted the first NCAA tournament in 1939 but has, shockingly, never played in it. Northwestern (15-9, 5-7) is tied for seventh in the Big Ten and is coming off a 10-point loss at Purdue.

Wednesday night's game at Indiana is hugely important for Evanston's at-large cause. Northwestern grad Brent Musburger has his fingers crossed.

Does any Pac-12 team warrant at-large consideration?

Washington (17-8, 10-3) and California (20-6, 10-3) could become Washington or California should one team sweep the regular-season and conference tournament titles.

Cal's best nonconference victory is over Georgia; Washington's big-boast win came against Santa Barbara.

The Pac-12 isn't winning any prestige contests out there, trailing Conference USA and the Missouri Valley in conference RPI reports.

Might St. Mary's get bumped for a second straight year?

The Gaels (23-3, 12-1) were edged (wrongly?) out of an at-large bid last year but appear solid with a No. 21 AP ranking despite their first West Coast Conference loss last week at Gonzaga.

Gonzaga (20-4, 10-2), ranked 24th, has won at least a share of 11 straight WCC titles and has been rejuvenated of late by sensational freshman guard Kevin Pangos. He averaged 24.5 points and 5.5 assists in wins last week over St. Mary's and Loyola Marymount — without committing a turnover.

It's a big week for St. Mary's, which, with a Wednesday win over Loyola Marymount, can earn a double bye into the conference tournament semifinals. The Gaels on Saturday get another show-us-what-you've-got game at No. 16 Murray State (24-1).

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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