The closer we get to the NCAA tournament, the more we hear about teams on the bubble. Undoubtedly each team on the bubble will be able to make a case for getting a bid, but with no standardized criteria for who's in and who's out and each team's fate in the hands of the selection committee, no "bubble" team is safe.
At the moment, this kind of discussion largely leaves the Pac-10 in the cold. Though Arizona currently stands as the Pac-10's only consensus "lock," UCLA and Washington appear to be on pretty solid footing. In other words the Pac-10 doesn't have any true bubble teams at the moment. Then again none of the above are projected as high seeds, which means this season, much like last, is shaping up to be rather disappointing for the Pac-10.
With ten days remaining until Selection Sunday, let's look at what's at stake at the end of the season and in the Pac-10 tournament for the Huskies and the Bruins....
If ever there were a team that did not expect to see its tournament fitness questioned, it would be Washington. The Huskies entered the season a top-25 team and the favorite among many analysts to come away Pac-10 champions. Early on, Washington lived up to the hype, finishing the non-conference season 9-3 with single-digit losses to Kentucky and Michigan State teams that, at the time, were ranked in the top 10 nationally.
Then things got interesting. Lorenzo Romar's team suffered a fall from grace toward the end of January, losing to Washington State, Oregon State, and Oregon. Currently, Washington sits just below 20 wins with a 19-9 overall record accompanied by a 10-6 conference record. After a devastating 11-point loss at home to Washington State last weekend and only UCLA and USC left to play before the Pac-10 tournament, the Huskies have left themselves some work to do.
Other than their victories over Arizona and tournament hopeful UCLA, Washington has failed to produce a win against a tournament team. With the Pac-10 suffering another "down" year, the selection committee's going to look for quality non-conference wins. Unfortunately for U-Dub, its early-season wins came against sub-par opponents. Not counting losses, Washington played only two other teams ranked in the top 100 by Ken Pomeroy (Long Beach and Portland), a statistic that's hard to overlook.
That being said, over the course of the next two weeks Washington clearly has the potential to win six more games and make its case for a better seed -- starting with an important home game tonight against UCLA. On the other hand a loss to the Bruins would put the Huskies in a dangerous place. This is close to a must-win for Washington.
Not that a win against UCLA will guarantee a a high seed for Washington. The Huskies will also need to have a strong showing against USC (a team they previously beat in overtime) and show well in the Pac-10 tournament. In other words every game from here on out is close to a must-win for Washington.
The Bruins took a giant leap forward this weekend with a huge win over Arizona. Going into the Pac-10's final weekend of conference play, UCLA now holds a share of first place along with the Wildcats and an overall record of 21-8. Most importantly for UCLA, though, its win over Arizona will likely guarantee them entrance into the NCAA tournament. Then again is any Pac-10 team completely safe? Just last season, Arizona State, No. 2 in the conference with an overall record of 22-11, saw it season end in the NIT tournament.
Like every Pac-10 team with tournament aspirations, UCLA suffers from the actual and perceived lack of conference strength, forcing the selection committee to heavily weigh non-conference games. Fortunately for UCLA their wins against No. 3 BYU (neutral site) and No. 15 St. John's (home) should serve them in good stead.
One of the other major considerations of the selection committee is how a team finishes the season. With the exception of a recent overtime loss to Cal, UCLA has been on a tear over the last 14 games, going an impressive 12-2.
The Bruins will look to continue their impressive streak with a road trip to the Washington schools. The game against Washington tonight is must-watch TV. UCLA claimed victory the first time around at Pauley Pavilion in late December, but with the Huskies having lost their last two conference games, the Bruins are guaranteed to get the home team's best shot.
Win or lose at Washington tonight, it could be said that UCLA stands as an indication of the Pac-10's national perception in 2011. There was a time not so long ago when wins over two top-15 opponents, a 20-plus win season, and a top-two finish in the league would result in a better seed than what the Bruins may receive. (That loss at home to Montana in December certainly did Ben Howland's team no perceptual favors.) Then again seven other Pac-10 teams would gladly switch places with Arizona, Washington, or UCLA.
Sam Rayburn was a member of the Cal basketball team from 2004 to 2008.