Best of the West: Top 25 Teams in the West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 18th, 2015

We’re now less than four weeks from Selection Sunday, so it’s a good time to check back in with our Best in the West, with a special focus on these 25 teams’ NCAA Tournament prospects. If you haven’t seen this post before, we take all the schools west of the Rockies (basically the schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast, and Big West Conferences, and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences) and list the top 25 teams. Rather than just ranking schools #1 though #25, though, we divide them into tiers, because, for instance, while one team may be ranked third overall and another fourth, there may be a huge gap between teams three and four. Below are ourTop 25 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses) with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on each and their NCAA Tournament hopes

The Best of the Best – In a league of their own.

Gonzaga is #2 in The AP Poll And In The Mix For A #1 Seed in March

Gonzaga is #2 in The AP Poll And In The Mix For A #1 Seed 

  • Gonzaga (#1 overall, WCC #1) – The Bulldogs are 26-1 with the lone defeat an overtime loss at the McKale Center on the first weekend of December. For me, an overtime road loss equates to a win in the grand scheme of things, so I’ve got Gonzaga slightly ahead of that team that came out on the good side of the scoreboard in Tucson. Admittedly, the rest of the Gonzaga resume is a little light. Their best win is, what, a road win at St. John’s? Or is it the one at BYU? Or maybe the one at UCLA? All of those are good wins to be sure, but none of those are mindblowingly great entries on the Zags’ balance sheet compared with the teams with whom they will be competing for a #1 seed. For instance, the other two teams in this category both have better wins and tougher overall schedules than the Zags. But if they’re able to get from here to Selection Sunday with a “1” on the right-hand side of that record (which would mean additional wins at Saint Mary’s, over BYU and then another over one of those two teams in the WCC Championship game, they’ll probably nose out either Arizona or Utah. Now, teams like Virginia, Duke, Wisconsin and Villanova (not to mention Kentucky) may be a different story.

  • Arizona (#2 overall, Pac-12 #1) – So, Arizona has beaten Gonzaga. They’ve played a tougher schedule than Gonzaga. And they’ve still got a chance for more upside victories. But barring some major carnage among the elite teams down the back stretch, with Gonzaga somehow included in the maelstrom, odds are good that the Arizona-as-a-#1-seed bird has flown. Why? The three losses. UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State are not exactly a murderer’s row. Worse yet, if Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia and Duke (and to a lesser extent Kansas) can finish strong and Gonzaga slips to the #2 line, the Wildcats’ chances at getting the #2 seed out west with an easy trip out to the Los Angeles regional could go up in smoke too.
Arizona and Utah Are Solidly In The Conversation For Strong Seeds

Arizona and Utah Are Solidly In The Conversation For Strong Seeds

  • Utah (#3 overall, Pac-12 #2) – The Utes are definitely running third right now but they’ve got something that neither Arizona nor Gonzaga has: a chance to welcome in a top 10 RPI team to their home court and earn another big scalp. That will occur on the last day of February when Utah hosts Arizona. If they can get that win and take care of business elsewhere (much easier said than done, with trips to the Oregon and Washington schools, plus a visit from Arizona State), then make some noise in the Pac-12 Tourney, maybe the Utes can play their way into a #2 seed. Right now, a #3 seed, perhaps with some favorable geography, looks most likely.

Top 25 Contenders

  • San Diego State (#4 overall, Mtn West #1) – It was been a bit of a bumpy ride this season for the Aztecs with some ugly losses (and I do mean ugly) mixed in with streaks of suffocating defense. If they collapsed down the stretch and took some bad losses on the way, they could play their way out of the NCAA Tournament, but there is no reason to believe that is likely. They’ve got good wins over Utah and Colorado State (both top 30 RPI teams), bad losses to Washington and Fresno State (both sub-100 RPI teams, each with eligibility-based asterisks) and are well on their way to somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 wins. In other words, Steve Fisher’s club will be dancing, and this could be just the right type of dangerous team in an #8/#9 game to give the coach of a #1 seed some serious heartburn.

Bubbliciously Good – None of these teams should be comfortable about their chances of being happy come Selection Sunday, but for now they’re probably on the good side of the bubble.

  • UCLA (#5 overall, Pac-12 #3) – Now, let’s be clear here: The goal of this list is to rank 25 teams in order of how good they actually are rather than how safe they are for NCAA Tournament selection. For instance, of the four teams in this section, Colorado State is probably the safest bet to receive an NCAA bid, but UCLA and Boise State are certainly playing better ball than the Rams right now. About the Bruins: Maybe the last time casual basketball fans thought of UCLA was back in December when it scored a pathetic seven points in a half against Kentucky on national television. The Bruins have turned a corner of sorts since then and are playing some good basketball. The linchpin of their resume is a 10-point home win over Utah, but a sweep of Stanford and recent home wins over the Oregon schools definitely help. There’s really just one more big chance for a resume win prior to the Pac-12 Tournament — this Saturday’s game at Arizona. Win that one and the Bruins will have all but punched their ticket to the Dance. Lose it and they’d better hope they already have a Wednesday night win over Arizona State in their pocket before taking care of business with three home games against sub-100 RPI conference foes Washington, Washington State and USC.

  • Boise State (#6 overall, Mtn West #2) – Even after an eight-game winning streak put the Broncos atop the Mountain West standings, their NCAA Tournament forecast was partly cloudy. A loss at Fresno State (RPI #212) – the type of loss that looks a whole lot worse than it actually is – brought a cloudburst. Still, the Broncos are in the mix thanks to a win at Saint Mary’s and a couple home conquests of Colorado State and San Diego State. Their RPI sits at #43 and they can’t afford any more slip-ups, but better still would be to go to San Diego State on February 28 and knock off the Aztecs. Do that and maybe a loss at UNLV or a home loss to New Mexico can get swept under the rug.
  • Colorado State (#8 overall, Mtn. West #3) – The Rams are 20-5 with an RPI of #26; they’re probably pretty good. But they’re in a precarious position where their toughest games are in the past but they can’t afford to let up. Because when you dig more deeply into their resume, you find a home win against San Diego State and another against Boise State. Beyond those, you get down to teams like UTEP, Georgia State and UNLV as their next best wins. If they pair those slim pickings with a loss or two over this final stretch (at Fresno State, Air Force, San Jose State, at Nevada, at Utah State), things could go south quickly.
  • Stanford (#8 overall, Pac-12 #4) – The Cardinal are playing like crap like now with four losses in their last five games. Their RPI is slipping, and their biggest non-conference wins – at Texas and against Connecticut – don’t look like such a big deal anymore. They’ve got six wins over top-100 RPI teams but three losses against sub-100 RPI teams. Everything about this team’s resume screams out “bubble.” Perhaps their only saving grace is the fact that their final five regular seasons games (three of which are at home) are all against top-100 RPI teams. If they win just the home games (Cal, Oregon State, Oregon), they will finish the season at 19-11 and 10-8 (Pac-12). Avoid an ugly 0-1 record in the Pac-12 Tournament, and the Cardinal are likely to dance, albeit probably in uninspiring fashion.

Dangerously Bubblicious – Any of the following teams could wind up in the field without stunningly good stretch runs, but as of now, they’ve still got work to do.

  • Oregon (#9 overall, Pac-12 #5) – A home win over UCLA and a neutral-site win over Illinois: that’s the bulk of a resume that is summed up in an RPI of #60. They’ve been generally good at home, though (man, wouldn’t Dana Altman love to have that game against Ole Miss back?), and will need to double down on that this week by earning a home sweep against Colorado and Utah. If they manage that, the Ducks will probably jump on to the good side of the bubble. Still, they’d need to finish strong and turn in a positive record when they finish Pac-12 play with three consecutive road games: at Cal, at Stanford, at Oregon State. Get the Colorado/Utah wins; win one of those road games; then win a game in the Pac-12 Tourney, and we’ll talk.
  • BYU (#10 overall, WCC #2) – Four top-100 RPI wins, three sub-100 RPI losses. The Cougars’ best wins are at home against UMass and against a rapidly slipping Stanford team. And they struck out with a 16-point home loss against Gonzaga. The good news is they will get another crack at the Zags, although this time in Spokane. If they can earn that win and advance to the WCC finals, maybe they could sneak into the First Four. Maybe.

I Need A Miracle – These teams may not require a conference tournament title and the automatic bid that goes with it, but they need just about everything up to that point.

  • Arizona State (#11 overall, Pac-12 #6) – The Sun Devils have an RPI of #97, but the Sun Devils are way better than the 97th-best team in the nation. The RPI is dumb. Also, losing a ton of games by very few points is also dumb; seven of the Devils’ 12 losses are by two possessions or fewer. Still, with home games against the Los Angeles schools and the Bay Area schools wrapped around a road trip to the Rockies, if Herb Sendek and company can go 5-1 down the stretch and then get a game or two in Vegas, they’d have to be in, right? Like we said in the header: They need a miracle.
  • Wyoming (#12 overall, Mtn West #4) – An RPI of #79 is no good, with a weak non-conference slate partly the culprit. But still, they’ve got a season sweep of Colorado State under their belt, counting for a couple top-30 RPI wins. And their one egregious loss – at Air Force, RPI #247 – is partially explained away by the absence of Larry Nance in that one. If the Cowboys can get a home win against Fresno, maybe they’ll get Nance back for their trip to UNLV on the final day of February and then wrap up conference play with wins over Utah State and at New Mexico. This is entirely possible, but they’d still need a run to the Mountain West title game and a lot of help elsewhere around the nation in order to even be in the conversation for an at-large selection.
Without Larry Nance, The Cowboys Are Reeling (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

Without Larry Nance, The Cowboys Are Reeling (Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune)

  • Oregon State (#13 overall, Pac-12 #7) – It doesn’t take an NCAA Tournament appearance for this year to be a success for the Beavers. This is a good thing since, aside from that big win over Arizona, there are more sub-100 RPI losses than top-100 RPI wins. But, let’s pretend Oregon State sweeps Utah and Colorado this weekend, goes on the road to Stanford and Cal for a couple of wins, then wraps up the year with a win over Oregon. Yeah we’re definitely not playing in the field of reality here, but if the Beavs can do that, we may find them a spot.
  • Saint Mary’s (#14 overall, WCC #3) – If BYU’s resume looks thin, Saint Mary’s is darn near invisible. They split their games with BYU but also have a home loss to sub-200 RPI Northern Arizona that pretty much eliminates their chances. Like the Cougars, the Gaels also have one more crack at Gonzaga on Saturday in Moraga. The difference between BYU and SMC is this, however: Even if the Gaels get the Zags, they probably still have more work to do.

All It Takes Is Four Good Days or One Bad Night – The great thing about college basketball is that unless you’re ineligible for one reason or another, everybody still has a prayer to Dance. From here on out though, there really aren’t possibilities beyond a conference title. For teams that have underachieved all year, they will need to turn on the jets in the conference tournament. For teams that have excelled, they need to finish strong.

  • Eastern Washington (#15 overall, Big Sky #1) – The deck is just completely stacked against low-major schools. The Eagles were fortunate enough to schedule a strong non-conference slate and even took home a top-30 RPI win over Indiana. But when you’re in the Big Sky and you take a road loss to Sacramento State (RPI #145), that is considered a bad loss. And when you take a home loss to Portland State (RPI #226), you’re making plans to win your conference’s automatic bid.
  • Colorado (#16 overall, Pac-12 #8) – Josh Scott is back in business for the Buffaloes, so a big run in the Pac-12 Tournament is at least something disappointed Colorado fans can dream about
  • California (#17 overall, Pac-12 #9) – If it wasn’t for a post-Christmas unforgivable loss to Cal State Bakersfield (RPI #308), maybe the Golden Bears would be a tier or two higher on this list. They’ve certainly got some plus-games down the stretch, but as it is, they Bears need to win out in Vegas to go dancing. They’ve got enough firepower on the floor that makes this possible, though.
  • UC Davis (#18 overall, Big West #1) – According to KenPom, the Big West is ranked as the 13th-best conference in the nation, the highest the conference has ever been ranked in the KenPom era. Taking that into account, the Aggies’ 9-1 conference mark to this point, with the sole loss coming in the brutal road trip to Hawaii, is mighty impressive. Even more impressive, they’ve now won three straight (including two on the road) without the conference’s best player, Corey Hawkins, in the lineup. Still, all four UC Davis losses on the year are against sub-100 RPI teams and only a win over Long Beach State qualifies as (barely) a top-100 win. It’s a shame, but we’ve seen this story before: A team dominates a mid-major league during the regular season only to slip up for a second in the conference tourney and winds up in the NIT. Not saying it is going to happen in this case, but it isn’t difficult to imagine.
  • New Mexico State (#19 overall, WAC #1) – The Aggies lost a conference game at Seattle back in the middle of January, but when the entire conference convenes in Vegas for the WAC Tournament, the Aggies will be a considerable favorite to win the automatic bid.
  • Pepperdine (#20 overall, WCC #4) – The Waves have proven their toughness in the WCC, sweeping BYU and giving Gonzaga two good games this season. But while this team is definitely good, it is also young and inconsistent, leading to some bad losses. Provided no major roster shake-up, this should be a team to keep an eye on next year.

Five More for the Hell of It

  • UNLV (#21 overall, Mtn West #5)
  • UC Irvine (#22 overall, Big West #2)
  • UC Santa Barbara (#23 overall, Big West #3)
  • Utah State (#24 overall, Mtn West #6)
  • New Mexico (#25 overall, Mtn West #7)
AMurawa (999 Posts)

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One response to “Best of the West: Top 25 Teams in the West”

  1. Gus says:

    Great article!

    I hope this is a recurring post.

    Although I would switch Gonzaga and Arizona, but I guess that will be argued until selection Sunday.

    Go AZTECS!

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