Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
Last week in this space, we mentioned that California, of all the teams in the conference, was the one team with a pretty good argument for consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Sure, they had no significant wins on their schedule, but they were ranked 30th in the RPI, a strong enough number that could have earned them a bid. However, the Golden Bears were upset at home by Arizona on Thursday night, and when the RPI numbers came out on Monday, Cal had dropped to 48th (notably, the Wildcats jumped up from 85th to 62nd). This little factoid shows two things: first, and perhaps most important, the RPI rankings are fluid at this point in the season; a good win or a bad loss (and for that matter, good wins and bad losses from previous opponents on your schedule) can have a significant effect on your ranking, especially for teams on the ubiquitous bubble. Secondly, it shows just how slim the margin of error for Pac-12 teams is. With no significant wins to fall back on, any team in the conference that hopes to earn legitimate at-large consideration needs to string together some wins here down the stretch and slowly but surely bump those RPI numbers up.
If you’re looking at it from a conference-wide perspective, the best thing that can happen for the league is for a handful of teams to distance themselves from the middle of the Pac. If, for instance, Washington (current conference leader, RPI of 76), Arizona and California were to get on a roll going down the stretch and consistently off teams like say, Colorado, Oregon, and Stanford, it is still possible that the conference could have three different teams with fairly strong RPIs to help make their case for inclusion in the Big Dance. Of course, those strong RPIs will likely be just about the only significant chip in their corner when those arguments get made. One last note, before we put away all mentions of the RPI for a week, just as an example of how silly it is, Washington swept the Los Angeles schools this week, and their RPI actually dropped, from 72 to 76.
What to Watch For
The two biggest clashes of the weekend come on Thursday night, as Colorado travels to Arizona and Washington goes to Oregon. Arizona caught fire on the road last week and now they get a chance to extend their two-game winning streak against the Rocky Mountain schools, with the Buffaloes getting the first crack. Colorado rides a two-game winning streak as well, but they have struggled on the road this year winning just one of their first four conference road games with the lone win coming against a depleted USC team. An hour later on Thursday night, we get one of the better rivalry games in the conference, as Washington heads to Oregon for a battle that will help determine who is atop the standings on Friday morning. The Huskies are riding a five-game winning streak and are currently a game up on the Ducks, but despite U-Dub’s 3-1 road record in conference play, it is easy to still be a little bit skeptical of their ability to go on the road and win games. If they can do that this week in what is likely their toughest remaining test on the schedule, you have to be much more inclined to be Husky believers.
Elsewhere around the conference, both California and Stanford will make the road trip to the Los Angeles schools, where each should be significant favorites against USC but slight underdogs to UCLA; Stanford faces the Bruins on Thursday, while Cal makes the trip to the Sports Arena Saturday afternoon.
Player of the Year Watch
Last week, we essentially narrowed the field here down to four players: Terrence Ross, Jorge Gutierrez, Jared Cunningham, and (reluctantly) Tony Wroten. The biggest concern we had about Cunningham’s candidacy was the fact that, despite his conference-leading 18.0 point per game average and other excellent numbers (of both the traditional and tempo-free variety), his team was still below the .500 mark in conference. That prompted Doug Tammaro, the Media Relations Director at Arizona State to send us the following list of Pac-12 Player of the Year award winners compared with his team’s Pac-10 finish and postseason invitation. In short, of the 19 winners in the last 18 years (in 1994-95, there were co-winners), only twice has the POTY winner come from a team that has not earned an NCAA invitation. And, interestingly enough, both of those times the player was a Sun Devil: Ike Diogu in 2004-05 and Eddie House in 1999-2000. Read the rest of this entry »