CBB Notes: First Look at the "Big Dance"
by Larry Ness
This week's title was fairly easy. I wrote in last week's CBB Notes that after Texas lost on January 18 (Longhorns would also lose 88-74 at U Conn on Jan 23), that Kentucky was the nation's lone unbeaten and that the Wildcats were poised to grab the nation's No. 1 ranking by winning at home over Arkansas on Saturday, January 23. The Wildcats did just that, crushing the Razorbacks 101-70. The 31-point margin of defeat was the worst in SEC history for Arkansas. The win moved the Wildcats to 19-0 (the school's best start in 44 years) and as expected, Kentucky earned the AP's No. 1 ranking on Monday (Jan 25), getting all 65 first-place votes (also No. 1 in the coaches poll with all 31 votes).
The Pac 10 was founded as the Athletic Association of Western Universities or AAWU in 1959 and went by the names Big Five, Big Six, and Pacific-8, becoming the Pacific-10 in 1978. Oregon (an original member of the AAWU) won the NCAA's first-ever national championship in 1939 (beat Ohio St) and California won the national championship in 1959. The Pac 8 gave us the UCLA dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s (10 titles from 1964-1975), with the Pac 10 adding titles in 1995 (UCLA's 11th) and Arizona's lone title in 1997. The Wildcats entered the 2009-10 season having made 25 consecutive NCAA appearances, the longest active streak and the second-longest in NCAA history (the Tar Heels made 27 straight appearances from 1975-2001).
However, the latest AP poll (Feb 1) marked the fourth consecutive week in which not a single Pac-10 team was ranked. That hasn't happened even ONCE, since the final poll of 1986-87. Pac 10 teams are an abysmal 1-15 vs top-25 opponents in 2009-10 and the conference faces the very real possibility it won’t receive an at-large bid to the “Big Dance.” The last time the Pac 10 placed just one team in the NCAA field was 1978, when the tourney featured just 32 teams. How the mighty have fallen. UCLA, which reached the Final Four in three straight seasons from 2006 to 08, carries a losing record into its Thursday game with Stanford at 10-11 (5-4 in league play). Arizona is 12-9 overall but 6-3 in the Pac 10, tied for first with Cal (14-7/6-3).
Cal was ranked 13th in the AP's preseason poll and Washington (14-7/4-5) was ranked 14th but both have long ago "fell from grace." Arizona State is 15-7, the best overall record of any team in the conference, but the Sun Devils are no better than 5-4 in league play, leaving them tied with the Bruins for third (behind 6-3 Cal and Arizona). Is the Pac 10 facing the very real possibility it won’t receive an at-large bid to the “Big Dance.” The last time the Pac 10 placed just one team in the NCAA field was 1978, when the tourney featured just 32 teams. I should also mention here that since the NCAA expanded its tournament field to 64 teams in 1985 (and then 65 in 2001), every BCS football-playing conference has sent at least three teams to the Big Dance.
Will that change in 2010? Will the Pac 10’s woes spell good news for a number of mid-major conferences this season? How about the fact that two of last year's Final Four teams, the champion North Carolina Tar Heels and the U Conn Huskies are both 'bubble' teams if today was "Selection Sunday?" The Huskies sit at 13-9 overall (have lost three straight) and their 3-6 Big East mark leaves them 13th in the 16-team league as of games [played through Feb 1. The Tar Heels are 13-8 overall (next game is Thursday at Va Tech) and incredibly, North Carolina's 2-4 ACC mark leaves them ahead of just Miami-Fl and NC State in the 12-team league through Feb 1.
If that's not bad enough news for these two basketball powers, U Conn plays five of its last nine games on the road and North Carolina is away from home in six of its final 10 games. Louisville, also a Final Four team last year, had lost four of its previous five before beating slumping U Conn 82-69 on Monday. The win moved the Cardinals to just 14-8 overall (5-4 in the Big East). Let me add another Elite 8 school from last year, 30-win Oklahoma. The Sooners are just 12-9 (3-4 in the Big 12) with two games left with Texas (No. 9), a home game with current No. 10 Kansas St and a trip to Lawrence to play Kansas (back at No. 1) among their final nine regular season games. Could half of last year's Elite 8 not even get invited to the 'dance' in 2010? That's seems drastic but I'd like to bet that at least two of those schools don't make it.
However, the trouble is, at-large bids for mid-major schools have decreased steadily since the middle of the decade and last year only four non-Big Six schools received at-large bids. Looking ahead is always a difficult task this early, as upsets in conference tourneys can quickly change the 'landscape.' Last year, surprise winners in the Atlantic 10 (Temple), Horizon League (Cleveland State), Pac-10 (Southern Cal) and SEC (Mississippi State) effectively ended the tourney hopes of four other bubble teams. I've noted the troubles of the Pac 10 and while Kentucky has quickly jelled under Calipari, the SEC still appears to be a more than a few notches beneath where it was a few years ago. The SEC may not receive any more than the three bids it got last year and along with the Pac 10, should open up a few extra at-large bids. Will those "extra spots" be filled by mid-major schools or just open up additional bids for deeper leagues like the Big East and Big 12?
The Ivy League is the lone conference without a season-ending tourney (regular season champ gets the automatic bid) and followers were making a case for both Cornell and Harvard getting in. However, the Big Red's 86-50 win over Harvard this past Saturday, pretty much ended that talk. Here's a look at a few other conferences, in alphabetical order.
The Atlantic 10 is arguably the nation's best non-BCS conference this season. Temple and Xavier are 'locks' and I'll argue that as of today, two (maybe three?) of the following four schools will go (Charlotte, Dayton, Rhode Island or Richmond). The CAA has had multiple bids before and could get more than one again in 2010. George Mason (10-1) leads the league with a 10-1 mark through Feb 1 but the Patriots aren't the league's best team. Northeastern, Old Dominion, Va Commonwealth plus William and Mary all own long-shot at-large chances.
Conference USA has been dominated by Memphis the last four years, as Calipari’s Tigers were a collective 137-14 (.907) over the last four seasons, the most wins in any four-year stretch in college basketball history. However, Memphis' only way into the NCAA tournament this year is by winning C-USA's postseason tourney. The bad news for Memphis fans is that for the first time since C-USA reorganized in 2005, the league tourney will not be held in Memphis but rather the brand-new BOK Center in downtown Tulsa. UAB (18-3/6-1), Tulsa (17-4/6-1) and UTEP (15-5/6-1) are in a three-way tie for first as of Feb 1. Expect two bids for C-USA this year.
The Horizon League will only get two bids if Butler fails to win the season-ending tourney. The MAC has not sent more than one school to the NCAA tournament since 1999 and don't expect the conference to end its drought this year. The MVC has slipped the last couple of years but it's "bounce-back time" in 2010 with Northern Iowa (24th in Monday's AP poll) and Wichita State (19-4/8-3) leading the 'charge' (Northern Iowa is 19-2/10-1). The MWC hates being called a "mid-major" and has regularly sent multiple schools to the NCAA tourney. This year will be no different with BYU (12th in the AP) and New Mexico (20-3/6-2) both already having won 20 games (BYU is 20-2/6-1). San Diego St (15-6/4-3) got robbed last year but the Aztecs or Rebels (17-4/5-2) should give the league three teams this season.
Wrapping things up, the WAC figures to be a one-bid league in 2010 but the WCC should place both Gonzaga (would be the school's 13th straight bid) and St Mary's in the field. The Gaels, like the Aztecs, were unfairly left out of last year's tourney but that doesn't figure to be the case this time around.
Join me Friday for some Super Bowl notes.
Good luck, Larry
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