There are down years, and then there are downright awful years. The SEC and the Pac-10 fall into the second category in 2008-09.
Why is O.J. Mayo in the headline picture for this article? Because he is no longer at USC, and they are simply not the same without him. They are experiencing the flip side of what happens when you sign a "one-and-done." They have become such a mediocre team that it will be a challenge for them to make the NCAA tournament this year.
I have analyzed the schedules, and I have looked at the games played thus far by SEC and Pac-10 participants, and I truly can't believe what I'm seeing. There have been very few highlights and a lot of lowlights, including the following, from the conferences' top teams.
At one point, UCLA was ranked No. 4 in the nation. Losses to Michigan and Texas have dampened the fans' enthusiasm, but Michigan also took down Duke and Texas is no slouch. The Bruins will have a shot at non-conference redemption when they play Notre Dame on Feb. 7. Still, this team is playing way below expectations.
Arizona State lost at home against the Baylor Bears and then beat IUPUI by one point, which is far more inexcusable. The Sun Devils' out-of-conference schedule is nothing less than pathetic, and if they don't beat BYU at home on Saturday, they will have to rely on a gaudy conference win-loss record just to get into the Big Dance as a mediocre seed.
Tennessee has already been blown out by unranked (though possibly underrated) Temple and has suffered a loss to Gonzaga. Fortunately for the Volunteers, they'll have plenty of chances to redeem themselves against the likes of Gonzaga (again), Memphis, Kansas, and SEC East rival Florida (twice).
Florida has fallen from the rankings after close losses to Syracuse and Florida State on the road. A less than challenging out-of-conference slate means that Florida may be looking at long odds if they lose to ACC second-division team North Carolina State at home on Jan. 3. They're not helping their SOS by warming up for the Wolfpack with Georgia Southern, Winthrop, and Stetson.
My current conclusion is this: The Southeastern Conference and the Pacific 10 Conference will send no more than three representatives each to the Big Dance.
Because the conferences are so weak from top to bottom, their strength of schedule will not be helped by playing each other, and as stated above, even the top teams have blown their chances (so far) at meaningful non-conference wins.
So, looking at the records so far and the upcoming schedule, just who can actually be expected to be (theoretically) playing for the Championship when March rolls around? These are my projections.
Pac-10 (listed in order of expected finish in conference)
UCLA should dominate the conference games, which will rightfully be enough to make them a virtual lock for the tournament. I don't see them beating Notre Dame, however, and will be surprised if they manage anything higher than a No. 4 seed. IN.
USC really needed that win against Oklahoma (instead, they suffered a one-point loss). Though I believe they will beat Georgia Tech (by no means a sure thing), early season losses to Missouri and Seton Hall will haunt them.
I expect USC to improve enough during the season to pull off at least one upset against UCLA, and they may very well sweep Arizona State. This, along with a solid conference record, catapults them to a No. 10 seed. It also keeps the Sun Devils on the outside looking in. IN.
Arizona State is already in trouble. Make no mistake: If they lose to Brigham Young, they may very well experience a different kind of madness in March. I project a loss to BYU and, shockingly, a trip to the NIT for the Sun Devils. OUT.
Arizona's one-point losses to UAB and Texas A&M are somewhat tempered by the victory over then-No. 4 Gonzaga. Though I believe they will finish fourth in the conference, they have enough quality teams on the schedule to give them a better shot at making the tournament than Arizona State.
Wins in the next two weeks at UNLV and home against Kansas and Weber State would go a long way in helping erase the Selection Committee's memories of the early close losses. IN.
Stanford and California are basically in the same boat. Stanford is 5-0 but has played incredibly weak teams. Their only decent upcoming non-conference foe is the Big Ten's Northwestern Wildcats, not exactly a Big Ten powerhouse. Though Stanford defeated Texas Tech, the Red Raiders significantly hurt Stanford's SOS by losing to Lamar, of all teams.
Since I expect Stanford to be dominated by the four teams above them in the standings, there simply aren't enough chances to impress the Selection Committee before March.
As for the Golden Bears, they've already been obliterated by Missouri, lost at home to Florida State, and barely escaped with a three-point win over a mediocre Utah team. They've blown the few chances they had at beating quality opponents outside of the Pac-10 and, much like Stanford, just don't have the guns (or the schedule) to beat the (albeit small) top tier of the Pac-10. BOTH OUT.
Now on to perhaps an even worse situation in the SEC. Bruce Pearl considers his Volunteers overrated, and he's right. A win against Marquette will help, but the SEC is an absolute trainwreck this year. They may be lucky to get three teams in, considering it isn't easy to find quality candidates outside of Tennessee and Florida, both of whom have not exactly been tearing up the courts themselves. Here goes.
Tennessee has the talent, and they should rack up the wins against their weak conference opponents. Someone has to win the SEC, and the Volunteers look like the leading contender at the moment. Believe me, that's not saying much. Bruce Pearl is a great coach (though many don't necessarily agree on how good his character is) and should motivate the team toward enough conference wins for an easy NCAA bid. IN.
Florida, too, is a talented team, and their close losses to Syracuse and even to Florida State can be forgiven. They should beat N.C. State in January and go on to rack up many conference wins.
Though they are yet another team with an incredibly weak non-conference SOS, I can't see the Selection Committee only sending one SEC team to the Dance. Unless, of course, Florida loses to the Wolfpack and garners more than four in-conference losses. They'll be sweating profusely on Selection Sunday if that is the case. But for now... IN.
Kentucky should be thankful they got that loss to Virginia Military Institute out of the way early. It won't be a factor in March. They won't have an easy road and will be lucky to be higher than a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, but this program has too much pride to lose too many games. A win against Louisville will help state their case much more emphatically.
If they can pick up a conference win against Tennessee and Florida (two would be great), there's no way you can keep the Wildcats out. IN.
Arkansas certainly has a chance to make up for their horrid loss to Missouri State with upcoming home games against Oklahoma and Texas. It won't matter, because they will lose them both, but at least they scheduled someone better than Lamar. Ultimately, Arkansas is a year away from making a serious run at the tournament and will suffer too many losses in conference play to be seriously considered. OUT.
South Carolina will improve under first-year coach Darrin Horn (from Western Kentucky). Even with one of the best players in the nation in guard Devan Downey, the Gamecocks simply don't have the weapons to compete night in and night out and have already suffered a loss to the College of Charleston.
They appear at least slightly better than they were last year and should return to the NIT, but an NCAA bid is a real long shot. OUT.
LSU is undefeated after playing the weakest non-conference schedule of just about any major program you will find. The fun won't last; the Tigers' only chance will be to defeat Xavier later in the year, win at Utah on Jan. 6, and go better than .500 in conference play. I think they'll get one out of three. It's not enough. OUT.
There isn't anyone else in either conference who currently even has a substantial argument to make. Barring an upset in the conference tournaments, the SEC and Pac-10 should consider themselves lucky to send three teams each to the NCAA tournament this year.
Many of these teams can thank a detestable SOS (and, by association, their Athletic Departments) for hurting their chances. Playing each other isn't going to make it much better.