League play is beginning this week in the Pacific Ten Conference, and the standings aren’t looking quite how they were expected to.
The biggest surprises may be California and Stanford. The Cardinals were picked to finish ninth this year in the Pac-10 Preseason Media Poll after losing the Lopez twins to the NBA, but are surprisingly the only undefeated team entering conference play.
However, the 9-0 record loses some of its luster when the best teams on their schedule were Air Force, Northwestern, and Texas Tech, all of which seem destined for the NIT—that is, if they have any postseason play at all.
Still, Anthony Goods and Lawrence Hill should be able to do enough to keep Stanford in the top half of the Pac-10 and may just find themselves on the right side of the bubble come March.
The Golden Bears, picked to finish eighth, enter the Pac-10 season with an impressive 11-2 record but a not-so-impressive blowout at Missouri and loss to Florida State. They are still clinging to a win at UNLV that may look very good come March. That is, if the Bears are still in the bubble conversations come March.
UCLA and Arizona State were supposed to carry the league, but UCLA faltered in two prime time games, versus Michigan and at Texas. Their best win is probably a five-point home win over the Miami (OH) RedHawks. Arizona State also lost in their biggest non-conference game, against Baylor, but has a few mediocre wins, at San Diego State and versus Nebraska, and also gave BYU their only loss to date.
The Arizona Wildcats have the best out of conference wins, but have had trouble finishing other games. They blew out Kansas at home, defeated previously undefeated Gonzaga in Phoenix, and beat San Diego State, but couldn’t close out games against UAB or at Texas A&M, and got blown out at UNLV. None of those losses are bad, but they don’t help the Wildcats' résumé either.
The rest of the Pac-10 really has no résumé at all. Washington, USC, and Washington State have played poor basketball, but can’t quite be counted out from making a run in the Pac-10 in a year defined by mediocrity.
Oregon and Oregon State, however, can be left to duke it out for the top Pac-10 bottom feeder of 2009.
But how will the top of the league sort out? Unlike last year, the middle of the league is likely to be ignored come Selection Sunday.
In a league devoid of great teams, talent is likely to be the difference maker in the Pac-10 this year. That being the case, UCLA, Arizona State, and Arizona should be competing for the top three spots.
The Bruins will be carried by defense and Darren Collison, while Arizona State and Arizona have the top two Pac-10 player of the year candidates, James Harden and Jordan Hill, respectively.
No matter who comes out on top, all three teams will be securely in the NCAA tournament.
After that, things become hazy.
It is hard to imagine the Pac-10 receiving only three bids, but it also may be hard to find a fourth team come March. Stanford and California look to be the front runners, but USC may be a better team. Washington State can still play defense, though, and Washington is slowly overcoming their opening day loss at Portland. At least one of these teams should be able to prove they are among the top 64, but it’s hard to tell which.
My prediction: Stanford gets in because Goods and Hill are too good, and Washington State because their defense can get the job done.
But all we really know is that if a team from Oregon is going to the NCAA tournament, it’ll be Portland or Portland State.