Thursday, January 29, 2009

A March Bidding War

If you haven't noticed yet, it's January 29.

Long past the date when America should put on their bracketeer hats.

There are three times in every calendar year where pundits obsess over how many teams from each conference will get into the NCAA Tournament. These are during the release of preseason polls, near the midseason of conference seasons and the morning of Selection Sunday, when more or less the field is set save the official champions of the ACC and the Big XII.

And having the strange, wandering mind I have, while watching Mike Tomlin and Ken Whisenhunt have their press conferences this morning three days removed from Super Bowl XLIII, all I could do was read and reread standings and RPI rankings this morning and try and figure out conference bid totals.

Obviously here at PFN, we've got a very small, almost unnoticable bias toward the Pac-10.

(About as unnoticable as a kick to the crotch.)

But in the interest of full disclosure and honesty, anyone who has watched any Pac-10 basketball this season can easily tell that the strength of the conference is way down compared to previous seasons. We've seen every team in this conference look great and awful at least once this season...except for Oregon...we've seen nothing but concentrated garbage coming from Mac Court this season. On that note, I don't think anyone actually expected Washington to be King of the Hill at this point, nor did anyone really expect Arizona to be 2-5. And then there's Oregon State, which made the Bay Area schools look as easy as Sunday morning a few weeks back.

Let's be realistic here though. Oregon State is not going to make the Tourney. Neither is Arizona. Washington State needs to kick their offense into gear while Stanford has cooled off dramatically after their surprising start.

So that leaves five teams that are going to probably go through the rest of this conference season that will be competing for spots in March Madness: Washington, ASU, California, UCLA and USC.

With that, you have to take a look at the other power conferences (and some of my favorite Mid-Majors) to see how many "locks" they'll have and other teams that will try to muscle their way in. That will definitely have a major impact on how many teams the weakened Pac will send to the dance. Let's go conference by conference:

ACC: Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Clemson are locks right now. You've got upset-minded Virginia Tech, Boston College, always-a-bridesmaid Florida State and Miami still hanging around as well. Let's be realistic and say that the Hokies and Hurricanes muscle their way in, giving them 6 bids.

Big East: There's a reason I call this behemoth the lumbering giant. Marquette, Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Providence and Syracuse look pretty nice right now with their resume and RPI rankings. On the bubble and teetering toward being in are Georgetown, Notre Dame and Villanova. On the bubble precariously are West Virginia and Cincinnati. I have a nagging feeling this conference will get 9 bids.

Big XII: Oklahoma is awesome. Kansas, Texas and Baylor are all but in. Texas A&M, Missouri and Oklahoma State need some big wins down the stretch to beef up their resumes. Beyond any other conference, the Big XII has the clearest distinction between the top and bottom, making it easier to distinguish who is for real and who isn't. It's realistic to say that this conference will get 5 bids.

Big Ten: Like the Pac-10, I haven't seen one team emerge as this conference's dominant leader. Michigan State looks great one night and loses to Northwestern the next. Purdue hasn't been wowing the nation like we expected. And Penn State...PENN over .500 after eight conference game, something I'm pretty sure hasn't happened since America kept cool with Coolidge. MSU, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota look nice right now and I can't make a case for anyone else right now, leaving the Elite 11 with 4 bids.

Other conferences: The WCC could send three (Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and San Diego), St. Joseph's, Xavier and Dayton are strong out of the A-14, Northeastern, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason are all legit out of the Colonial, the Missouri Valley could find themselves with three or four again and the Mountain West and WAC each could send two.

Which leads us to the conference that will help the Pac-10's case the most...

SEC: Clearly the weakest out of any power conference up to this minute. Just a year or so removed from Florida taking home back-to-back national titles, can you believe the SEC has ONE team in either of the polls (Kentucky #24 AP) and the only other team even receiving votes is the Gators? Florida and Kentucky might be the only two locks right now out, with South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State making less than convincing statements. Unless another one or two of those teams make a strong statement in February, the SEC might only end up with 3 bids.

Which leads us to the Pac-10. Lucky for our conference, it seems to me that the top four right now in the standings: Washington, ASU, California and UCLA, have made strong enough statements to be with USC being the only strong looking bubble team at this point.

Further strengthening the case of the Pac-10 against the SEC is the general RPI strength of the conference and their individual teams. The Pac and SEC are 5 and 6 respectively in conference strength but are separated by a wider margin than any of the other top five. Also, a sampling of the top six teams in each conference shows a glaring disparity between them:

ASU: 21
Washington: 28
California: 35
UCLA: 40
USC: 54
Stanford: 64

Tennessee: 19
Florida: 29
Kentucky: 50
South Carolina: 62
Mississippi State: 76
LSU: 80

At the top, there's clearly a similarity between Tennessee/Florida and Washington/ASU, but beyond that, the Pac-10 has an obvious edge.

Of course, this all could change week...late February...but all that matters is what our situation is on Selection Sunday, and it's in the Pac-10's best interest to just keep winning.

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