With two weeks of Pac-10 regular season play remaining, and Selection Sunday just three and a half weeks away, it is getting to be time to look toward UCLA's prospective status for the NCAA Tournament. It certainly is a popular topic - folks have been speculating for weeks about being on the bubble, off the bubble and who we have to beat in order to get in. With time getting short, it is about time to throw off concern of looking ahead of the task at hand, and see where the team stands in terms of its tournament chances.
Heading into this Arizona series - the final homestand at Pauley - the Bruins have a clear, but by no means guaranteed path into the tourney. Sunday's loss to Cal certainly did not help matters, but it was not a killer. A loss tonight to Arizona State (RPI-148, KenPom-121) would be a killer. As of now, UCLA has 1 'bad loss' as determined by RPI - December's loss to Montana (RPI-115). By itself, a second bad loss is not a killer to UCLA's March hopes, but is complicated by a couple of things. First, the nature of the remaining schedule, and what a loss to Arizona State would say about the team's mindset and ability to compete against the remaining, tougher competition - if you cannot win at home against ASU, how can you expect to beat Arizona/Washington/Washington State? Second, which I will talk further about in a moment, is the lack of good wins on the Bruins resume.
After tonight's game against conference cellar-dwelling Arizona State, the season concludes with a visit by Arizona (AP-10, RPI-15, KenPom-15), and games at Washington (RPI-35, KenPom-10) and Washington State (RPI-81, KenPom-54). There is a fair amount of positive thought surrounding Saturday's contest - as there had better be, considering it will be the final men's basketball game at Pauley Pavilion - and for the season finale, as having lost five of their last eight games, Wazzu is not streaking toward the finish line.
With that said, according to Ken Pomeroy's projections, the Bruins are favored only in tonight's game with ASU; giving us a 42% chance of beating Arizona, 35% chance of winning at the Palouse, and 12% of a victory in Seattle. While the chance of victory of Saturday is quite manageable (coming down to a 2-point margin), as is the case against WSU - Pomeroy sees this home team as basically equal to UCLA, with a 4-point home advantage, while other rating systems see the Bruins as the clearly superior team, home court advantage not withstanding.
A factor making these final three games even more important than the base effect on our W-L record and regular season conference standing is the lack of good wins that UCLA has on the year. Despite the weak showing by the Pac-10 this year, the Bruins have two very strong wins in their pocket, against BYU (AP-7, RPI-3, KenPom-7) and St. John's (AP-23, RPI-14, KenPom-32). Unfortunately, also due in part to the weakness of the conference, UCLA does not have another win against any team within sniffing distance of the tournament bubble, the next best victories coming at home to Cal, USC and Wazzu (all in the RPI 75-90 range).
After BYU and St. John's, the next-best out of conference victory came against Pacific (RPI-141, KenPom-114), with six out-of-conference wins - plus the two Oregon State games - falling outside the top-150. Overall, the Bruins are 2-4 against RPI top-50 teams (3-5 against KenPom's top-50), and 5-7 against the RPI top-100 (9-7 against KenPom's top-100), with two top-50 games and another top-100 opponent remaining. The number of top-50 and top-100 wins is low for a major conference at-large contender, with only Minnesota having as few as five wins against the top-100 among 'major-conference' teams among the RPI top-50. Given the weak nature of this year's bubble, the shallow quality of the Bruin wins may not end up hurting them, but adding another win or two against top-level opponents, particularly Arizona or Washington, would greatly help as the selection committee makes its decisions.
Delving into a couple of the current brackets out there, Joe Lunardi's latest public bracket (2/21) for ESPN has the Bruins as a 9-seed in the Southwestern region, slotted to play in Charlotte on the opening weekend, against Illinois, with the winner facing Duke. In his latest update to the S-curve (ESPN insider), there was little change in the Bruins position, keeping UCLA on the good side of the bubble, considered very likely to make the tournament, with room for error in the upcoming couple of weeks without reaching the danger zone.
Looking at their current (2/22) bracket update, cbssports.com also has the Bruins as a #9 seed, this time in the Eastern region, playing in Cleveland against Georgia, with the winner facing #1 seed Pitt. While a 9-seed is somewhat off the precipice of bursting its bubble, CBS bracket guru Jerry Palm does consider the Bruins still on the bubble.
Andy Glockner's Monday bracket update for SI.com has UCLA as the 8-seed in the Southeast, playing Georgia in the opening round in Cleveland, with the winner advancing to play Ohio State. With at-large selections falling as far as the 12-seed line in this bracket, there looks to be some margin for error for the Bruins here as well. In his accompanying bubble watch column, Glockner noted as much.
UCLA (19-8, 10-4; RPI: 37, SOS: 42)
The Bruins' OT slip-up at Cal likely will cost them a shot at the league title, but they're still in solid shape for an at-large, if needed. The more interesting battle may be for second place, so the final-weekend trip to Seattle also looms large.
The theme of all these bracket projections in terms of UCLA seems to be that the squad has what it takes to make the tournament, but should not reserve a charter flight just yet. An important thing to keep in mind when looking at the various brackets is what information that particular analyst uses in creating the bracket. For example, the CBS bracket projections are made "as if the season ended today"; i.e., this afternoon's 19-8 UCLA squad is seeded 9th when compared to other D-1 teams as they stand today, without guessing how the final games will affect the records of UCLA or of other bubble teams, and what affect that will have on the S-curve.
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