As the NCAA Selection Committee prepares to finalize their brackets on Sunday night, the scene will shift from the conference tournaments to the Big Dance, but we should all be reminded that this season -above any others in recent memory- has seen a shift in power out West, one that members of the Pacific-10 conference should be mindful.
The Mountain West Conference (MWC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC) currently stake more claims at NCAA berths than the Pac-10. Those aren’t combined figures, individually the two conferences have better outlooks on Selection Sunday than the Pac-10.
The MWC has four teams (New Mexico, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State) that have legitimate claims at the NCAA tournament. The WCC will get two in the dance after Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga in the conference championship,
The Mountain West begins tournament play in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday. BYU and New Mexico are locks to make the tourney. UNLV is close to a lock as long as there aren’t too many bubble busters this year. If the Rebels can take down Utah in their first round game (something they haven’t done this year, losing in Vegas and in Salt Lake), they should all but punch their ticket. SDSU probably has some more work to do, but a deep run into the MWC tourney should solidify their resumé for the selection committee. Four teams in the dance is a real possibility for the Mountain West.
The West Coast Conference also played their tournament in Las Vegas, at The Orleans Arena. Saint Mary’s blew Gonzaga out of the arena and into The Orleans’ casino, cruising to a 81-62 win. The Gaels had been 0-2 against Gonzaga this year. The Zags are sure to get an at-large bid and Saint Mary’s will not have to sweat it out as a bubble team this year, although their resumé would have been pretty impressive.
How about the Pac-10? Most experts believe that the University of California will be in after winning the conference’s regular season title, going 13-5. Washington and Arizona State are firmly on the bubble, making for great drama in the conference tournament this week. The conference had a down year and getting only one team (if Cal wins the Pac-10 tourney) is a real possibility, especially if at-large bids continue to be stolen by schools like Saint Mary’s.
The one thing the Pac-10 has going for it is that their top three teams have ended the regular season on streaks. Cal won seven of their last eight, UW has won four in a row and ASU was victorious in six of their last seven. It’s no secret that the selection committee likes schools that are playing their best ball in March, but the stage has been set to see a power conference get just their tournament champion in the dance like most mid-majors are used to every year.
However, one down year does not a crisis make, right? Think again. The MWC in particular has finally begun to steal the western showcase as the premier conference in the last few years.
This year’s edition of the Pac-10 went 4-5 against the MWC and 6-6 against the WCC. Modest numbers for the lesser conferences and embarrassing for the Pac-10, one of the premier conferences in the country. Many of these games were in Pac-10 arenas, as big schools continue to be weary when it comes to going into a rabid environment as a favorite against a potential giant killer.
Need more evidence to show that the Pac-10 is no longer the dominant force in Western college basketball? Check the rankings. Currently the MWC has two teams ranked: BYU (#15 in the AP Poll/#14 in ESPN’s Coaches Poll) and New Mexico (#8 in both polls). UNLV is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll. The WCC’s Gonzaga is ranked #18 in the AP Poll and #14 in the Coaches Poll. Saint Mary’s is receiving votes in the Coaches Poll.
The Pac-10? The conference has zero teams in the top 25 in both polls and only one team (Cal) is receiving votes. Even the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) has Utah State receiving more votes in both polls than the Pac-10’s Cal Golden Bears.
Clearly, better basketball is being played in the lesser conferences out west than in the Pac-10. ESPN’s bracketologist, Joe Lunardi has four MWC teams in the NCAA tournament, two in from the WCC and two in from the Pac-10 with Cal and ASU making the cut, though ASU is listed as one of the last squads in. Washington is among Lunardi’s first four out of the dance.
The news gets even worse when one starts talking about the Pac-10 and the Mountain West in college football. In 2009, three MWC teams finished in the top 25 of the AP Poll. Texas Christian University finished ranked #6, BYU earned a #12 ranking and Utah finished at #18. The Pac-10 had only two teams in the final poll, with Oregon ranked #11 and USC finishing at #23.
In the last two years, the MWC has done exceptionally in head-to-head matchups against Pac-10 schools. In 2008, the MWC dominated the Pac-10, going 6-1 in the regular season and losing in the only bowl game the conferences played against one another (an Arizona win over BYU). In 2009, the MWC went 2-3 against the Pac-10 with both wins coming in bowl games.
Combine the last two years and the MWC can boast a 8-5 record against the Pac-10 in football, including a 2-1 record in head-to-head matchups in bowl games.
Is it time for the Pac-10 to panic? Probably not. It’s unlikely that historically strong basketball programs like UCLA and Arizona won’t recover with strong recruiting and superior coaching. In football, no one thinks USC will stay down for long and certainly programs like Oregon, Washington and Stanford are strong teams that are on the up-and-up.
However, the success of the Mountain West should not be ignored as the conference is making a bid to be the second major conference from the west.
Is it any wonder that the Pac-10 is talking about expansion? Furthermore, if the conference does add more schools, some of the teams being mentioned include MWC members Utah, BYU, San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV.
If you can beat ’em, join ’em (or in this case, invite them to join you).