Back the Pac: The Pac-12 looks dismal but should still send five teams to the NCAA Tournament

The Conference of Champions has recently been anything but.

Four teams have a losing record. Three teams haven’t won a game on the road. One team, Utah, had lost 10 games in a row but got its first win since December on Thursday.

However, those lackluster stats don’t matter if the conference can send an ample amount of teams to the NCAA Tournament. If five Pac-12 teams sneak into the Big Dance, the conference will look fairly competitive in the overall college basketball landscape.

Now, five teams isn’t much to write home about. For comparison, the Big 12 sent seven teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament alone, a feat the Pac-12 has not matched since 2016. Still, five is a step in the right direction, given the conference sent just three teams to two of the last three NCAA Tournaments.

The conference’s top teams  seem locked for the tournament. UCLA (16-3), Arizona (18-2) and USC (19-3) could all make the NCAA Tournament even if they decided to take a month-long vacation to the Bahamas instead of playing out the rest of the regular season. The Bruins and Wildcats could even find themselves as one of the top seeds in the entire bracket.

The rest of the Pac-12 field is a bit murkier. Oregon (14-7) looks like it has set itself apart from the rest of the pack with recent wins at UCLA, at USC and a 28-point bludgeoning against rival Washington. The Ducks are only held back by their initial 6-6 start, but the team could still coast to a tournament berth if it continues its strong play for the remainder of the season. 

The fifth tournament spot is where the Pac-12 will have to hope one of its teams has a strong end of the season to enter the tournament as one of the last teams selected. There are quite a few programs vying for this spot, but let’s narrow it down to the most likely candidates: Washington State, Colorado, Stanford and Washington.

Let’s get the Huskies out of the way. Washington is 12-8, ranked 141 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and does not have a single quad 1 win to its name (The KenPom ratings rank teams based on offensive and defensive efficiency, and quadrant wins show how strong a win was, with quad 1 being considered a very strong win because of how good the opponent is). 

Washington is not the team to bet on to round out the Pac-12’s wealth of teams in the NCAA Tournament, but, with upcoming games against Arizona, USC and UCLA, the Huskies will have plenty of opportunities to improve their resume. If Washington can win just two of those games in that three-game stretch, the Huskies may put themselves right into the bubble conversation. Oh, and Washington has the conference’s leading scorer, too.

Stanford is another unlikely candidate for the tournament, but the Cardinal is worth mentioning because Stanford has the most quad 1 wins among all Pac-12 teams. Now, two of its four quad 1 wins came against USC, but they count all the same. That schedule’s strength is likely to get the Cardinal some respect when it’s time to decide on the NCAA Tournament’s slate of teams.

A team to bet on to make the cut is Colorado. The Buffaloes may not be that great of a team (and the analytics show that with the team ranked at 97th in KenPom), but Colorado has one of the easiest schedules imaginable. 

Remember the four teams in the Pac-12 with a losing record? 

The Buffaloes play six of its final eight games against those teams. Colorado currently sits at 13-9 but could easily end the season with 10 losses or less and put themselves squarely in the bubble discussion.

But, at this point, the favorite in the Pac-12’s fifth bid to the NCAA Tournament should be Washington State. 

 Aside from the Cougars’ strength of schedule, the analytics love the Cougars, with KenPom ranking them 33rd and the NET rankings boasting at 38th. These analytics are crucial pieces of the puzzle that put teams into the NCAA Tournament, and they look favorably upon Wazzu. The Cougars slightly derailed Colorado’s chances of a tournament berth as well after the Cougars throttled the Buffaloes 70-43.

The main hurdle for Washington State to overcome is its brutal schedule to close out the season. Opposite of Colorado’s luck, the Cougars face the four best teams in the Pac-12 five more times before the season ends. This stretch could either build Washington State’s resume up or shatter the Cougars’ hopes of a tournament berth.

See how it’s not too hard to come up with five Pac-12 teams that can crack the NCAA Tournament? 

I didn’t even mention that a random sixth team might win the
Pac-12 Tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. That would be on brand for the Pac-12 and good for the conference — two things that often do not go hand in hand.

So there’s a chance the conference isn’t as lost as it seemed just a couple of months ago.

Matthew Andrade is a sophomore providing analysis on Pac-12 basketball in all its glory. His column, “Back the Pac,” runs every other Friday.