Is the Pac-10 Already in Trouble Come March?

even being called a darkhorse by one of Sports Illustrated’s writers to compete for a spot in the Final Four.
even being called a darkhorse by one of Sports Illustrated’s writers to compete for a spot in the Final Four. /

But so far, the conference’s performance as a whole has mostly lived down to the not-so-great expectations, even when the games have resulted in wins. A few examples:

Bears’ blunders: Ranked #12 in the most recent ESPN/USA Today poll, the Bears were blown out by Syracuse and defeated by Ohio State in two games in New York. Yes, they played without Theo Robertson (who should be back soon) and Harper Kamp (who probably won’t), but the co-favorites to win the Pac-10 did nothing good for the league during the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

Brobama’s beatdowns: Along with Cal and UW, the most buzzed-about Pac-10 team during the preseason, Oregon State, has dropped three of its first four games, one of them to Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and another at home to Sacramento State, after which Coach Craig Robinson called his team’s first-half performance, “a complete embarrassment.”

Cupcake wins: It’s only been a week-and-a-half, and six of the conference’s teams have suffered at least one loss. Worse, though, of the 23 wins by teams from the conference this season, all have been games in which the Pac-10 team was favored. The four contests league teams have played without being the favorite have all been losses.

Vegas doesn’t lie: While the conference’s overall record stands at 23-10, the Pac-10’s record aganst the spread so far is 14-17-2.* This means that the conference’s teams are often not living up to bettors’ expectations either, all the while playing what should be subpar competition. Even UW, which looks like the Pac-10’s best team at this point, has gone only 1-3 against the spread.

Of course, it’s early. Most teams in the country will be better in two months than they are now. However, time will run out by then for the conference to improve its reputation, which means even teams that dominate during the Pac-10 schedule will be looked at skeptically come Selection Sunday.

There’s only one way to make up for the bad perception of the conference, which is almost surely even worse now than it was before the season tipped off. The Pac-10 schools must collectively rack up a few impressive wins over the final six weeks of 2009, before the perception of each conference’s strength is essentially locked. A quick look at the key games, though, makes me concerned that so many of these contests seem like longshots for the conference:

Arizona St. at #8 Duke (11/25) –  Projected winner: Duke

Washington St. at Gonzaga (12/2) – Projected winner: Gonzaga

USC at #3 Texas (12/3) – Projected winner: Texas

Oregon at Missouri (12/5) – Projected winner: Missouri

Washington St. at Kansas St. (12/5) – Projected winner: Kansas State

USC at #19 Georgia Tech (12/5) – Projected winner: Georgia Tech

Arizona at #17 Oklahoma (12/6) – Projected winner: Oklahoma

UCLA vs. #1 Kansas (12/6) – Projected winner: Kansas

UW vs. #20 Georgetown (in Anaheim, 12/12) – Projected winner: UW

UCLA vs. Mississippi St. (12/12) – Projected winner: UCLA

UCLA at Notre Dame (12/19) – Projected winner: Notre Dame

USC home vs. #11 Tennessee (12/19) – Projected winner: Tennessee

Cal at #1 Kansas (12/22) – Projected winner: Kansas

UW vs. Texas A&M (12/22) – Projected winner: UW

Washington St. vs. LSU (12/22) – Projected winner: WSU

Analysis: Several of the games that might be winnable for the conference otherwise (WSU/Kansas State, Oregon/Missouri, UCLA/Notre Dame) have the Pac-10 school on the road, which is a shame. And, many of these are nearly impossible to imagine winning, including all eight of the games against ranked opponents, except for UW’s game against Georgetown on December 12th.

Somehow, though, the conference’s schools are going to need to win at least some of these fifteen games to make a case to the selection committee that more than two or three Pac-10 teams belong in the field of 65 in March.

Otherwise, regardless of the improvement that may be coming down the pipe for teams that have struggled early like Oregon State, UCLA and Cal, even a dynamic conference season will likely not be enough to save the Pac-10 from poor representation and low seeding come tournament time.

Much as it may pain you to root for Wazzu or UCLA, keep in mind that their wins will be good for UW down the road. So, try it Wednesday: hold your nose and root for Derek Glasser and his Sun Devils to shock Duke. It won’t be easy, but it may be the only hope we have for anything better than a #4 seed for the Dawgs this March.

Thanks for coming!

*Not every Pac-10 hoops game was put up on the board for betting. For seven of the eight that weren’t, determining whether the result would’ve gone for or against the spread was pretty obvious. The one iffy assumption I made was that UCLA would’ve been favored by less than 12 in their victory Friday night against CS – Bakersfield (based on their opening night loss and the absence of Nikola Dragovic).