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Southland schools might not make NCAA men's basketball tournament

Men's basketball programs in Southland might be left out of NCAA tournament

In early October, coaches from each major college basketball program in Southern California gathered at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for an annual preseason luncheon. Each gave a short speech.

There were jokes, mainly about golfing and drinking or drinking while golfing.

When it was his turn to speak, UC Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams noted that the room was jovial. But, he said, wait until after the Final Four, until the coaches have weathered a season's worth of stress. The mood might be different.

This season, they might not even have to wait that long. Entering the conference tournaments, Los Angeles-area schools are in danger of missing out on the NCAA tournament entirely for only the third time since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

UCLA is the only Southland team with a shot at an at-large bid, but its resume has holes. Many tournament projections list the Bruins on the outside looking in, meaning they need to impress at the Pac-12 Conference tournament this week.

In the Big West, six of nine teams are from the Southland, but UC Davis was the regular-season champion. The West Coast Conference is again dominated by Gonzaga.

It has been a winter of discontent for the region. No Southland teams are in the top 50 of the RPI. Only UCLA (52) and Santa Barbara (86) crack the top 100.

The contagion has not been confined to the Southland. California, the most populous state with some of the most fertile recruiting grounds, has 24 college teams playing at the highest level. None are ranked in the Associated Press top 25.

"Things go in cycles," former UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "And right now, when you look at all the schools collectively, there's not a bunch of teams who are going to get in."

Howland, a studio commentator for Fox Sports 1 and a game analyst for NBC Sports Network, predicts UCLA will earn a tournament bid and that UC Irvine and Santa Barbara have a good chance to win the Big West title.

"Not all bad," Howland said.

Among the region's coaches, there isn't grave concern. But an explanation for the down year hasn't emerged.

Is it the recruiting?

"I don't think that's changed," Pepperdine Coach Marty Wilson said.

Has Los Angeles' high school talent begun to dry up?

"Being new to the area," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said, "I think the basketball is really good."

Evan Daniels, director of basketball recruiting for Scout.com, said the issue isn't the availability of recruits in the region.

"I haven't seen a downturn in the talent," he said.

But he noted that some schools have had success poaching local recruits. Los Angeles has always been a target for teams like Kansas and North Carolina.

Now, Arizona has built a pipeline of talent flowing east. The Wildcats, the Pac-12 regular-season champions, have seven players from the Southland on their roster, including four scholarship players.

"This is a highly recruited area," Howland said. "Everybody in the Pac-12 recruits here, everybody in the Mountain West recruits here, everybody in the WCC, so there are a lot of good players from the state of California that also go elsewhere."

Since 1985, the Southland has missed out on the NCAA tournament only in 2003 and 2004. In those seasons, the drought was more severe. No team cracked the top 100.

This season, there are oases of success. Pepperdine will have its first winning season since 2005 and has no seniors on the roster. The Big West hasn't finished in the top 20 in conference RPI since 2010, but this season is ranked 15th.

"I actually feel like the Big West, it's one of our top-to-bottom strongest years," Williams said.

But, Williams noted, "In LA, you rate the year based on UCLA and USC."

Daniels said UCLA and USC have brought in strong recruits and top-20 classes again this year. Both teams have had to restock rosters, USC after seasons of futility and UCLA after an exodus to the NBA. He said fortunes should improve.

But recurring success matters, especially for elite prospects.

Mater Dei's Stanley Johnson, who has become one of the top freshmen in the nation, said his college decision was easy. He said he wanted an elite basketball program, somewhere with nice weather.

Johnson considered staying home, and USC was one of his final two choices.

But, Johnson said, "I wanted to play at the top level at the NCAA. And there's only one program on the West Coast that provided that for me."

That school? Arizona.

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