USC gets a sinking feeling

Take a deep breath, put Digger Phelps on mute, and let’s talk about what coaches see when they look at the NCAA tournament bracket.

It’s whether their teams are in, of course -- Stanford, you’re on shaky ground -- but mostly which teams they would play and where they would play them.

It’s matchups and meeting places.

A No. 1 seeding might be nice for your fans, but the only reason it matters is how it affects those two factors.


UCLA still has a chance at a No. 1 when the NCAA tournament pairings are announced today -- the Atlantic Coast Conference final, Big Ten final, Big 12 final and Southeastern Conference final could have some bearing -- but that’s not the issue.

If the Bruins are a No. 2 and still get a draw that would give them short-hop flights to Sacramento and San Jose the first two weekends, it’s all the same.

A No. 2 worked fine for the Bruins last season, when they took a slightly different Golden State tour, playing in San Diego and Oakland, on their way to the Final Four.

If they can’t beat a No. 15 instead of a No. 16 and a No. 7 instead of a No. 8 along the way, they’re not on the road to Atlanta anyway. If all goes according to form, they would still get the same opponent in a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 regional final whether they are the No. 1 or the No. 2.

And consider this: Since the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979, half the NCAA champions have been No. 1s. But 71% -- 20 of 28 -- have been No. 1s or No. 2s.

The bigger issue for the Bruins is how they’re playing.

Even so, shipping UCLA out of the West would seem a harsh penalty for an overtime loss against a desperate California team after the Bruins finished the season No. 1 overall in the Ratings Percentage Index. The Cal loss dropped UCLA to No. 2 in the RPI behind Ohio State.

Those are the sort of issues facing the NCAA selection committee chaired by Princeton Athletic Director Gary Walters, whose credentials include playing in the 1965 Final Four alongside Bill Bradley.


This is a season marked by “fluidity,” Walters said last week before deliberations began, suggesting conference tournaments would play a big role.

“There appears to be less clarity this year at the top of the field,” Walters said. “Consequently, there’s the possibility for seeding change of the top teams, should they stub their toes in the tournament.”

Stub their toes, the Bruins did.

USC did better, raising its seeding by making it to the Pacific 10 Conference final.


But nobody did better than Oregon, a peaking squad that sent its seeding soaring after crushing Arizona, Cal and USC on the way to the Pac-10 title.

In contrast, Stanford, the team the Trojans eked out an overtime victory against in the quarterfinals, is on uncertain ground.

The Cardinal passes the “eye test,” especially with two 7-footers and victories over UCLA and Virginia, beating the co-champions of the ACC on the road.

But here’s the problem: In any bubble conversation that includes Air Force -- loser of its last four and quite possibly out of the tournament -- Stanford fares poorly because of a 79-45 loss to Air Force early in the season.


Granted, the Cardinal didn’t have Brook Lopez, who was recovering from back surgery. And granted, while losing six of their last nine, they were without point guard Anthony Goods for a stretch, though he returned for the Pac-10 tournament.

Still, the competition for the last few at-large spots has gotten tighter and tighter with tournament losses by such teams as Butler, Nevada and Xavier, who figure to make the field anyway, taking some of the 34 at-large spots.

Should North Carolina State upset North Carolina in the ACC final -- it’s not unimaginable, since the Wolfpack already beat the Tar Heels -- that would cost the bubble teams another spot, and perhaps send Coach Sidney Lowe off on a celebration reminiscent of former coach Jim Valvano when Lowe’s team won the 1983 NCAA title on a last-second dunk by Lorenzo Charles.

Arkansas faces defending NCAA champion Florida in the SEC final, and could cost the bubble-dwellers another spot by upsetting the Gators.


Florida, like Ohio State, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina, is very much in the hunt for a No. 1, along with UCLA.

Memphis has a 22-game winning streak but isn’t on the pundits’ tongues because of the weakness of Conference USA.

The most compelling situation is the Big Ten, where the Buckeyes and Badgers meet in the final. The complication is that game tips off only about 2 1/2 hours before the 3 p.m. NCAA selection show.

That puts a time squeeze on the committee -- NCAA staffers say they would force conferences to play their title games earlier if they thought they had a legal leg to stand on -- and it means the committee might make a decision before the game is over, as it has before with the Big 12.


In this case, either the winner is a No. 1 and the loser is a No. 2, or both are No. 1s. Whichever makes the committee’s job easier is likely to happen.

One thing is clear: There are going to be a lot of 20-win teams on the sidelines. Which ones?

“There is no magic formula,” Walters said.