Here’s the truth about most of the bubble teams people will be obsessing about for the next week and a half.
Over the last five seasons, only nine teams seeded No. 9 through No. 12 -- your typical seeding for a major-conference bubble team -- made it to the Sweet 16, and last season no team seeded lower then seventh made it.
Take a closer look and you’ll see that the ones in that seeding range that manage to win a couple of games are usually so-called mid-majors, or at least not from the power conferences -- teams such as Butler in 2003, Alabama Birmingham and Nevada in 2004, Wisconsin Milwaukee in 2005, and Bradley and the famous George Mason team that made it to the Final Four in 2006.
So track teams such as Kentucky, Maryland, Syracuse, Texas A&M;, Ohio State and even two-time defending champion Florida if you’d like, but they probably aren’t going to make it out of the first weekend even if they do make the field.
USC -- by taking a split on the Arizona trip with a victory over Arizona -- appears safely out of that territory with an 18-10 record against a challenging schedule, and a 9-7 Pacific 10 mark (with two games remaining) that includes a victory over UCLA. That season-opening loss to Mercer is so long ago, it didn’t even save the job of Bears Coach Mark Slonaker, whose contract isn’t being renewed after a losing season.
Arizona is a more interesting case, partly because of the Wildcats’ 23-year NCAA tournament streak and the unfolding saga over whether Lute Olson or Kevin O’Neill will coach the team next season.
When O’Neill calls it the toughest year of his coaching career, that’s saying something: He was an assistant with the Indiana Pacers the season of the brawl with the Detroit Pistons.
Arizona (17-12, 7-9) needs to solidify its case against the Oregon schools and in the Pac-10 tournament next week at Staples Center. But the Wildcats probably will make the field because of a difficult schedule that contributes to a No. 23 Rating Percentage Index ranking and because they played significant stretches without Jerryd Bayless earlier and, more recently, Nic Wise because of injury. Wise is returning to practice this week.
“I think it’s probably been trying for everybody, so what I totally admire and respect about our players is how they’ve handled not only [the coaching] situation but this injury thing and the makeshift lineups,” O’Neill said. “It’s been an interesting year, is all I can say.”
It probably will get more interesting, with the school trying to get through the season before addressing a delicate situation with Olson, 73.
If he wants to return as planned, the Hall of Fame coach has earned the right after taking the season off to deal with undisclosed personal matters. But if Olson comes back, O’Neill, a frankly pragmatic coach who has grown accustomed to running the team, would probably return to the NBA instead of waiting to replace Olson as he and the school informally agreed to this season.
Expect the situation to be defined after the season, if Arizona can hold off, with Athletic Director Jim Livengood well aware how disruptive it could be no matter what the decision is -- and how the Wildcats’ finish might be a factor.
“Right now, I’m focused on supporting the current team,” Livengood said.
One negative for Arizona is if the Wildcats are compared to Arizona State (18-10, 8-8). That’s because despite losing eight of its last 12 and having a non-conference schedule that contributed to a No. 68 RPI, Arizona State defeated Xavier, Stanford and USC -- and swept Arizona.
That leaves the Pac-10, with UCLA, Stanford, Washington State and probably USC solid, hoping for six berths, which would match last season.
Is it just coincidence that Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek -- like Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who is in danger of missing the tournament a second year in a row -- is one who thinks the NCAA ought to expand the field of 65?
Neither the NCAA basketball committee nor the organization’s brass is biting.
“You have to appreciate and respect everybody’s opinion,” said Tom O’Connor, the chairman of the selection committee and athletic director at George Mason. “But at this time the committee and the NCAA board has deemed that the current bracket is appropriate. We feel, coming out of our meetings this summer, that where we are right now is fine.”
Maybe that’s because they know the bubble generates plenty of hype for weeks before the NCAA tournament even begins.
Around the rim
The tournaments for some of the so-called one-bid leagues have begun, but one conference that doesn’t look as if it will get merely one is the West Coast Conference, whose tournament begins Friday at the University of San Diego. With Gonzaga in the top 25 and St. Mary’s recently in the top 25, coaches expect two berths -- and if there is an upset in the title game Monday, possibly three, which would be a record for the WCC. “If anybody wins besides Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, there are going to be three teams getting in,” Santa Clara Coach Kerry Keating said. “It’s not just San Diego, but there’s certainly a lot of attention on San Diego because they’re playing on their home floor.” . . . The Big West, by contrast, is in one-bid territory, even though Cal State Northridge already has 19 wins and Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara and Pacific have clinched 20-win seasons. That tournament is next week in Anaheim. . . . The latest name in the renew-and-recycle coaching world: Nolan Richardson is a candidate for the job at Arkansas State.
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The Times’ rankings
ROBYN NORWOOD’S RANKINGS AND COMMENTS:
*--* -- Rk. Team (Rec.) Comment (last week’s rank) 1 N. CAROLINA (28-2) Lawson easing back in as Tar Heels prepare for tournament. (1) 2 TENNESSEE (26-3) Don’t make too much of close loss to Vanderbilt after Memphis win. (2) 3 UCLA (26-3) It’s Love vs. Lopez for Pac-10 player of the year votes on Thursday. (5) 4 MEMPHIS (28-1) A 59.1 free-throw percentage will not win the NCAA championship. (3) 5 KANSAS (27-3) Jayhawks could be a stirring story as players mourn family losses. (6) 6 DUKE (25-3) Freshman Kyle Singler doesn’t get as much hype but has a great future. (7) 7 STANFORD (24-4) Big men, big game against UCLA at Pauley on Thursday. (8) 8 GEORGETOWN (24-4) It’s hard to believe Patrick Ewing Jr. is a senior. (9) 9 WISCONSIN (24-4) Remember, the Badgers beat Texas. (11) 10 TEXAS (25-5) That was a nice run before stumble against Texas Tech. (4) 11 XAVIER (25-4) Drew Lavender averages 10.8 points but has solid stats all around. (10) 12 CONNECTICUT (23-6) A.J. Price has become a pretty good comeback story. (13) 13 LOUISVILLE (24-6) Cardinals are thriving since return of David Padgett. (14) 14 MICHIGAN STATE (23-6) Spartans scored 42 at Wisconsin, then 103 against Indiana. (19) 15 INDIANA (24-5) The Hoosiers’ players have been through a lot lately. (12) 16 VANDERBILT (24-5) Upset of Tennessee was followed by a loss to Arkansas. (15) 17 BUTLER (27-3) Graves and Campbell each have made more than 80 three-pointers. (16) 18 PURDUE (23-7) Boilermakers Coach Matt Painter has had a very good year. (17) 19 NOTRE DAME (22-6) Luke Harangody looks like the Big East player of the year. (18) 20 WASHINGTON STATE (22-7) Minor disappointments, but this program has come so far. (20) 21 MARQUETTE (22-7) Two-point overtime loss to Georgetown was no disaster. (21) 22 DRAKE (25-4) Adam Emmenecker is the Missouri Valley player of the year. (24) 23 GONZAGA (24-6) Zags are ready to try to prove they still own the WCC. (Not ranked) 24 DAVIDSON (23-6) Jason Richards leads the nation in assists with 8.0 a game. (25.) 25 BRIGHAM YOUNG (23-6) Two of the losses were to North Carolina and Michigan State. (NR) *--*