The phone connection was fine, Jerry Palm’s voice clearly audible, but the college basketball analyst suggested calling back later when asked about UCLA’s NCAA tournament chances.
“I would say, win three more in a row and ask me again,” Palm, a CBS Sports senior writer, said Monday morning.
Seven wins in nine games has not moved the Bruins (15-11 overall, 8-5 Pac-12 Conference) into serious consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament given their earlier stumbles that included home losses to Cal State Fullerton and Hofstra.
Most damning for UCLA’s chances is that it’s ranked No. 101 in the latest NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, which has become the primary metric used by the NCAA tournament selection committee to pick and seed teams.
“They’re not getting in the tournament with that,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi, “unless the committee goes so far off the board from its typical practices that there would be anarchy in the rest of the sport.”
The Bruins are left with two routes into the NCAA tournament: win the Pac-12 tournament and the accompanying automatic bid or win nearly all of their five remaining regular-season games. Their schedule provides several chances to significantly enhance their resume given they will play Arizona (No. 8 in the NET), Colorado (No. 11), USC (No. 49) and Arizona State (No. 50).
“If every night UCLA is going out here in the last three weeks and they’re playing an ‘up’ game,” Lunardi said, alluding to a quality opponent, “then you can move up.”
UCLA has already beaten Arizona and Colorado once, providing two of its four Quadrant 1 victories that are considered especially valuable for NCAA tournament selection purposes because they involve beating a team with a NET ranking of 1-30 at home, 1-50 on a neutral court or 1-75 on the road. (The other two Quadrant 1 victories came on the road against Washington and Oregon State.)
Winning the Pac-12 regular-season title wouldn’t matter outside of enhancing the Bruins’ overall record because conference records are omitted from team sheets used by the selection committee. Both Palm and Lunardi have projected six teams from the Pac-12 — Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Stanford, USC and Arizona State — to make the NCAA tournament.
UCLA could be on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2003-04, but there is recent precedent for the Bruins pulling a Selection Sunday surprise.
The Bruins were selected for the NCAA tournament in 2015, earning a No. 11 seeding in the South Regional, after completing a regular season in which they went 20-13 and were left out of some bracket projections. UCLA made it in that year as the fifth-to-last at-large team in the field.
“I missed that team and they were one of the least-deserving teams to ever get in,” Palm said of the Bruins, who beat Southern Methodist on a controversial goaltending call and Alabama Birmingham to reach a regional semifinal. “Not the most, but I’d put them in the top five.”
The Bruins had closed that season with a strong push, winning nine of their final 13 games before the NCAA tournament, including one victory in the Pac-12 tournament. Scott Barnes, then the selection committee chairman, said at the time that the committee had tracked UCLA closely over its final month of play, intimating that its surge was a factor in its inclusion.
Lunardi said the Bruins could benefit from a similar buzz if they keep winning.
“Even though the strict category of last 10 or last 12 games is now not an official metric on the team sheets,” Lunardi said, “you’d have to at least know in your head, hey, they’re hot.”
Major-conference teams have made it into the NCAA tournament with some unsightly records. Eleven teams have received at-large bids with just 16 victories, Georgia becoming the last team to do so in 2001 after it went 16-14 against a brutally difficult schedule.
UCLA’s Division I nonconference strength of schedule this season ranked No. 230 nationally, leaving the Bruins with far less wiggle room. UCLA coach Mick Cronin has said he’s treating every game like a tournament game for the rest of the season, meaning their next must-win situation comes Thursday against Utah (14-11, 5-8) in Salt Lake City.
Cronin’s mantra was intended as a motivational ploy but might not be far from the truth given his team’s predicament.
“If they were 71 instead of 101,” Lunardi said, referencing the Bruins’ NET ranking, “then maybe you’d go, ‘Hey, win a couple more ‘up’ games and they would be right there.’ But NET or RPI, there’s never been anything close to a triple-digit at-large selection.”