Former UCLA great Don MacLean thinks Pac-12 can get three teams into NCAA tournament

Arizona State's Remy Martin, left, Rob Edwards (2), Zylan Cheatham (45), Romello White, right, and Luguentz Dort (0) huddle during the second half of a game against Washington on Feb. 9.
(Darryl Webb / Associated Press)

As a color analyst for Pac-12 Networks men’s basketball broadcasts this season, Don MacLean has watched more of the league’s games than anyone. In most years, that would be considered a treat. In 2019, however, with Selection Sunday looming and the conference featuring no clear locks to make the NCAA tournament, it feels like more of an unfortunate circumstance.

But MacLean, the former UCLA star and the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer, doesn’t want anyone’s pity. He views the league’s down year as cyclical, vouches for Washington and Arizona State as deserving of at-large NCAA berths and sees a third team emerging this week in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.

Only once has a team won four games in four days to win the conference tournament — Colorado in 2012 — but MacLean feels like this could be the year it happens again. If that were to occur, it would take much of what has been frustrating about the league this season and turn it into a positive at the end.

“There’s a whole group,” MacLean said, “talented teams that have been inconsistent all year, but they have enough to run the table and win it. If the theme around the conference has been inconsistency, it’s hard to pick which team is all of a sudden going to get consistent for four days, but I think Oregon, USC and UCLA, even Colorado for that matter, could put it together. That’s why this year’s conference tournament is going to be wild.”


For the Pac-12, that would be a best-case scenario.

A year after it had just three teams in the NCAA tournament — two of which (Arizona State and UCLA) were sent to Dayton, Ohio, for the “First Four” — the league is facing an unlikely yet realistic scenario of getting just one team in the NCAA tournament.

Jerry Palm, CBS Sports’ bracket expert, has Washington and Arizona State listed on the bubble with the Huskies a No. 10 seed and the Sun Devils a No. 11 seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Washington more firmly in with a No. 8 seed and Arizona State on the bubble with a No. 10 seed.

If Arizona State were to lose its first game of the Pac-12 tournament to the winner of Wednesday’s UCLA-Stanford game, the Sun Devils would find themselves in a precarious bubble situation. That, combined with regular-season champion Washington winning the league tournament, could lead to the Huskies being the conference’s lone NCAA tournament team.


Sign up for our daily sports newsletter »

In 2012, the Pac-12 got just two teams into the tournament, which remains the most likely result this year.

MacLean’s three-team scenario could play out as long as Washington and Arizona State don’t lose early and another team gets hot to steal an automatic bid as Pac-12 tournament champions.

Of course, no matter how many teams ultimately make the NCAA tournament, the bigger problem is that there isn’t one team that appears to be a national title contender.


That is no coincidence with the conference’s top two programs struggling at the same time.

If UCLA or Arizona were playing to its reputation this year, the perception of the league would not seem nearly as dire.

“Because that’s always been the case, that UCLA and Arizona, even if the rest of the conference wasn’t good, they would kind of carry it,” MacLean said. “Now if everyone is in agreement that it’s a down year, and UCLA and Arizona are down, I think it magnifies it even more.”

The Bruins fired coach Steve Alford in December after a disastrous start to the season. The Wildcats have been mired in the federal investigation into corruption and bribery in college basketball recruiting, and with a 17-14 record, coach Sean Miller could be in jeopardy of losing his job after the season.


Sadly for the Pac-12, no other program stepped forward as ready for the national spotlight in place of UCLA and Arizona. Washington has the best record at 24-7 but had no marquee wins in nonconference play. Arizona State knocked off No. 1 Kansas in December but fell to Princeton a week later.

The entire league posted a 7-10 record this year against the West Coast Conference.

From there, everybody was playing an impossible game of catch-up.

“Whether you scheduled really good or not really good in the nonconference, the league just didn’t win enough,” MacLean said. “Then, when you get into conference play, there’s no way to help yourself if you’re playing each other. Now there’s no way to get back ahead.”


Twitter: @BradyMcCollough