ASU's tournament hopes rest on strong finish
FEB 26, 2013 8:09p ET
“I know these three games are definitely must-win games for us,” Felix said.
After a home loss to Washington on Saturday, the Sun Devils (20-8, 9-6) appear to be just outside the range of a likely bid, making games against UCLA (20-7, 10-4) on Wednesday and USC (12-15, 7-7) on Saturday that much more important. One faux bracket lists ASU as one of the first four teams out of the 68-team field, which includes five other Pac-12 teams.
Arizona State finishes the season at No. 11 Arizona (23-4, 11-4).
“I definitely do think we’re an NCAA tournament team, but I think we have some such we have to polish and clean up on," Felix said. "We’re there, but we’re not to that elite status yet. I still think we have room to grow. The season is not over. Within these last three games, and even in the Pac-12 tournament, we can still become a great team.”
Washington outrebounded the Sun Devils by 13 in a 68-59 victory Saturday, but the matchups this week are more favorable. Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski was dominant inside in a 78-60 trouncing of UCLA last month at Wells Fargo Arena, scoring 22 points and adding 15 rebounds and six blocked shots. ASU scored 46 points in the paint and had 13 second-chance points in handing the Bruins’ their most lopsided loss of the year. Coach Ben Howland said he does not expect Travis Wear to play.
Evan Gordon had a season-high 28 points when the Sun Devils beat USC, 98-93 in overtime, on Jan.24.
In Felix’s eyes, anyway, the Sun Devils needs a sweep because the rest of the new tournament math is working against them. Arizona State is ranked No. 87 by RealTimeRPI, seventh in the Pac-12. The NCAA tournament selection committee adopted RPI as a secondary tool to help decide the field 20 years ago, and it has become a helpful predictor. RPI is a compilation of weights given to a team’s winning percentage, it’s opponents’ winning percentage and it’s opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage
The Pac-12 has five teams in the top 49 in according to RealTimeRPI.com: Arizona, Colorado, UCLA, California and Oregon. Even Stanford is rated ahead of ASU.
The practical application can be seen in the Arizona State-Colorado comparison. Arizona State has two more overall victories and one more Pac-12 victory than the Buffaloes, and it swept the season series. But because Colorado played a more difficult nonconference schedule, it is considered all but a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament, while the Sun Devils are not.
The Sun Devils’ best nonconference opponent was Creighton, which was ranked No. 14 when it beat Arizona State in the finals of the Las Vegas Invitational, 87-73, on Nov. 24. ASU beat Arkansas in Las Vegas, won at Texas Tech and had a home loss to DePaul. Those three teams are having down years, and even the Creighton game is losing its luster because of the Blue Jays’ recent slide out of the polls.
Arizona State is paying for its nonconference schedule at this point, but scheduling can be a fine balance, coach Herb Sendek said.
“There are a couple of factors," he said. "One is, how do you construct a schedule that gives you the best chance for earning an at-large bit? Number two is, what does our team need right now? What is the best combination for our team given our present situation?
“The third part of nonconference scheduling is, who’s available and willing to play you? It’s not as simple as picking up the phone and saying ‘We’d like to play you on this day at this place?’ It is not just a function of your desires but the other guys’ as well.”
Foremost this season, Sendek said, was getting back to winning ways after a 10-21 season while also integrating two new starters.
“Everybody talks about strength of schedule, but you could play the most arduous schedule in the world, but if you lose all the games that is not going to help your RPI much," he said. "Certainly there was some uncertainty going into this season. You are always unveiling a new team. But I think if you look in the rear-view mirror, by all accounts we have had a terrific season.
“In many years, if you go .500 in a BCS conference you get an automatic (NCAA) bid, which we have already achieved. In most recent history that hasn’t necessarily been the case, but there are a lot of variables.”
Arizona State felt the pinch in 2010, when the Pac-12 was so disrespected that the Sun Devils did not get an NCAA tournament berth despite finishing 22-11 overall and 12-6 in the conference, alone in second place. Only two league teams made the NCAA tournament that year, regular-season champion California and tournament champion Washington, which finished a game behind ASU in the regular season.
“Given the facts we had and who was available, we put a schedule that was good for our team," Sendek said. "Our team made steady progress, gained confidence. Some teams that were scheduled two years ago weren’t maybe as good as projections might lead you to think.
“That being said, if you win all the remaining games, it is a moot point.”