The Pacific-12 will not crown a true regular-season league champion because of the unbalanced schedule, but that does not necessarily matter in a power conference that could land multiple NCAA tournament bids.
California, Washington and Arizona all could get NCAA bids, while Oregon and Colorado could lobby for a fourth.
The lack of a round-robin schedule mostly will be felt in the Pac-12 tournament seedings, where the difference between finishing fourth and fifth in the regular season is the difference between maxing out at three games or four in the conference tournament that begins March 7 at Staples Center in LA.
“There are not any real deep teams in our league,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said this week. “The difference between playing three games and four games is pretty obvious. Four games in four days is very difficult.”
Oregon and Colorado are perched on the precipice, with the winner of Thursday night’s game at Matt Court almost certain to get a first-round bye, and the loser almost certain not to. In their case the unbalanced schedule was not much of a factor. Both missed games against UCLA (Oregon on the road, Colorado at home). Oregon did not play Arizona at home, Colorado did not play at Washington. About a wash.
Cal, which appears a lock to advance to the NCAA tournament regardless of how things break the next two weeks, might have benefited most from the “misses.” The Bears did not play at Arizona and did not host Washington. Cal could get the No. 1 seed on the tiebreaker advantage gained when it won its only game against Washington, which came in Seattle.
At the same time, the unbalanced schedule seems here to stay, mostly because the addition of four more conference games would prove too unwieldy. It would force schools to begin league play in late December, when holiday tournaments or made-for-TV regional matches are on the calendar. The Big 12 is the only power conference playing a full league schedule … and that is because it has been downsized to 10 teams.
“I would be in favor of it (a complete round robin). I would like it because it gives you a true champion,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “I think it would be good for everybody, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
There has not been much talk about it around the league, or much support, either.
“You just can’t play that many (conference) games. Over the years it will all balance out. There are non-conference games you need to play,” California coach Mike Montgomery said.
Montgomery makes the best point. Non-conference games are much more important than another league road trip or two in carving out a national identity. Although the Pac-12 did not fare well in November/December play this season, those games remain the best way to climb the RPI ladder.
“I don’t want to go to 22 games,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said of extending conference play. “That would be self-defeating. There would be some cannibalism involved. You would just eat up on the others. You can separate yourself in the non-conference games.”
Although it did not happen this year, it is the best plan moving forward.
IMPACT GAMES OF THE WEEK
Colorado at Oregon (Thursday) — You could clearly read Oregon coach Dana Altman’s lips after a foul called with less than a second remaining deprived the Ducks of a chance to get into overtime in the first meeting with the Buffs in Boulder. “It was all ball,” Altman repeated at least four times after E.J. Singler was called for a foul that led to the Buffaloes’ 72-71 victory. The Ducks will not have forgotten. There is more than revenge on the line: The winner all but assures itself a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.
Washington at UCLA (Saturday) — The Huskies can clinch the regular-season title and No. 1 tournament seed by completing a season sweep of UCLA, providing they take care of business as expected against last-place USC on Thursday. The top tourney seed gets an off day Wednesday and a noon game Thursday, the most desirous schedule. Washington weathered hometown product Joshua Smith’s career-high 24 points and overcame a 10-point deficit to win the first game behind Terrence Ross’s 22 points.
California at Stanford (Sunday) — Stanford has won 16 of the past 18 Big Hoop Games played on the Farm, although many of those came when Bears coach Mike Montgomery was coaching down the coast. Cal last won at Maples Pavilion in 2010 behind Jerome Randle’s 24 points. If Washington loses in Los Angeles, the Bears can take the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament with a victory to complete a sweep of the season series.