Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Breaking down the postseason picture for five Pac-12 teams
The time has come to talk about the bubble.
With two weeks left in the Pac-12 regular season, there are four teams that are shoo-ins for NCAA bids and high seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
First-place Oregon, second-place Stanford, third-place Oregon State and Arizona State have each built bodies of work this season that merit their spots in the 2019 NCAA bracket weeks before its reveal, regardless of who wins the automatic bid in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
There are a handful of other Pac-12 teams with resumes that will also merit consideration by the NCAA selection committee and there’s every reason to believe that at least two more teams will make the NCAA field.
But the postseason fortunes of all of those teams – UCLA, Utah, Arizona, Cal and USC – depend heavily on how they will finish these last two weeks of the season and perform in the Pac-12 Tournament in three weeks.
Arizona, for example, pulled off its first weekend Pac-12 sweep in eight years to make its postseason intentions more clear.
“I think they understand that and they want to play in postseason,” Wildcats coach Adia Barnes said Sunday. “I think it’s not guaranteed, for sure. But we are a step closer, we are knocking on the door.”
UCLA coach Cori Close said she wants her team “playing in the present.” She said they discussed their postseason goals at the start of the year and haven’t brought it up since.
“I feel like if you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the process,” Close said. “This year, for the first time, I have not looked at one bracketology. I told myself that it would stress me out, and I want to be the best leader I can for the team. I just want my team to embrace that.”
Utah is struggling in a six-game losing streak heading into its final home weekend against the Washington schools, but said the goal of getting to the NCAA Tournament hasn’t changed.
“We are not in any different boat than any of these teams,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “The big picture, if you step back, hasn’t changed for us at all. We have four games left. We still have a lot in front of us. There are opportunities there and still a lot of basketball left to play that’s going to determine our future.”
Roberts admitted that a win at Arizona State on Sunday – the Utes fell after leading by 18 points to start the final quarter – would have helped.
“But we didn’t get it done and it is what it is,” Roberts said. “What we have done up to this point, even with the skid, we are in the conversation. We are good enough to make the tournament, but now we have to just go do it.”
Let’s take a look at these five teams and their tournament resumes.
Arizona (7-7, 17-8)
Strength of schedule (RealTime RPI): 89
Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 2-4
Prospects: Coming off their first sweep of the season against Colorado and Utah (and the program’s first weekend sweep in the Pac-12 in eight years), the Wildcats have won three of their last four games, but the road ahead is tough, including a road trip to face Stanford and Cal, followed by a closing weekend at home against the Oregon schools. Arizona, which hasn’t made an NCAA appearance since 2005, looks more like a WNIT candidate at this point (where they last appeared in 2011), but a 20-win season, the program’s first since 2010-11, may keep them in the conversation.
California (5-9, 14-11)
Strength of schedule (RealTime RPI): 12
Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 1-6
Prospects: Since defeating Stanford on January 31, the Bears have lost five in a row, including three games straight to top 10 teams (Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State) and missed an opportunity to gain some momentum by getting swept in Southern California last weekend. The Bears have made the NCAA Tournament six of the last seven years and have a strong RPI and strength of schedule, putting them in strong position for the NCAA field with a few more wins down the stretch. Friday’s critical game against Arizona State will be a bellwether for Cal’s ability to finish strong.
UCLA (9-5, 16-10)
Strength of schedule (RealTime RPI): 19
Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 4-4
Prospects: With seven wins in eight games, including Sunday’s pivotal win over Cal, the Bruins are peaking behind breakout sophomore Michaela Onyenwere and solidifying their position in the top half of the Pac-12 standings, while facing a tough finish, including next weekend’s defining games against the Oregon schools. UCLA – which has reached the NCAA Tournament three years running, including two Sweet 16 and one Elite Eight appearance - is 1-4 vs. teams with a top 25 RPI and 2-3 against teams with a top 50 RPI. At this point, the Bruins, who played the toughest schedule in the Pac-12 this season with two games each against Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State, look like they are in strong position to return to the NCAA field.
USC (5-9, 15-10)
Strength of schedule (RealTime RPI): 41
Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 0-7
Prospects: The Women of Troy split the weekend series against the Bay Area teams, but showed they have the ability to make a late-season rally by defeating Cal on Friday and then playing No. 10 Stanford to the final seconds before falling by two points on Sunday. USC, which last made the NCAA Tournament in 2014, finished last season with 20 wins and failed to make the NCAA field. They will have a tough time getting to that total before the brackets rollout, but an upset win or two down this final stretch couldn’t hurt their chances.
Utah (7-7, 18-7)
Strength of schedule (RealTime RPI): 88
Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 1-4
Prospects: Since peaking with a No. 17 national ranking and an upset win over Stanford three weeks ago, Utah has lost six straight games, none as painful as Sunday’s loss to Arizona State in which they led by 18 points early in the fourth quarter and saw the Sun Devils go on a 20-0 run to nail down the comeback win. An upcoming weekend series against the Washington schools, both in the bottom half of the Pac-12 standings, gives the Utes, who haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and have made three straight WNIT appearances, an opportunity to build NCAA momentum heading toward the conference tournament.