March 14, 2008

The waiting game

Maybe Oregon's already in the NCAA tournament and we just don't know it. At least that's how they played in the first half against Washington State in a 75-70 loss at Staples Center last night. The Cougars came out hot, shooting over 60% in the first half. Oregon shot the ball fairly well in the first half, but had 7 turnovers and finished the first half down 15 and only scored 27 points.

Washington State was taking it to the Ducks early in the first half when Malik Hairston picked up his second foul and was forced to the bench. From there, Washington State stretched its lead behind hot shooting and a series of backdoor cuts that took advantage of a listless Oregon defense.

Back came the Ducks in the second half behind the hot shooting of Tajuan Porter who poured in 17 of his 20 in the second half. Oregon pulled within 4 with just over a minute to go but the Ducks missed a critical free throw then turned it over on a travel, and that was it.

You can easily argue for and against the Ducks getting into the tournament. There are wins over Stanford, Arizona twice, Kansas State and Utah that look pretty good. And horrific losses to Oakland, Nebraska and the triple sweep at the hands of the Washington State Cougars. Oregon sits squarely on the bubble with Arizona State after the Sun Devils lost earlier in the day to USC. The Sun Devils lost 10 of their last 15 regular-season games. The committee doesn't usually like that.

So after all of the discussion about how the conference might get 7 teams into the big dance, it now looks like 5 for sure, maybe 6. Arizona, by virtue of having the nation's toughest schedule and the same amount of wins, is probably in. Which leaves ASU and Oregon for that last spot. The teams finished tied in the conference regular season and split their season series. Oregon (SOS: 26) played a much tougher schedule than ASU (SOS: 86), and their RPI of 54 is 22 spots higher than the Sun Devils. And there is one more thing. Both teams played Nebraska, on the road, two weeks apart. Oregon lost in overtime, Arizona State lost by 16.

None of this means Oregon's going to get in the tournament. But it does mean that Oregon's more likely to get in than Arizona State. Who else could edge out the Ducks? Dayton, UAB, ASU, Baylor, Maryland, Florida, Ole Miss and UMASS all lost in their conference tournaments. Maryland's loss gives them 14 and it was to a mediocre Boston College team so they're likely finished. But Florida State, and Texas A & M and won and are now probably in.

New Mexico lost to Utah tonight as well. A team Oregon beat this year. That loss could put them behind the Ducks but with all the other losses today, still in the tourney with 24 wins.

Oregon has fewer wins than every one of those teams, and a lower RPI than everyone but New Mexico and another bubble team, Houston. The upside is that they have a much tougher SOS than all of them.

Villanova lost to Georgetown today and is now 20-12 with an RPI around 50 and about the 50th toughest SOS. St. Joseph's beat Richmond to get to 20-11 and plays Xavier tomorrow night.

Ohio State plays Michigan State Friday in a rematch from just 5 days ago when the Buckeyes won 63-54 at home. Ohio State wins, they're probably in with their 20th win. A loss and at 19-13 and they're tossed into a dead heat with the Ducks.

Prior to their opening round loss this year, Oregon had been the only conference team to advance to the semi-finals ever year since the conference tournament resumed in 2002. Coach Ernie Kent's record in the tournament is still a glowing 10-4. But this loss may be a knockout blow to his team's chances of making the NCAA's, and it has to hurt.

If Oregon might be the last team into the tournament. They might also be the top seed in the NIT. It's that close.

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