USC, Cal Struggling To Secure NCAA Tournament Berths In Top-Heavy Pac-12

    Arizona, Oregon and UCLA are the clear leaders in the Pac-12, and they might leave USC and Cal in their wake on Selection Sunday if the Trojans and Bears can't earn signature victories.

    February 22, 2017

    Arizona, Oregon and UCLA are the clear leaders in the Pac-12, and they might leave USC and Cal in their wake on Selection Sunday if the Trojans and Bears can’t earn signature victories.


    The perceived strength of the Pac-12 centers around the three national title contenders perched above the rest of the conference. Their separation from those teams also might shut the door on the remainder of the Pac-12 once Selection Sunday rolls around, though.

    Arizona, Oregon and UCLA all are ranked in the top six in the AP Top 25 poll and are poised to make deep NCAA Tournament runs. They’ve mostly beaten up on each other, with Oregon scoring victories over each of their two counterparts, UCLA getting revenge and Arizona winning in Pauley Pavilion. There’s a reason the Wildcats’ matchup with the Bruins on Saturday in Tucson is such a highly anticipated battle.

    Lurking behind are Cal and USC, likely the only other Pac-12 teams with shots of reaching the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid. And their chances of getting such an invitation are being reduced with losses to the conference’s Big Three.

    The Golden Bears’ résumé lacks a signature victory. They’ve lost back-to-back five-point decisions to Arizona on Feb. 11 and Stanford six days later, dropping them to 0-5 against the RPI’s Top 25 teams. Cal is 18-8 overall and 9-5 in the conference with an RPI of 40 and a BPI — which is a measurement of how above or below average a team is in regards to their future opponents — ranking 47th. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has the Bears as one of the last four teams in the Tournament not having to play a First Four play-in game.

    California Golden Bears forward Ivan Rabb. Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    All of that uncertainty with four regular-season games remaining prior to the Pac-12 tournament is why Cal’s home matchup with Oregon on Wednesday carries such importance. Coach Cuonzo Martin is trying to lead it to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, and a victory over the Ducks would give its résumé a nice glow.

    A loss, however, could cast a cloud.

    “We’ve got to go into (Wednesday’s) game knowing that if we don’t win, it’s going to be an uphill battle trying to make the Tournament,” said senior guard Jabari Bird, who is averaging 14.9 points per game after hitting seven 3-pointers against Stanford. “We’ve got to go into that game with a lot of desperation and urgency.”

    Cal has failed in its previous attempts to beat a top-tier team, falling to Virginia, Oregon and Arizona twice.

    “We need a signature win,” sophomore forward Ivan Rabb said. “(Oregon) just so happens to be in the way.”

    The Bears’ only win over a ranked foe came against then-No. 25 USC, which completes the gauntlet of facing the Pac-12’s top three teams all in a row when it visits Tucson on Thursday night. The Trojans lost to Oregon 81-70 on Feb. 11 before being dismantled in an embarrassing 102-70 loss to crosstown rival UCLA on Saturday.

    USC suffered a 73-66 loss to Arizona back on Jan. 19. Counting a 25-point defeat at Oregon on Dec. 30, the 21-6 Trojans have five defeats against the Pac-12 top dogs. Their best victory is an 84-76 win over the Bruins on Jan. 25, but they’ll need to close strong in order secure an NCAA Tournament berth.

    Lunardi has USC in the same position as Cal at the moment, and a win over the Wildcats could put it on better footing. The Trojans’ saving grace when it comes to Selection Sunday might be the fact they’ve only played 10 games with big man Bennie Boatwright, who is averaging 17.4 points in five games since returning from injury.

    They were 8-0 with him in the lineup before running into the Ducks and Bruins.

    “We have to go to Arizona and take care of business,” junior guard Jordan McLaughlin said after Saturday’s defeat. “Our communication is there.”

    Cal needs to do the same against Oregon to boost its chances of reaching the Big Dance. As of right now, only the Pac-12’s Big Three should feel comfortable.

    MORE: Villanova vs. Butler Prediction, Game Preview

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