A stated goal from the team this year is a berth in the NCAA tournament. Heaven knows a lot of us would love to see that happen. With the NCAAs in mind, how important is Monday night’s game against Vanderbilt?
The season is extremely young, but it’s not shaping up too well for the Pac-12. Our teams have lost a lot of games, many to teams that really aren’t very good. To compare the so called “Power Conferences” by records at the time of this writing:
Big East: 46-8 (among 16 teams)
Big Ten: 37-4 (Two losses belong to MSU against #6 Duke and #1 UNC)
Big 12: 24-4
Not good. Even worse, the Pac-12 haven’t won many marquee games. In fact, OSU’s win over Texas Saturday night is the only Pac-12 win over a team from another major conference thus far. (Edit: Arizona has also beaten St. John's). Like I said, the season is still young. There’s time for a recovery, but so far it’s trending along the lines of the 2009-2010 season.
That season, the Pac-12 had two representatives in the NCAA tournament: Cal, who finished first in league play, and Washington, who finished third but earned an automatic bid by winning the Pac-10 tournament. Note that ASU, the second place team in league play, did not make the NCAA tournament. They went to the NIT instead. No other team from the conference played in the postseason.
I’m not saying the same thing will happen this year. However, it shows that a good league record is not enough on its own to earn an NCAA appearance, especially when the conference struggles in the preseason. So far this year, it’s struggling.
On the broadcast last night, Andy Katz brought up how OSU’s weak non-conference schedule makes their games in the TicketCity tournament very important. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen mirrored in a few posts on this site. The Beavers made a big statement by beating Texas Saturday night, but is it enough? To get back to my original question, how important is the Vanderbilt game?
Let's take a closer look at ASU in 2009-2010. They played a non-conference schedule consisting of Duke, BYU, Baylor, and a bunch of creampuffs. They beat the creampuffs, but got handled by BYU and Duke. They took Baylor, who finished ranked #19, to the wire but lost.
The selection committee leans on the RPI when making tournament selections. The RPI rankings are based solely on winning percentages of you, your opponents, and your opponents opponents. Neither margin of victory nor close losses factor anywhere into the calculations. For a better RPI ranking--and to look better in the eyes of the selection committee--tough losses don't really matter. You must win and you must win over good teams. ASU did not win a single non-conference game over a good team and it cost them a spot in the tournament.
Outside of this tournament, OSU's schedule is all creampuffs, although Hofstra and Montana are the sugar-free kind. OSU's win against Texas definitely counts, but Texas is young and unproven. They'll most likely do well this year, but if they don't, the win looks less impressive. Vandy is ranked and already considered a good team, making a win against them much more of a statement. A win also gives OSU two quality wins and a buffer against either team struggling. To call the Vandy game do-or-die is foolish this early in the season. However, I think it will turn out to be one of OSU’s most important games, especially if the Pac-12 ends up as weak as it has shown so far.
With a win, OSU shows the Texas game was not a fluke and that they have the ability to beat good teams in a tournament setting, the rest of the conference be damned. They also show up on national radar heading into league play giving them a cushion in the eyes of pollsters and the selection committee. OSU still has to play well, but perhaps they only need a 3rd or 4th place finish in conference to go Dancing. Lose and it might take at least a 2nd place finish, with the Texas win giving OSU the edge that ASU didn't have. Some years, the difference between 2nd and 4th is as large as three games. In that context, one win tomorrow gives you a two or possibly three game cushion later on. That's huge.
This is an unprecedented season since there are 12 teams in the conference rather than 10. That could buy the Pac-12 an extra spot in the tournament. Regardless, I think the point still holds that one win tomorrow will help OSU as much as two or three wins later in the season.
Needless to say, all of this is moot if OSU doesn’t run the rest of their weak non-conference table. It also changes if the whole conference flips a switch and starts dominating the rest of the country. As of right now, though, this is the way I see it.
Oh, and of course, they could just go win the Pac-12 tournament and force the selection committee’s hand. How awesome would that be?