PHOENIX (AP) — The Pac-12 is as strong at the top as it’s been in some time with three teams with the potential to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.
But get past No. 5 Arizona, No. 11 UCLA and No. 13 Oregon, and the conference doesn’t look quite as strong.
A year after setting a conference record with seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 could have as few as four this season.
Arizona (21-2, 10-0 Pac-12) has been one of the best teams in the country over the past month and recently added star guard Allonzo Trier at a time when many teams are losing players. A No. 1 seed could be in the cards for the Wildcats.
UCLA (20-3, 9-1) had a slip-up against Southern California, but is loaded with talent, led by freshman Lonzo Ball.
The Ducks (20-3, 9-1) are as talented as any team in the country despite a surprising loss to Colorado.
All three are pretty much locks for the NCAA Tournament.
After that, the Pac-12’s hope for adding teams to the bracket is down to California, USC and Utah.
The Bears (16-6, 7-3) appeared to be on the outside looking in early in the season, but have come to life. Cal has won six of its last seven games and has wins over Utah — 77-75 in double overtime Thursday night — and USC, which could end up serving as a de facto tiebreaker.
USC (19-4, 6-4) had an eye-popping record early in the season to move into the AP Top 25, but did it against a weak schedule. The Trojans lost three of their first five conference games to start fading away from the NCAA Tournament bubble, only to steer themselves back toward it with a win over UCLA last week.
USC beat Washington on Wednesday and faces Washington State on Saturday.
Utah (15-7, 6-4) is seeing its NCAA hopes fade fast. The Utes lost in their two potential resume-building non-conference games — Butler and Xavier — and did not have wins against top-200 teams in the kenpom.com rankings.
Utah had a big chance to come up with bubble-building win Thursday night against Cal and lost, leaving little room for error the rest of the way.
ON THE RISE
Georgetown. The Hoyas did not look like and NCAA Tournament team after losing four of their first six games. Georgetown (13-10, 3-6 Big East) still has a losing record in conference, but beat No. 16 Butler and No. 22 Creighton in consecutive games to bring its bubble chances back to life.
Oklahoma State. A healthy Jawun Evans makes all the difference for the Cowboys. A shoulder injury limited Oklahoma State’s dynamic guard and was a big reason the Cowboys opened the Big 12 0-6. Evans has regained his form recently and Oklahoma State (14-8, 3-6) has responded with four straight wins. Two big opportunities are ahead: At No. 7 West Virginia on Saturday, vs. No. 2 Baylor next Wednesday.
Illinois State. The Redbirds have put themselves in position to knock Wichita State off the top perch in the Missouri Valley Conference. Illinois State (19-4) is undefeated in the Valley (11-0) and beat the Shockers once already, with another game against them on Saturday.
Tennessee. The Vols were middling at 9-9 in mid-January and looked like NCAA Tournament outsiders. Tennessee (13-9, 5-4 SEC) took a huge step by knocking off then-No. 4 Kentucky on Jan. 24 and has won four straight heading into Saturday’s game at Mississippi State.
Iowa State. The Cyclones (13-8, 5-4 Big 12) are likely still on the right side of the bubble, but can’t afford any more letdowns. Iowa State does not have a win over a ranked opponent this season and missed a big opportunity by losing 85-72 to No. 7 West Virginia on Tuesday.
Minnesota. The Gophers (15-7, 3-6 Big Ten) were once 15-2 and climbing the AP Top 25. Five straight losses have pushed them to the bubble’s edge.
Pittsburgh. After a solid non-conference schedule, the Panthers fell flat once ACC play started. With Tuesday’s two-point loss to No. 12 North Carolina, Pittsburgh (12-10) dropped to 1-8 in conference. A string of multiple marquee wins is their only shot.
Marquette. It’s hard to imagine a team having a bigger two-week bubble swing than the Golden Eagles. Marquette (14-8, 5-5 Big East) had one of the best weeks by any team, knocking off top-ranked Villanova and Creighton, only to follow that with losses to Providence and St. John’s.
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