With Selection Sunday roughly three weeks away, the talk around town is about how the ASU Sun Devils will find their way into the dance, while the University of Arizona Wildcats will be staying home for the first time since 1984.
Well, I have some news for you: The Sun Devils are no sure thing.
At 19-8, 9-5 in conference, ASU seemingly is in prime position for a postseason berth. Just a half game behind first place California, the school’s first Pac-10 championship is in sight. Win the conference and ASU will have a second season. Fail to overtake Cal, though, and ASU’s last chance lies in the very same place Arizona’s does: The Pac-10 Tournament.
Now, before you get all upset with me, realize I am not saying the Wildcats and Sun Devils are on the same level. In fact, this Wildcat can admit that ASU has a better team this year, surpassing even the highest of expectations given the players they lost from last year’s squad.
But when you really break down their season, sans a Pac-10 championship, it is easy to see why the Sun Devils need the automatic bid that winning the conference tournament would provide.
One of the things the committee looks at when deciding if a team deserves an at-large bid is the team’s strength of schedule. What has been the key complaint of many of my friends with regards to the Wildcats making the tournament, could again be ASU’s undoing. Right now, according to collegerpi.com, ASU has played the 74th-toughest schedule in the country.
The Sun Devils played a 13 game out of conference schedule this year, finishing 10-3. A very nice record, to be sure, but the three losses were to the only likely tournament teams they played (Duke, Baylor, BYU).
Of their 10 wins, six came against teams with sub-.500 records. I guess that should not be surprising, though, when the schedule features games with powerhouses like Western Illinois, San Francisco, UA Pine Bluff, Delaware St., UC Santa Barbara and USC Upstate. I would be impressed if you could name the mascots for four of those six schools, but either way they are the types of opponents that help pad a win total, but not a resume.
Another thing that significantly hurts ASU’s strength of schedule is something that is completely beyond their control, and that is the overall ineptitude of the Pac-10 Conference.
Known for its basketball, the Pac-10 is having one of its worst seasons ever, something that is not lost on the national media or the selection committee.
With the conference being so bad, the traditional thought that a 20-win Pac-10 school is as much of a sure thing as you will find needs to be thrown out the window. I am sure the NCAA would rather have an 18 or 19 win ACC or SEC team instead of a 20 or 21 win Pac-10 squad, and there will be quite a few of those to choose from.
Combine the weak out of conference schedule with a just-as-weak conference slate, and what you end up with is a lack of opportunities for a big, signature win. As of right now the Sun Devils have exactly zero signature wins on the year. They do not have that game that gets national attention, making people say “Wait a minute, this team is legit.” Go through ASU’s schedule and try to decide what the team’s best win is. Odds are you will have a difficult time figuring it out, because their wins are made up of bad and mediocre teams, with their best maybe being a road win at NIT-bound U of A.
Granted, that could change. ASU has four conference games left- including one at California – and a strong finish would go a long way towards securing ASU’s second-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The selection committee likes teams that head into March with momentum and the Sun Devils, winners of their last three games and five of their last six, would help their cause by winning three of their last four.
The Sun Devils control much of their own destiny, but if they don’t win the conference or the Pac-10 Tournament they better hope Cal does both, because if a team like Oregon was to earn the automatic bid, chances are they would gain the Pac-10’s second and final spot, leaving Arizona State in the same position as their buddies to the south:
At home, watching the dance on T.V.
Adam can be reached with your questions and comments by e-mail here.