The final week of the regular season brought mixed results for the college basketball teams of LA and Orange County. UCLA closed out the Pac-12 regular season with a pair of impressive home wins, a 30 point blow out of Washington State followed by a hard-earned victory over Washington, the regular season conference champs. In a relatively wide open Pac-12, held in STAPLES Center where the Bruins will have home city advantage if not home court advantage, UCLA could actually salvage this terrible season (made worse by the recent allegations in Sports Illustrated of a program run wild) by winning the Pac-12 tournament. It's a long shot of course, but not out of the question.
Long Beach State, the best team in the LA Eight all season, stumbled at the finish line of the Big West regular season. A season-ending loss at Fullerton is the only blemish on the Beach's 15-1 conference slate -- but the real question is what the loss does to their NCAA tournament resume. Now, more than ever, it's important for the 49ers to win the Big West tournament rather than to leave their fate in the hands of the Selection Committee on Sunday.
There was sad news all around for the rest of the LA Eight. USC finished the Pac-12 season dead last, on a nine game losing streak, and will be the 12th seed in the tournament. Meanwhile, for Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and Northridge, it's time to wait for next season. The Waves and Lions each lost in their opening games of the West Coast Conference tournament. Meanwhile, Northridge finished last in the Big West in the regular season, and since only eight of nine teams qualify for the tournament, the Matadors will be one of the few teams in the nation to have no post-season at all.
The Pac-12 Tournament gets started on Wednesday at STAPLES Center, with the Championship game on Saturday. Down the road in Anaheim, the Big West Tournament gets underway on Thursday, leading to another Saturday Championship game.
The LA Eight Rankings (through games of March 5):
1. Long Beach State 49ers 22-8 (Last week: 1)
The bad news for Long Beach State is not limited to their 77-74 defeat at Fullerton. Larry Anderson, a first team All-Conference selection and the Big West Defensive Player of the Year, sprained his right knee in the second half of the game and will likely miss the Big West tournament. He could be back for the NCAA tournament -- if the Beach makes it that far. The RPI sits at 35, but a loss in the Big West tournament would further tarnish that. Meanwhile, Fullerton is the first 'bad loss' (to a team outside the RPI top 100) on their resume, and they have no top 50 wins (a nice A-10 tournament run by Xavier could actually help the 49ers on that front). The good news, if there is any, is that the loss should keep the 49ers from being complacent in the Big West tournament -- they are not invincible, and they know that now.
This week: 1st seed in Big West tournament - vs. 8 seed Davis (5-25) March 8; Semifinal March 9; Final March 10
2. UCLA Bruins 18-13 (3)
Despite a scathing expose in Sports Illustrated this week, describing a program that turns a blind eye to insubordinate and even dangerous behavior as long as a player had enough talent to help them win, the Bruins played some of their best basketball of the season in beating the Washington schools. Now they find themselves on the half of the Pac-12 Tournament bracket with Arizona and Washington, teams they know they can beat (UCLA won the home games, and lost heartbreakers on the road against the Wildcats and Huskies). Bear in mind also that the Bruins haven't had much home-court advantage to speak of while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated, beating Washington at the Sports Arena and Arizona at the Honda Center. STAPLES Center is just another home away from home for UCLA in this strange season. Strangest of all, Ben Howland now finds himself in a situation where a good showing in the tournament may be required to save his job -- the idea that Howland might be on the hot seat would have been unthinkable at the start of the season.
This week: 5th seed in Pac-12 tournament - vs. 12 seed USC (6-25) March 7; Quarterfinal vs. 4 seed Arizona (21-10) March 8; Semifinal March 9; Final March 10
3. Loyola Marymount Lions 19-12 (2)
All of the good work the Lions did from mid February, winning 8 of 10 including road victories over BYU and St. Mary's and a BracketBuster win over Valparaiso, went out the door with two bad losses in their final three games. They lost at home to San Diego in the final week of the WCC regular season, and then lost to San Francisco in the quarter-finals of the WCC tournament (which was the only game LMU played this week, since they had a bye to the quarter-final round). They failed to record their first 20 win season since the Hank Gathers/Bo Kimble era, and now will have to wait to see which of the lesser post season tournaments might give them another chance at that 20th victory.
This week: Waiting for the NIT/CIT to call.
4. Cal State Fullerton Titans 21-8 (4)
It's hard to figure how the same team can lose to Davis (RPI 338 out of 344 teams) by three one week, and then turn around and beat Long Beach by three the next (RPI 35) the next week. But the loss to Davis notwithstanding, Transfer U has been on a roll lately -- winning 11 of their last 13 games. They snagged the second seed in the Big West tournament, and with it they get to avoid the 49ers until the championship game. Now that they know they can beat the 49ers, the Titans have to be considered a legitimate threat to steal the Big West tournament, especially with Anderson out of lineup for the Beach. Even if they don't win the conference tournament, they should expect an invitation to one of the lesser post-season tourneys.
This week: 2nd seed in Big West tournament - vs. 7 seed Irvine (11-19) March 8; Semi-Final March 9; Final March 10
5. UC Irvine Anteaters 11-19 (5)
Irvine lost their final two regular season Big West games at Long Beach and at Riverside, and enter the tournament as the seventh seed. They meet Fullerton on Thursday, in the third installment this season of the Battle of Orange County. Fullerton won the first two meetings, but both games were close.
This week: 7th seed in Big West tournament - vs. 2 seed Fullerton (21-8) March 8; Semifinal March 9; Final March 10
6. Pepperdine Waves 10-19 (6)
Marty Wilsons's first season in Malibu came to a close with a 76-54 loss in the WCC Tournament to San Diego-- a team that finished the season 13-18. If the non-conference schedule went a little bit better than expected, a seventh place WCC finish, and a 4-12 conference record, were certainly not good. Losing his two leading scorers and rebounders, Seniors Corbin Moore and Taylor Darby, doesn't bode well for the team next season either.
This week: Season complete.
Tie - Last. USC Trojans 6-25 (tie-last)
USC's regular season ended in appropriate fashion on Saturday: they lost to Washington State, scoring 38 points in the process. It was the second time this season the Trojans had scored fewer than 40 points in a game, and the 13th time they scored 50 or less. With multiple scholarship players out for the season, the Trojans at least do have some hope to be more competitive next year.
This week: 12th seed in Pac-12 tournament - vs. 5 seed UCLA (18-13) March 7; Quarterfinal vs. 4 seed Arizona (21-10) March 8; Semifinal March 9; Final March 10
Tie - Last. Cal State Northridge Matadors 7-21 (tie-last)
The Matadors finished their season with a loss to Fullerton -- and I do mean finished their season. As one of the few conferences that doesn't give one last chance to all their teams, Northridge misses out on the post-season entirely, the ninth seed in an eight team tournament.
This week: Season complete.
If you go to only one college basketball game in the Southland this week, make it:
UCLA vs. USC in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament at STAPLES Center Wednesday afternoon at 2:30 is the call if you're going to limit yourself to just one game. But why limit yourself? Between the Pac-12 Tournament and the Big West Tournament, there are 18 college basketball games in the Southland this week. And given that none of the 20 teams involved are locks for the NCAA tournament, the stakes are high in every game.