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Can the Pac-10 rise again?

7/2/2010

Ask anyone. The Pac-10 was historically bad last season. It managed just one semi-bubble team (the California Golden Bears) and another (the Washington Huskies) needed a semi-surprise conference tournament title to give the league a second NCAA bid. It was the worst major conference performance of the modern era.

Or so we were told.

Yet those throwing dirt on the Pac-10 -- and I'm sure I was among them at more than one point last season -- may want to reconsider their thinking.

• This allegedly horrible league still finished sixth in the Pomeroy Ratings, a far more reliable ranking of conferences than the more widely cited Conference RPI. The Pac-10 may have been further back of its BCS brethren than one would normally see, but it remained far ahead of the presumably superior Atlantic 10 (three NCAA bids) and Mountain West (four).

• The two Pac-10 teams in the NCAA field combined for three tournament victories. The seven A-10 and Mountain West entrants managed only four.

• It took a perfect storm of negative events for the Pac-10 to sink to such alleged depths. How many conferences could withstand an off-year from its flagship program (UCLA), the end of a record 25-year NCAA appearance streak by another (Arizona), along with a self-imposed postseason ban by a third (USC) in the same season?

In other words, I am here to suggest that reports of the Pac-10's demise are most assuredly exaggerated. Not only will the conference return to its accustomed standards -- and soon -- but the 2009-10 season was nowhere near alone among major conference low points. Further, nearly all such "death rattles" have been followed by immediate resurrections.

Let's take a quick look around the BCS:

ACC

The vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference was thought to be past its prime after back-to-back three-bid years in 1999 and 2000. Instead, the league would soon add Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College without missing a beat. Even more impressively, the conference has placed a nation-best 49.5 percent of its teams (53 of 107) in the NCAA tournament over the last 10 years.

Big Ten

The Big Ten couldn't get out of its own way in 2003-04. Only three teams made the NCAAs and only Illinois, a year before losing in the national championship game, made it out of the first weekend. The conference responded with back-to-back six-bid seasons and, as recently as 2008, placed seven of its 11 teams in the field. This equals the 53 overall bids (in 110 chances, 48.2 percent) of the ACC for the past decade.

Big 12

The Big 12, after managing only four NCAA teams three times in a four-year period (2004-07), is coming off the best three-year period in its basketball history. After six bids each in 2008 and 2009, the Big 12 added a best-ever seventh in this year's tournament. And its 45.8 "bid percentage" (55 of 120 teams) only figures to improve with the pending departure of non-hoop performers Colorado and Nebraska, although that may be a story for another day.

SEC

I would argue that the 2008-09 SEC was just as poor, if not a little worse, than the 2009-10 Pac-10. It placed an extra team in the NCAAs than last season's Pac-10 but fashioned just one tournament victory. Further, the gap between Florida's back-to-back national championships and the reemergence of Kentucky under John Calipari continued to widen. Calipari's UK debut added a fourth SEC bid in 2010, but the league's "bid percentage" (44.2, 53 of 120) is ahead of only the Big East among power conferences this decade.

Big East

The Big East's worst season in recent memory was 2002-03, with just four of 14 teams reaching the NCAAs. It also has the lowest bid percentage of the decade (43.2, 64 of 148) among its BCS peers. This arithmetic, though, is more a function of expansion than poor play. The Big East has collected a record eight bids in three of the last five seasons, and no reasonable observer would suggest that the conference isn't living up to expectations as a basketball conglomerate.

All of which brings us back to the Pac-10. My admittedly rough, knee-jerk, April bracket was stuck on the same two conference members -- Cal and Washington -- for the 2011 tournament. But Arizona State was No. 66 on that S-Curve, which puts the Sun Devils into the new 68-team field, and we know that Arizona, Stanford and even UCLA will again be knocking on the door.

Bottom line: History, math and reality have combined to net the Pac-10 exactly 4.7 NCAA bids per season (47 of 100) over the past decade. So if my April bracket is anywhere close to correct, we are betting the "under" at our own peril.

Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. He also teaches Fundamentals of Bracketology online at Saint Joseph's University. Comments can be sent to bracketology@comcast.net.