Arash Markazi
Friday March 14th, 2008

If we can assume the Pac-10 is the best conference in college basketball this season, then we can also assume the league will send at least five teams to the NCAA tournament next week.

The aforementioned assumptions should allow Arizona State men's basketball coach Herb Sendek to sleep well tonight. After all, his Sun Devils are the fifth-place team in the Pac-10, with a 9-9 conference mark (19-11 overall).

But Sendek and his Sun Devils have been tossing and turning on a bubble that may have burst with their 59-55 loss to USC in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament here Thursday.

"I still don't know what position we're in for sure," said Sendek. "I don't study it. If I studied it, I'd go crazy; but I know how good this league is, and I know how hard any one win is to get."

The potential snub wouldn't be so hard to swallow if Oregon and Arizona, the sixth- and seventh-place teams in the Pac-10, weren't considered stronger tournament candidates in the eyes of several "bracketologists."

It isn't difficult to see the bracketologists' logic, though. Arizona State has lost 10 of its last 15, ranks 74th in the RPI and has a strength of schedule ranking of 78. In the numbers-heavy boardroom that decides the field of 65, that's likely to spell doom for the Sun Devils when matched up against Arizona (34th in the RPI; No. 2 schedule nationally) or Oregon (54th in the RPI; No. 34 schedule overall).

"People talk about our nonconference schedule, but we scheduled three games in the Maui Invitational that were expected to be difficult," said Sendek. "We played Xavier, we played a Big 12 challenge. That's the only thing I hear about us, but we did the best we could."

Acronyms such as RPI and SOS, however, mean very little to Arizona State forward Jeff Pendegraph as he stands outside his locker room, biting his lip when asked about the final controversial call that may have ended his hopes of advancing to his first NCAA tournament.

Pendegraph was called for an offensive foul after tying the game with a slam dunk over Davon Jefferson with 16.9 seconds remaining. While replays showed Pendegraph hardly touched Jefferson on the play, the dunk was nullified and Jefferson made both free throws to put the game away. It was yet another black eye for Pac-10 officials, whose blown calls in several key games have made national headlines recently.

"I didn't feel any contact, nobody trying to box me out, I just jumped over everybody and dunked it," said Pendegraph. "I didn't see anybody near me. I just put the ball in the rim. Whatever. Everyone has their own perspective on the game, but we shouldn't have even been in that position."

The controversial ending, combined with Arizona State's 80-66 win against USC two weeks ago, caused Trojans coach Tim Floyd to breathe a sigh of relief and open his postgame press conference by reeling off reasons why Arizona State is a tournament team before talking about his own team.

"Arizona State should be in the NCAA tournament," Floyd said. "They have a lot of great wins. Over Arizona twice, Stanford, Xavier by 22, they beat us. We were very fortunate to get out of there. I don't believe there was a tournament decision based on that last call. I think they're in the NCAA tournament anyway."

Outside of those dreaded acronyms that are weighing down the Sun Devils, they have accumulated a decent résumé heading into Selection Sunday. They have as many top 25 (2) and top 50 wins (5) as Arizona and Stanford. Plus, Arizona State's 77-55 win over No. 10 Xavier is the league's biggest win against a nonconference opponent -- in terms of ranking and margin of victory.

Perhaps more important, the Sun Devils swept Arizona and drew with Oregon but finished higher in the conference and posted a better record against the league's top four teams (2-6, 1-7). Yet, here they stand, with the possibility of being left out of the tournament, despite finishing in the top half of the toughest conference in the country.

"I've never been to the tournament, so I don't know what it takes to get there," said Jefferson. "I know what it takes not to get there, but you have to win games and we've played tough people. We beat Stanford, Arizona twice, Xavier, USC, Oregon ... c'mon. All that other stuff is for people to talk about and debate on, but we won some big games. I can't worry about it now. We'll find out Sunday. I'll organize something at Chuck E. Cheese and we'll watch [the selection show] there."

Both teams spent much of the past five days watching "The Shot" replayed over and over again. Cal, angered that Josh Shipp's over the backboard game-winning shot counted; UCLA, equally annoyed they were being accused of cheating to win for the second time in three days.

Never before had NCAA Rule 7, Section 1, Article 3 -- "The ball shall be out of bounds when it passes over the backboard from any direction" -- received so much publicity.

If Cal came into its second round Pac-10 tournament game motivated by its near-upset at Pauley Pavilion, but UCLA was just as inspired to put the ninth-place Bears in their place.

The result was an 88-66 win for UCLA that was actually not as close as the final score would indicate. The Bruins emptied their bench when up by 32 in the second half.

Any talk of UCLA peaking too soon or depending on luck or the officials seems like a distant memory.

"I don't think you can out-emotion UCLA," said Cal coach Ben Braun, who may have coached his last game for the Bears after being on the hot seat for much of the season. "It's not the kind of team you can have pep rallies for and say go out and play. You have to go out and perform against them."

Cal, which finished its first-round game with Washington around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday before suiting up for its 2:30 p.m. tip against UCLA, admitted to fatigue afterward but did not use that as an excuse for getting run off the court early against UCLA.

"I want to be very careful with [talking about fatigue] because I don't think UCLA deserves me or our players saying that or a foul call was the only reason that they're the champions or that they beat us," said Braun. "I told [Bruins coach] Ben [Howland] after our game that it wasn't right. We can be upset about the calls, but you have to be careful taking anything away from that team. They're a great team."

UCLA's greatness was evident early in the second half as it hit four three-pointers within the first four minutes and pushed its lead to 18 points. While other teams would take their foot off the gas with such a lead, Howland, who had emphasized how Cal players felt they "owed UCLA one," pressed harder as that lead nearly doubled.

"We jumped on them," said Kevin Love, who will play USC and O.J. Mayo Friday for the third and likely final time in his college career. "Especially on defense because we hadn't played well defensively the past couple weeks, even though we were winning games. We wanted to prove how good of a team we were because a few people were questioning that."

There shouldn't be much of a question anymore.

"We had a lot of motivation coming into this game," Shipp said. "We heard that they thought they owe us and we wanted to prove that it wasn't a lucky shot. We were the best team that night, and we're the best team. Period."

Ernie Kent isn't used to life on the bubble. He usually knows his team's fate, one way or another, come Selection Sunday. But this year, Kent will be sitting in front of the television along with his players anxiously watching if Oregon will advance to the NCAA Tournament.

"It's going to be odd," said Kent. "It's going to be a long 48 hours, and we're going to be waiting like a whole lot of other teams. It's unusual being here but there's been years where I've sat back and looked at the ACC and Big East and looked at all the teams they got in because they're such a good conference. And I hope that it's the year the Pac-10 can do that too, but that's not in our hands anymore."

Oregon's fate was in their hands heading into the Pac-10 Tournament. A win over No. 21 Washington State would have likely been enough to warrant an NCAA berth without much debate, considering it had won the three final regular season games and had such a strong RPI and Strength of Schedule.

The Ducks, however, responded with their worst half of basketball the season, at least defensively, down by 20 points to Washington State, which beat Oregon, 75-70, for the third time this season (the Ducks had previously won 13 straight against the Cougars).

"I would never have thought we would have played like that in the first half on this floor," said Kent, who has won two of the last five Pac-10 tournaments. "We could have taken ourselves out of this situation; but now we're right there with everybody else, wondering what's going to happen in the next 48 hours."

It makes sense that a season filled with close calls and near misses would end like this for Oregon, once projected as the third-best team in the Pac-10 behind UCLA and Washington State. The Ducks, however, posted 12 of 13 losses by 10 points or less -- a result that often leaves Kent wondering what would have happened if a couple of those games had gone the other way.

"You can't be happy with a team that let games get away like we let games get away from us this season," said Kent. "There were some other wins we should have had. We shouldn't be in this situation.

"We missed a free throw to beat Nebraska, we played an awful game at Oakland, we're beating UCLA at home and then Malik (Hairston) gets cramps and goes out of the game, you're up against USC and you lose the lead in the second half; so there's a lot of games that this team will look back on and realize that we could have gotten this done before we got to this point."

Kent admits he's already done "quite a bit" of scoreboard watching even before his team lost. "We knew Syracuse, Villanova and Baylor lost and Arizona State had a weird loss," he said. "Teams are losing, but all that does it puts a lot of pressure on that committee. They have their work cut out for them."

If Oregon does sneak into the tournament, Kent believes the Ducks will benefit from playing a grueling Pac-10 slate (where nine teams posted winning records overall) and may enjoy an advantage over their first-round opponent.

"I think this is a basketball team that will be hard to match up with, especially out of this conference," said Kent. "We got five guys that average in double figures and three that shoot the three real well. We are tough team to match up with, and my experience in the tournament is that you need to be able to score. And we can do that real well."

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