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Originally published Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 5:10 PM

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Bud Withers

Might be a slim one, but WSU, Cal, USC all have shot at NCAA tournament

Washington State, California and USC kept their NCAA tournament hopes alive last weekend.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

"So you're telling me there's a chance?"

OK, maybe it ranks close to Lloyd's prospects with Mary in "Dumb and Dumber." But as we sit on the front doorstep of March Madness, I'm contending there are more than three obvious candidates for the NCAA tournament from the Pac-10. In fact, the belief here is there are three others that can make it, and they don't even have to win the Pac-10 tournament next week.

No, there won't be six Pac-10 teams in the dance. Odds are against four. And the road is laced with potholes for USC (17-12, 9-7), California (16-13, 9-8) and Washington State (18-10, 8-8).

But their last set of games proved to be revival week for all three programs. USC swept the Arizona schools, Cal took two in Oregon and WSU shattered Washington's aura of invincibility in Seattle.

So yeah, we're saying there's a chance. A closer look:

USC: Millennia from now, archeologists will stumble upon ancient ruins and wonder how the Trojans lost to Rider (by 20), Bradley and TCU. But Kevin O'Neill's teams tend to be mercurial, like he is, and they also beat Texas, won at Tennessee and played Kansas to a two-point loss in Lawrence.

They're 4-4 against the RPI top 50, and a lot of teams will be going to the tournament with lesser juice in that metric. The TCU (RPI 202) and Bradley (243) defeats are computer-ranking killers, putting USC at 81. So a win at Washington would be a major boost.

Cal: The Bears (RPI 67) played the league's toughest schedule (19th-ranked nationally) and that always turns committee heads. Problem is, Cal had two of its five RPI top-100 wins by Thanksgiving; it's 5-12 against the top 100.

Of these three hopefuls, the Bears stand to have the least chance to do the damage they might need, since they finish with Stanford and figure to play USC or WSU in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. They're 1-5 against the top three in the league, so a pair of two-point defeats to Arizona (one in triple OT) could be a dagger.

They also better hope no committeemen were watching the day they scored five points in the first half against Notre Dame.

WSU: The Cougars (74 RPI) have more opportunity than Cal, with a home weekend against the LA schools, plus the likelihood of meeting Washington again in the Pac-10 tournament.

WSU (6-7 against the RPI top 100) is also getting helped by a push toward the NCAAs from Gonzaga, Baylor (two victims) and Kansas State (a five-point loss).

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The Cougars' problem is more tangible. They don't match up especially well with big front lines, and they haven't beaten UCLA in Pullman since Klay Thompson was riding Hot Wheels — 1993. That's a fairly ridiculous streak in the era of a good many mortal Bruins.

And what's more ...

• Not only is USC (which has won four straight) taking Fridays off, O'Neill describes a dramatically reduced routine for the Trojans — an hour total of weightlifting and shooting on Mondays, an hour practice Tuesdays and 35 minutes of stretching and practice on Wednesdays.

• The strange quote of the week comes courtesy of Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who was reprimanded for broadcast comments he made on the Washington trip three weeks ago: "The comments I made were on radio. They weren't for the public. Somebody decided to listen and blog it. And when it becomes blog, it becomes public." Oh.

• The UW-WSU rivalry is feast or famine for either side. The season series hasn't been split since 2003.

• O'Neill on his crosstown rival: "I can't believe UCLA is not ranked this week. I think it's an absolute travesty." Pretty good point, since the Bruins are 21-8 and there are four Top 20 teams with eight or nine losses, one of which, St. John's, is a recent UCLA victim.

• In Atlanta, Georgia State fired ex-Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes. His interim replacement for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament is none other than assistant Paul Graham, he of the 9-63 Pac-10-games record at Washington State from 1999-2002.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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