Arizona State, Oklahoma’s losses show why conference play always matters in college basketball

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Wednesday was the last slow day of college basketball we’ll see for the rest of the week.

Only one ranked team was playing (No. 12 North Carolina) and one autobid was decided. The major conference tournaments don’t really pick up until Thursday.

The only storyline to follow on Wednesday was the bubble. And two months ago, nobody would have expected that Arizona State and Oklahoma would both lose in first-round conference tournament matchups that leave them seriously sweating on Selection Sunday.

That’s exactly what happened on Wednesday. The Sun Devils lost by double-digits to Colorado in their first Pac-12 Tournament game while Oklahoma lost a rubber match with in-state rival Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament.

On Jan. 1, Arizona State was 12-1, previously the last unbeaten in the nation, and the No. 4 team in the national rankings. Oklahoma was the No. 7 team in the country and freshman guard Trae Young was the heavy frontrunner for National Player of the Year. Both teams were among the darlings of college basketball; surprise teams with fun, uptempo styles of play.

Now both former top-10 teams are waiting a long four days to see if they’ll even be playing in the Big Dance at all. There’s a chance that both teams could be playing in the NIT next week. The downfall of Arizona State and Oklahoma the past two months shows why conference play is still very important in college basketball.

The Arizona State situation is probably been more shocking. The Sun Devils have the two best non-conference wins of any team in college hoops after they picked up a road win at Kansas and a neutral court win over Xavier. Then unbeaten Arizona State entered Pac-12 play and went 8-11 against a very mediocre league that might only get two or three teams in the field.

Oklahoma ran through the buzzsaw of the Big 12 without much help for Young. The Sooners looked like they might be a potential top-four seed after wins over Wichita State, Texas Tech and TCU. They bottomed out after a difficult stretch through conference play as Oklahoma hasn’t won two straight games in almost two months.

Conference play exposed both of these formerly top-ten teams for what they actually are: deeply flawed teams limping into the postseason. If the bubble weren’t weaker, you could even argue that both of these teams could have been out of the NCAA tournament picture awhile ago.

It just goes to show that ruling the rankings after non-conference play doesn’t mean much of anything if you can’t put together a solid stretch in your own league. It doesn’t matter how good you look after non-conference play; you still need enough conference wins to play in March.