For a conference that has easily won the most men’s NCAA basketball tournaments in the land, it has a strange chip on its shoulder. Feels neglected, unappreciated, seriously overlooked. This has a little something to do with that old Naismithian philosophy of, “What have you done for me lately?” For all its NCAA muscle, thePac-10 has won exactly twoNCAA titles in the past 31years. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference became all the rage. Got most of the championships, the attention, the TV rankings, and of course, tournament invites. This season people were actually talking up the Pac-10 – particularly those in the Pac-10. Seven different teams took turns in the Associated Press Top 25. UCLA was ranked near the top all season. It was absolutely back. Bigger than Rachel Ray, big enough to have its own designer fragrance. Only as the season progressed, the national enthusiasm seemed to wane. Old habits called. First it was viewed as the top conference, then up there with the ACC and now & where? OK, Pac-10, it’s your turn now. Right? Isn’t it? Doesn’t it just have to be? “Early in the season everyone was saying we were the No. 1 conference in the country,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. “Then the closer we got to March, the Pac-10 started slipping again. “I don’t know why. Nothing has changed. I know we’re not a conference televised by ESPN. Now on ESPN Game Day, (commentator) Jay Bilas is talking about us being the fourth- or fifth-best conference. And it’s still the toughest, or the second toughest, conference in the country.” But Pac-10 teams have spent the better part of the past three months beating the living snot out each other, and now the AP Top 25 shows only three surviving conference teams – No. 4 UCLA, No. 11 Washington State and No. 16 Oregon. This, despite continued claims by wishful conference coaches that at least six teams will advance into the NCAA Tournament. Honest. It will happen, and no finger-crossing. “It’s a lock, regardless of what happens in the Pac-10 Tournament,” UCLA’s Ben Howland said. It’s best to skeptical here. Six Pac-10 teams have been invited to March Madness only once, in 2002. Five have been invited only four times. Only three received the call in 2004. The past two years, four teams were invited. At no time has seven teams advanced. The Pac-10 Tournament starts today at Staples Center and it figures to be fateful for several teams. Let’s assume UCLA (26-4), Washington State (24-6), Oregon (23-7) and Arizona (20-9) are locks for the NCAA Tournament, and likely so is USC (21-10), although if it falls to Stanford on Thursday night, that’s three consecutive losses and not doing anything for its NCAA r sum . Conference coaches all talk like Stanford is in, and seventh-place Washington should be, too. This is called falling in love with the one closest to you. Stanford is 18-11 and Washington is 18-12. These are not the kind of numbers that scream tournament team. In the Ratings Percentage Index, a valued tool come NCAA committee time, has Stanford 57 and Washington 75. “You tell me a seventh-place team in the country better than Washington,” USC coach Tim Floyd said. “There’s no way in the world. I absolutely believe Stanford is in.” Which sounded like excellent logic to Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. “I wouldn’t disagree,” he said. “Ifthey had a tournament for seventh-place teams, hopefully we would hold our own.” But Washington has exactly oneroad victory all season. The ACC’s seventh-place team is Georgia Tech (20-10), which has beaten No. 8 North Carolina and No.21 Duke. Oklahoma State (20-11) is seventh in the Big 12 and has beaten No. 13 Pitt and No. 15 Texas. Three teams are tied for seventh in the Big East, including West Virginia (21-8) and Villanova (21-9). Michigan State (21-10) is the Big Ten’s seventh-place team and owns victories over No.3 Wisconsin and Texas. Yet Lute Olson said in his 24 years at Arizona, this is the toughest the conference has ever been. It may well be, too. Yet it may be so deep, and have so much unimpressive 31-year history behind it, that this constant beating it’s given each other has diluted the conference in the eyes of the rest of the country. The conference tournament begins today at Staples Center and more blood figures to spill. Every team has something at stake, from UCLA securing a No. 1 seed to Washington just getting an invite. Plenty will be nervous. There’s still much to prove, but alas, it has to be done against each other. Steve Dilbeck’s column appears in the Daily News four times a week. [email protected] (818) 713-3607 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!