It is easier to pick the teams than won’t win the Pac-12 Conference Tournament than all the ones that have a chance at the championship that begins Wednesday.
There is no super team in the conference. Every team has stumbled. Every team has issues. From my perspective, the potential champion could be from a pool of seven teams while the other five need to hit the recruiting trail.
Washington (21-9), the regular-season outright champion and tournament champion the past two years, might be favored. But this was a team that came into the season after losing more key players than any other conference team and were picked fourth in the preseason poll.
The fact that the Huskies appear to have an NCAA bid already sown up – unlike the past two years – might cut into their motivation.
Motivation as much as talent will be the deciding factor for this year’s champion. In this wide-open competition, any one of the top four finishers could make a reasonable argument to win it, UW, California (23-7), Oregon (22-8) or Arizona (21-9). But with some early confidence and momentum, teams such as Colorado (19-11), Stanford ( 19-10) and even UCLA (18-13) could plow through the bracket.
Pac-12 basketball is not held in high esteem this season. There are many who say that the conference may get only two teams, three on the outside. I think there will be three. That means winning this four-day event might be the only avenue for most teams to advance. Second place offers no guarantee.
With both of the L.A. schools, UCLA and USC (6-25), massively under-performing this season, that’s going to hold the crowds down at the expansive Staples Center. This event was never wildly popular in LaLa Land and in fact it could be the final time at Staples for a while. A story in the San Jose Mercury Tuesday indicates that the league is looking at Las Vegas to be the host beginning next year.
Here’s a look at how the week might unfold:
Oregon State-Washington State: This is a battle of the two top scorers in the league, OSU’s Jared Cunningham (18.2 ppg) and WSU’s Brock Motum (18.1). As a team, OSU is ranked ninth in the country in scoring at 79.6 but 299th in scoring defense at 72.8 per game. It’s a shootout that’s fairly even but I’d give the Cougars the edge based on slim defense versus no defense.
USC-UCLA: The Bruins may be the beneficiary of external motivation as Sports Illustrated savaged the program and coach Ben Howland in a story a week ago. The Bruins responded with wins in their last two games, including knocking off UW in the season finale, 75-69. A win could get the Bruins’ motor running. USC, pretty good defensively, is undermanned and pathetic.
Arizona State-Stanford: The Cardinal won four of their final six games, including wins at Oregon State and rival Cal. They play good defense and rebound well. ASU hasn’t done anything this season and won’t start now.
Utah-Colorado: Good players make the difference in big games and Colorado may have the best, at least the most unheralded, player in the conference in 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Andre Roberson. He averaged 11.2 rebounds per game, 98 more than anyone in the conference. He also was first in the conference in blocks (1.9), offensive rebounds (3.2) and defensive rebounds (8.0) while scoring 11.2 ppg. Utah’s program has fallen into disrepair. The Buffs should win this battle of conference newcomers.
Washington-Washington St.: This is the latest renewal in a century-old 274-game rivalry. The Huskies beat the Cougars twice this season, although both games were close. UW has a more dominant backcourt dominance with Terrence Ross, Abdul Gaddy and conference Freshman of the Year Tony Wroten. Sharp-shooter C.J. Wilcox comes hot off the bench. But the inside game is lacking and an area that Brock Motum can exploit. Huskies should move on.
California-Stanford: In another long-fought rivalry, Stanford may have the physiological edge since it beat the Bears in the last meeting just four days ago, 75-70. Cal’s Jorge Gutierrez, the conference Player of the Year, may have something to prove since a number of players and coaches have suggested he did not deserve the honor. The Bears likely will survive but barely.
Arizona-UCLA: For many experts, Arizona was the clear choice to win the league this season but was inconsistent until mid-February. The Wildcats have won seven of their last nine games, although a strange 56-54 loss to lowly ASU in the finale knocked them off stride. If the Cats can contain the Bruins’ inside game, they should move to the semifinals. From the Bruins perspective, victory here could propel them a long way.
Oregon-Colorado: Oregon has second and third best three-point shooters in the league, Garrett Sims and Devoe Joseph, and the first and fifth best free-throw shooters. The Ducks are on a roll, having won 11 of last 14, and playing consistently. Split two games with Colorado and should prevail.
Washington-Arizona: The Huskies won both meetings with Arizona this season but this might be the game that the Huskies’ poor free-throw shooting costs them a chance to win the conference and tournament titles for the first time in school history. It should be a close game but the Huskies rank 320th in the nation in free-throw percentage at 61.8. The Cats’ also want revenge for their 77-75 overtime loss to the Huskies in last year’s tournament finals.
California-Oregon: If this evolves as a semifinal matchup, then it will come down to motivation. After the Bears loss to Stanford Sunday, there was talk that they believed they would go to the NCAAs even without a conference tournament title. Not so fast. Oregon, on the other hand, is not under the same MO. The Ducks know they have to win the whole thing to get a bid. That might be what will drive them to victory.
Arizona-Oregon: The Ducks beat the Wildcats 59-57 Jan. 14 in Tucson in their only meeting. It’s a matchup of an overachiever (UO) against an underachiever (UA). Could it be that the Ducks win it all and earn a spot in the field? If so, what happens to Arizona and Cal?
These are not the best teams in the country. This is not the SEC or ACC. But without a dominant team, it’s a more evenly-matched, wide-open tournament. There’s a good chance of some down-to-the-wire finishes, which is why we watch.
Last year’s finale between Washington and Arizona turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever covered. I worked for another web site, sportspressNW.com, a year ago and here’s my story.
It ranks as probably one of the top 3 basketball games I’ve seen in my career, as Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox hit huge clutch three-pointers down the stretch then Isaiah Thomas drilled the game-winner in overtime for the UW victory. That call by extraordinary play-by-play guy Gus Johnson was sensational and worth revisiting below. Cold-blooded!