To say it's been a crazy year in the much-maligned Pac-10 would be an understatement.
The final standings will show that California lived up to the preseason prediction and won the conference, but not without racking up five losses along the way. It earned the Golden Bears the dubious distinction of tying for the most losses by any Pac-10 champion, a "feat" they share with the 1984-85 Washington Huskies. Only four straight wins to end the regular season -- including one over second place Arizona State -- kept the Bears from owning that record outright.
The oddity didn't stop there. Only four teams in the conference finished .500 or better (that hasn't happened in five years), two games separated last place from fifth place, and the 10th place Washington State Cougars finished with the most wins of any last place finisher in the conference's history (which, I'm pretty sure, doesn't make them feel any better).
Anybody could beat anybody on any given night, making for highly entertaining basketball, but doing nothing to take away from the widely held perception that this was a mediocre conference. By any measure -- Pomeroy, Sagarin, RPI, number of quality non-conference wins (of which there were precious few), flat eyeball test, you name it -- the Pac-10 was a distant sixth among the power conference, and the result is a jumbled mess in which the Pac-10 tournament will play a bigger role than it ever has.
It's almost unimaginable, but only the Golden Bears will take the floor for their first game feeling reasonably confident they're headed for the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, regardless of how they perform in Los Angeles. (Our own Blogging the Bracket had the Bears as a 10 seed on Monday, and others have them as high as an eight, which would suggest the Bears are comfortably in at this point.)
Everyone else needs to play themselves into the tournament, and with the possible exceptions of Washington and Arizona State, that means winning the whole thing.
The subplot of the Huskies and Sun Devils is the most interesting thing this tournament has going for it. Both teams are considered squarely on the bubble and would do wonders for their resume with a pair of wins. One problem: Only one of them will leave with two wins, since they're on a crash course for the semifinals. It should make for great drama if both can win their opening round games. The best scenario for both would probably be one of them going on to win the championship.
Names You Should Know
Jerome Randle, California -- The diminutive point guard was named the conference's player of the year this week, and it was well deserved, if not a little controversial (more on that in a second). He was the best player on the best team, noted for his nearly unlimited range.
Quincy Pondexter, Washington -- The Huskies' small forward made a strong push for conference player of the year when he picked up five player of the week awards -- more than anyone else in conference history. Beyond averaging an impressive 20.2 points per game, his 123.2 offensive rating (an advanced metric that measures individual offensive efficiency) was 50th in the nation. He's deadly from 15 feet and in, and is an underrated rebounder -- especially on the offensive end.
Landry Fields, Stanford -- Yet another player who made a strong push for conference player of the year. Fields is a versatile threat in much the same mold as Pondexter who helped lead the Cardinal to seven wins with what is probably the worst overall roster, talent-wise, in the conference. He's a matchup nightmare for defenders, as evidenced by his 6.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes (No. 33 nationally).
Ty Abbott, Arizona State -- The Phoenix-area native truly blossomed this year, rebounding from a sophomore shooting slump to ascend to the all-conference first team. He's gone off for 28 and 29 points this year, and is the one guy from ASU that other teams have to game plan for.
Derrick Williams, Arizona -- The conference's freshman of the year is also its best interior player. (Not sure if that says more about Williams or the state of big men in the conference, but I digress.) At 6-7, he's a bit undersized for a power player, but that's exactly what he is, as many of his lightning-quick post moves end with thunderous dunks.
Klay Thompson, Washington State -- Thompson didn't have the best Pac-10 season as he drew a substantial amount of attention from defenders thanks to his early-season scoring outbursts, but the potential is there for Thompson to go off for 30 on any given night, as his 22-point first half against Cal a month ago demonstrated.
Isaiah Thomas, Washington -- Look up flammable in the dictionary, and there might just be a picture of Thomas. Don't let his 5-7 stature fool you; he's a runner and a gunner and exceptionally strong. He rolls into the lane like a bowling ball, and can flat take over games. Unfortunately, he can shoot the Huskies right out of games, too.
About the only thing that would be surprising is if Cal actually won the tournament, both because it would be expected and because Mike Montgomery makes no effort to hide his disdain for conference tournaments. If he feels he's safely in, look for him to avoid pushing his players too hard -- especially given the thin nature of his roster, which has been injury riddled most of the season.
The most likely winner will be either Arizona State or Washington, given what's at stake for both. But in this take-nothing-for-granted conference, nobody would be surprised if someone outside of the conference's top three walked away with the title and stole an at-large bid from another conference.
Nobody -- not even WSU and Oregon, who have a long road with four games in four days but have shown they can play with anyone this year -- should be written off.
All game times PST. Opening round, quarterfinals and semifinals broadcast on Fox Sports Net; championship broadcast on CBS.
Wednesday, March 10 - First Round
#8 Oregon vs. #9 Washington State, 8 p.m.
Thursday, March 11 - Quarterfinals
#4 Arizona vs. #5 UCLA, Noon
#1 Cal vs. Oregon/Washington State, 2:30 p.m.
#2 Arizona State vs. #7 Stanford, 6 p.m.
#3 Washington vs. #6 Oregon State, 8:30 p.m.
Friday, March 12 - Semifinals
Arizona/UCLA vs. Cal/Oregon or WSU, 6 p.m.
ASU/Stanford vs. UW/OSU, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 13
Championship, 3 p.m.