The Staples Center hosts the Pac-12 Tournament, which runs from Wednesday through Saturday. California and Washington are the favorites, but an out-of-nowhere run is certainly conceivable.
What, Who, When
The Pac-12 Tournament takes place on March 7-10 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But you might not want to pay attention until Thursday.
The conference follows the standard 12-team bracket, with the top four teams receiving byes to the quarterfinals.
Wednesday: No. 8 Washington State vs. No. 9 Oregon State, No. 5 UCLA vs. No. 12 USC, No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 10 Arizona State, No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 Utah.
Thursday: No. 1 Washington vs. Wazzu/OSU, No. 4 Arizona vs. UCLA/USC, No. 2 California vs. Stanford/ASU, No. 3 Oregon vs. Colorado/Utah.
Who The Numbers Like
California. If parity is your thing, then this is the tournament for you. Ken Pomeroy's projections ($) do like California quite a bit (they have a 32.3 percent chance of winning the tournament), but five other teams -- Arizona, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Washington -- have at least an eight percent chance. Incredibly, the Golden Bears are the only Pac-12 team ranked better than 44th overall, with three ranked worse than 225th. In comparison, the Mountain West has two in the Top 35, and no team ranked worse than 193rd.
Who The Eyeballs Like
Washington. The Huskies were dreadful in non-conference play, going just 7-5 with double-digit losses to St. Louis and South Dakota State. They beat just two Top 200 (according to Pomeroy) teams in this span: No. 78 Georgia State and No. 106 UC Santa Barbara. They turned it on in conference play, however, at least to a degree. They finished the season winning 10 of 12 to win the conference title. Their only losses since Jan. 19: a random, 25-point beatdown at Oregon and a six-point stumble at UCLA last Saturday. They were 9-1 against teams in their half of the bracket, so they are a very good bet to make the finals.
Oregon. It is a reach to call the 3-seed a "dark horse," but Dana Altman's Ducks have very much flown (get it?) under the radar this year. They are hot, having won 11 of 14 since a home loss to California on Jan. 8. They have also shown glimpses of a high ceiling, beating Washington by 25 and, in the regular season finale, Utah by 46. While Oregon's defense leaves something to be desired, a streaky offense could carry the Ducks pretty far this week.
Best Possible Title Game
Washington vs. California. What the conference may have lacked in quality this year, it made up for in close games. The Huskies lost to the Golden Bears by a 69-66 margin in January, and from a styles-make-fights perspective, this game could be not only close but also up-tempo and high-intensity. Washington hits the offensive glass very hard, while California is one of the better defensive rebounding teams around. Plus, neither team forces turnovers, which could lead to some fun offensive streaks.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
California. Statistically, the Golden Bears easily have the best resume in the conference, ranking 37th in RPI and 23rd in Pomeroy's ratings. Still … as with most of the conference, their non-conference performance was just awful. They got destroyed by Missouri, 92-53, and their top three non-con wins (according to Pomeroy) were over No. 76 Denver, No. 106 UC Santa Barbara and No. 114 Georgia. Against teams in Chris Dobbertean's latest Field of 68, then, Cal went just 1-3. (That's right, they played just four tourney-ready teams.) And yet … there they are, in line for about a 10-11 seed. They are safe from most people's "Last Four In" list, but I still wouldn't recommend losing to Stanford/Arizona State on Thursday.
Washington. Washington's profile is similar to Cal's, only with a worse non-conference record. They might get a silly "conference champion bump," but as mentioned above, their resume is still quite flimsy. They get an easier quarterfinal draw (either Washington State or Oregon State) and will probably avoid a slip-up, but their grasp on an at-large bid is still tenuous.
Arizona. In beating mighty Clemson (No. 70 according to Pomeroy) and New Mexico State (No. 72), the Wildcats somehow put together one of the conference's best non-conference resumes. But in taking a nearly humiliating 87-80 defeat at lowly Arizona State on Sunday, they lost their grasp of an at-large bid. They could get it back (lord knows nobody else is seizing control of bids) but they will have to, at the very least, make the conference tournament finals.
Oregon. The Ducks also failed to impress in non-conference play -- their best wins, according to Pomeroy's rankings, came against No. 141 UTEP and No. 148 Stephen F. Austin. In opportunities against three solid teams (Vanderbilt, BYU, Virginia), they lost by double digits each time. All of their interesting wins came in conference play (and in a mediocre conference, no less), but they are hot, and while that isn't supposed to make a difference anymore (your "Last 12 Games" record was removed from the data sheet provided to the committee), it still might. Chris Dobbertean currently has them six spots on the wrong side of the bubble, but a win over California on Friday might sneak them in.
Players To Watch
Tony Wroten, Washington. The blue-chip freshman from Seattle has been a consistent scorer for the Huskies -- only three times has he been held to single-digit scoring -- but often that is simply because he takes a ton of shots. His 33.0% usage rate is eighth-highest in the country. He can't hit outside shots (9-for-49 on three-pointers for the season, 3-for-28 since December 31), and he turns the ball over a lot, but he gets to the line quite a bit, and when he's good, Washington can be VERY good. For the season, Wroten averaged 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He is the Huskies' catalyst, for better or, sometimes, worse.
Jorge Gutierrez, California. The senior from Chihuahua, Mexico, is another well-rounded player, with season-high marks in points, assists and rebounds in double-digits. When he is pitching in some points as well, California becomes quite tough to beat. But when he is off, Cal has almost no chance. In the Golden Bears' back-to-back losses (to Colorado and Stanford) to end the season, Gutierrez scored just eight total points on 3-for-15 shooting, and his four assists were offset by five turnovers. He can be incredible (26 points on 11-for-15 shooting, six rebounds, five assists against McNeese State) and horrid (five points on 2-for-17 shooting against Colorado), and he likely defines both Cal's floor and their ceiling.
Devoe Joseph, Oregon. The Ducks have been downright solid of late, and for that you can mostly thank the shooting touch of Joseph and Garrett Sim. Sim caught fire in the last three games (12-for-20 on 3-pointers) after a few cold weeks, but Joseph has been the more consistently solid of the two. In Oregon's six-of-seven stretch to finish the regular season, Joseph averaged 19.3 points, got to the line quite a bit, and rediscovered the art of the mid-range jumper. He made 62 percent of his 2-pointers in that stretch, and he is the major reason Oregon has scored at least 78 points in five of seven games. If he finds his range, the Ducks could roll to the conference tourney title.
Lazeric Jones, UCLA. Aside from when the enormous (6-foot-10, 305 pounds) Joshua Smith is on the court, the Bruins' offense runs through Jones, for better or worse. (And since Smith cannot stay on the court very long, due to either fouls or being 305 pounds, Jones is basically The Man.) Jones is capable of greatness -- he scored 20 points (on 7-for-15 shooting) with five rebounds and four assists in a big win over Washington, and he combined to score 13 points on 4-for-24 shooting in recent games against USC, St. John's and Arizona. The Bruins won eight of their final 11 conference games, but if they are to make a run this week, Good Lazeric will need to make a prolonged appearance.
Brock Motum, Washington State. Of all the major conferences, the Pac-12 is potentially most directly prone to some ridiculous, out-of-nowhere surge from a lower-table team. And if you're looking for one player who could carry that run, what about Motum? The 6-foot-10 junior from Australia came out of nowhere to average 18.1 points (he averaged just 7.6 last year), making 59 percent of his 2-pointers, 38 percent of his 3-pointers and 72 percent of his free throws. He logged three double-doubles and, incredibly, scored 27 of Wazzu's 43 points in a beyond-ugly 43-38 win over USC in the season finale. The Cougars swept first-round opponent Oregon State this season, so they might get a third shot at Washington on Friday.