by Nick Rotunno
When: March 13-16
Where: MGM Grand, Las Vegas
The Pac-12 tourney rolls into Vegas on Wednesday, with the first of four games—Arizona State vs Stanford—tipping off at 3 p.m. EST. Who’s going to win the tourney? Well, that’s a damn good question.
If you study the patterns of the conference this season, the compiled statistics, records and winning streaks, one inarguable fact springs from all the numerical data: It was not a banner year for the Pac-12. At season’s end, no Pac-12 squad is ranked in the Top 10. The only team in the Top 20 is No. 18 Arizona. UCLA, the newly crowned conference champ, is three spots behind the Wildcats at No. 21.
No one has separated themselves from the pack (or should I say, Pac). No team has really stepped to the front of the line, grabbed this conference by its lapels and screamed, “I’m the best team out here!”
And yet, as a whole, the Pac-12 has steadily improved during the second half of the regular season and seems to have peaked just in time for the tourney. UCLA has come on strong to clinch the regular-season title. Colorado has played well at times, but has largely been inconsistent. Cal is much improve and Oregon, once ranked as high as No. 10 in the country, has more or less weathered its tumble from the Top 25 and finished in a three-way tie for second place.
So, I suppose it all means that the Pac-12 is a pretty good conference with some pretty good teams, several of which could win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. But first thing’s first—the big finale in glittering Las Vegas.
No. 21 UCLA (23-8, 13-5) — Ben Howland and the UCLA Bruins have won seven of their last 10 games, including a big 61-54 road win over Washington on Saturday to clinch the regular-season Pac-12 championship. This team was never truly bad early in the season; it just wasn’t quite playing as well as it could have been. The Bruins turned their season around in December and January, beating Missouri, Cal, Stanford and Colorado—among others—while amassing a 10-game win streak. UCLA maintained a high level of play for the remainder of the conference season, finishing 13-5 in the Pac.
UCLA led the league in scoring with 75.0 points per game. Its shooting has been impressive, too—a league leading 45 percent from the field. On the other side of the floor, however, the Bruins ranked 11th in scoring defense, allowing 68.6 points per contest. Clearly UCLA can outscore its opponents, but to win the Pac-12 tourney against the likes of Arizona, Oregon and Arizona State, defense will be all-important. The Bruins can’t afford to take a night off, like they did last Wednesday at Washington State where they lost by 12 points. With the No. 1 seed they should have an easy road to the later rounds.
Star freshman Shabazz Muhammad, gone for the NBA next season, is by far the most gifted swingman in the Pac-12. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game this season. And let’s not overlook senior guard Larry Drew II, the best passer in the conference with 7.7 assists per game.
Oregon (23-8, 12-6) — Some astute Pac-12 fans might wonder why I’ve listed the up-and-down Ducks under the “Contenders” heading for this tournament. I know—Oregon has fallen a long way since starting strong in the Pac-12 season, when it was ranked No. 10 in the polls and racking up one conference win after another. And yes, I realize the Ducks have lost three of their last five games and dropped a tough one at Utah on Saturday.
But I watched these Ducks live versus Arizona, and I have seen plenty of their games on TV. When Oregon is playing its best—shooting the three, passing with precision, running the floor—it is a very tough team to beat. The Ducks handled Arizona in early January, beat UCLA in Los Angeles and lost to Colorado by just one point. They mostly took care of the lesser teams in the conference, too, with a few exceptions. By and large, head coach Dana Altman has this team on the right track.
The Ducks rely heavily on senior forward EJ Singler, their most well-rounded player. Fellow senior Carlos Emory is a force on the front line, while playmaking guard Dominic Artis leads the team in assists with 3.5 per game. Oregon is experienced in the frontcourt and very young in the backcourt, with two freshmen starting at the guard positions in Artis and Damyean Dotson.
No. 18 Arizona (24-6, 12-6) — Along with Oregon and Cal, the Wildcats tied for second place in the Pac-12 with a 12-6 record. They took down Arizona State on Saturday 73-58, but over its last 10 games the Arizona is just 6-4. For being the top-ranked team in the conference, Arizona’s stats don’t jump off the page. The Wildcats are ranked 50th in the country for scoring with a 73.4 points per game average. They snag 36.4 rebounds per game, good enough for 97th in the nation.
They could make some noise in this tournament, though. Remember, Arizona beat Miami in December and then-No. 17 San Diego State on Christmas Day. Senior guard Mark Lyons is a star, averaging 14.9 points and three assists per game. He’s the engine that makes this team go.
Colorado (20-8, 10-10) — As of Wednesday, the Buffaloes are 10-8 with one Pac-12 game remaining, a neutral-site contest versus Oregon State. Underestimate the Buffs at your peril. Colorado is not the most talented team out there, but it’s scrappy, good on the road and play solid defense (63.1 points allowed per game, third in the conference). There are some good wins on the Buffaloes’ record, as well, including two victories over Oregon and a 71-58 triumph over Arizona. Granted, Colorado has lost a few games against the conference weaklings, but I think that speaks more to the parity in the Pac-12 than any lethal flaw in the Buffaloes’ game.
Don’t be shocked if they pull off an upset in Las Vegas. The skill is there and I’ve noticed a certain never-say-die attitude with this Buffs team that could make them dangerous in a winner-take-all format. Junior forward Andre Roberson leads Colorado in rebounding with 11.5 per game; he’s an active big man who anchors CU’s stout front line.
Cal (20-12, 12-6) – Again, here’s another team that has slowly matured over the course of the season, building a decent conference record while largely flying under the radar. The Golden Bears finished 12-6 in the Pac-12 and earned a spot in the triumvirate of second-place teams. They shoot about 45 percent from the field while relying on a pair of backcourt scorers—junior Allen Crabbe, a do-it-all guard averaging 18.6 points per game and junior playmaker Justin Cobbs, who’s racking up 15.1 points and 4.8 assists per contest. Statistically, Cal is an average offensive team with a couple of excellent guards who score in bunches. On defense, though, the Bears are pretty tough—their opponents averaged just 39 percent shooting from the field, the best field goal percentage defense in the Pac-12.
Players to Watch
Shabazz Muhammad, Fr. F, UCLA – The high-profile swingman has been filling the stat sheet lately. His scoring average has spiked to more than 18 points per game and he’s grabbing about five rebounds every night. A premier talent, Muhammad gets buckets from all over the floor.
Allan Crabbe, Jr. G, Cal – Crabbe is the leading scorer in the conference with 18.6 points per game. He plays 36 minutes a night, hits the glass and finds his teammates. When Crabbe is distributing the basketball and getting his shots, the Cal offense is formidable.
EJ Singler, Sr. F, Oregon – Kyle’s little brother has blossomed at Oregon. The versatile senior scores 11.5 points and snags 4.9 rebounds per game. A good distance shooter, he can stretch the floor or drive to the rim. Singler is the Ducks’ go-to guy, and he will have to play his best basketball of the year if Oregon hopes to win the Pac-12 tourney.
UCLA — The Bruins are playing well at the right time. Ben Howland has done some fine work in the City of Angels, handling the media scrutiny and steadily improving his squad. Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II form a potent one-two punch and are probably the best combo in the conference. I predict the Bruins will survive a competitive tournament and cut down the nets in Vegas.