While the prestige of the Pac-12 has taken a hit in recent years, the conference still boasts some talented teams that are capable of making noise in March Madness. Despite the lack of household names and superstar talent, the Pac-12 elite include balanced rosters with good depth, intelligent role players, and young talent.
As conferences such as the Mountain West and Atlantic-10 have emerged, the Pac-12 has dropped off and expects just four or five clubs to make the NCAA Tournament. However, teams like Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, behemoths in their respective conferences despite getting each upset in their tournaments, are now sweating it out hoping no cinderella stories emerge during conference tournament play to knock them off the bubble. Will the Pac-12 be the conference to produce such a team? Is Arizona State, Stanford, or Washington capable of making a run to the Pac-12 title? Remember: What happens in Vegas, stays in the back of the committee’s minds.
Location: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV
Dates: March 13, 14, 15, 16
1st Round Game to Watch:
#5 Colorado vs. #12 Oregon State- While The Washington schools square off in one corner, and freshman sensation Jahii Carson leads Arizona State against Stanford, the opening round matchup to keep an eye on is Colorado and Oregon State. The Buffaloes were knocked off by the Beavers, 64-58, in the regular season finale just days ago, and Colorado will be without Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and the nation’s leading rebounder (11.5 rpg) Andre Roberson, who was diagnosed with mononucleosis earlier in the week. While it has not been officially announced at this point, if Roberson is not able to go, Head Coach Tad Boyle will be left without his most important player. Last meeting, OSU forward Eric Moreland took advantage of Roberson’s absence, tallying 17 points and 10 rebounds. Moreland is a bouncy forward who can wreak havoc around the rim if not defended properly. Look for him to have his way once again, while freshmen Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott must step up and play beyond their years for Colorado.
Stanford Cardinals- If Stanford gets past Arizona State, no easy task despite beating the Sun Devils in the only prior meeting this season, I like their chances against top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals. I’m always weary of young teams whose key player(s) have one foot out the door, and the Bruins qualify with Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. Stanford on the other hand is a veteran group led by junior forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis, and is coming off consecutive wins over Utah and at California to cap the regular season. Powell has averaged 19.5 points while Huestis has corralled at least ten rebounds in two meetings with UCLA this year. The Bruins’ strength is its backcourt and if Stanford maintains a slower tempo and uses its bigs in the half court, it is capable of pulling off the upset.
Players to Watch:
Jahii Carson, Arizona State- Remember TJ Ford, lightning quick point guard from Texas who played eight NBA seasons despite weighing as much as I do? Jahii Carson remembers Ford, and he plays just like him, high praise considering Ford was a First Team All-American in 2003. Carson’s speed in the open floor and quickness attacking the basket separates him from the rest of the point guards in the nation. His 17.7 points and 5 assists per game earned him Co-Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12, along with Muhammad. Carson has carried a weak Arizona State lineup for most of this season, and heroes are made in March. If any single player in this conference has the ability to lead his team to a title on their own, it’s Carson.
Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon- Kazemi is everything you look for in a role player. The Rice transfer averaged 9.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game this season for the Ducks, while shooting at a 59% clip. Kazemi, the first Iranian-born Division 1 college basketball player, has a team-first attitude, which is infectious around the Oregon locker room. His grit and willingness to come up with loose balls, grab the key rebound with 25 seconds left in a one point game, or step in and take a charge on the other team’s best player make Kazemi indispensable for the Ducks. While he is not as talented as some of his counterparts, Kazemi does his job and could earn a backup small forward role in the NBA next season.
Larry Drew II, UCLA- Drew II enrolled at North Carolina after high school and played one and a half disappointing seasons for Roy Williams and the Tar Heels before leaving the program midway through his sophomore season. Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated called Drew’s departure “disgraceful,” because rather than announce to the team himself that he was stepping away from basketball, Drew II left it up to his father, former NBA player Larry Drew, to deliver the news. Drew’s poor play (never averaged more than 8.5 points or 40% FG) at UNC along with his behavior, left me thinking his collegiate career was likely over. Fast forward two years and Drew is finally playing like the 4-Star prospect he was coming out of high school. The Pac-12 leader in assists with 7.7 per contest, Drew’s terrific point guard play has been a crucial part of UCLA’s success this season. His buzzer beater against Washington on February 7 sparked the Bruins, who won six of seven since then. Point guard play is so important in March, and the Bruins have a good one in Drew II.
Team that must make a statement:
Arizona Wildcats- After starting the season 14-0, the Wildcats came back to Earth in conference play, dropping four games by eight or more points including home losses at the hands of California and UCLA. Sean Miller’s group has talent, notably forward Soloman Hill and point guard Mark Lyons, but the team has struggled to come together on the defensive end of the floor. The Wildcats are last in the Pac-12 defending the 3-point line, eighth in the league in opposing team’s FG%, and they are giving up 77.5 points in six losses this season. Arizona has the talent and experience to make a run, but it starts on that side of the ball. With a Pac-12 tourney victory, Arizona may be able to crawl its way up to a 3-seed in March Madness, but an early exit could have the team that at one point was in contention for a #1 seed looking at a 5 or 6. Those wins over Florida, Miami, and San Diego State seem like ages ago.
As of this morning, Joe Lunardi has Oregon as an 8-seed and California as a 9-seed. No one wants to end up in the 8/9 game, knowing Indiana, Duke, or Gonzaga awaits them in the round of 32. A Pac-12 tournament win would lift either of these programs to a 6 or 7-seed, giving them a much better chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
Colorado is also in the tournament as of today but at just 1-1 without Roberson this season, a first-round defeat might put the Buffaloes squarely on the bubble.
Favorite to Win:
Oregon opened conference play with seven straight wins but has fallen off recently, due to freshman point guard Dominic Artis missing nine games with an undisclosed foot injury. Artis is back in the lineup but has failed to contribute in three games, two losses, as the Ducks enter the tournament losers in three of their last five games. UCLA is the top seed but I doubt their youth and don’t fully trust Muhammad late in games. My pick to win the tournament is Arizona, a team that knows how to win in close games, ugly games, or high-scoring affairs. Look for Soloman Hill, who is playing his final games in a Wildcats’ uniform, to step up and help his team cut down the nets.
If Hill is the player who puts Arizona in a position to win, Lyons will be the man to get them over the top. The Xavier transfer enrolled in Tucson to join his former coach and has made an immediate impact, leading the team with 14.9 ppg during the regular season. It was Lyons’ layup over Patric Young earlier this season that led Arizona over Florida. His 25 points on 9-13 FG were monumental in a victory over Stanford in early February. Lyons is a big shot maker who will have the ball in his hands late for the Cats.
Stanford over Arizona State
Colorado over Oregon State
Washington State over Washington
Utah over USC
Stanford over UCLA Arizona over Colorado
Oregon over Washington State
California over Utah
Arizona over Stanford
Oregon over California
Arizona over Oregon