The Pac-12 conference tournament tips off tomorrow, March 13, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Nevada. The first game is set to tip off at 12:00 PM PT as Arizona State takes on Stanford. Games will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.
UCLA walked away with the Pac-12 championship this season behind star freshman Shabazz Muhammad and Guard Larry Drew II. Drew – a transfer from the University of North Carolina – lead the Pac-12 in assists with 7.7 and ranked third in the nation in assists per game. You don’t see many collegiate players put up assist numbers like this. He is a big reason for their success this season and he will be a big part of their success going forward.
A lot of talk this tournament will be centered around UCLA’s star freshman, Muhammad, who is projected to be a top-5 draft pick if and when he decides to leave for the NBA. The UCLA forward grew up in Las Vegas where the tournament will be held. If UCLA wants to win the conference tournament, Shabazz will need to continue playing at a high level. He is third in the Pac-12 in scoring with 18.3 points a game. But the real key to their success will lie in the hands of Drew II.
Although UCLA is the conference champion, there isn’t a clear team to beat in the Pac-12. This should make for an entertaining tournament. Both Arizona and Oregon got off to hot starts this season, but neither team was able to set themselves ahead of the rest of the Pac. Oregon will be a 3-seed in the tournament, and Arizona will be a 4-seed. Moving ahead of them is a California team that has won 8 of their last 10. They are the hottest team coming into the tournament, outside of UCLA.
The Arizona Wildcats were undefeated coming into Pac-12 conference play and were ranked as high as number 3 in the nation. They suffered their first loss to a hot Oregon team at the time. Since then, they have lost 5 other conference games.
Oregon has lost their last two games, which ultimately lead to UCLA winning the conference championship by one game. Oregon has to get back on track. It will take some focus and tough play to get them to the championship game of the tournament. They will play either Washington or Washington State in the second round. Either should be a win, as neither team has beaten Oregon this season.
The possible match-up against California is something that I hope to see. Oregon lost twice this year to California by a combined 6 points. The key to beating Cal is defending their guards, which Oregon has done a great job of in their previous match-ups. Behind the three starting guards, they have little to no scoring. Cal’s Allen Crabbe was the conference player of the year. He led the Pac-12 in scoring with 18.6, but he has only managed 12.5 points per game in the two contest verses Oregon. Oregon’s leading scorer E.J. Singler has to get it going in this one. He has shot a mere 4 for 22 from the field in their two match-ups. Oregon can’t beat Cal with their best scorer shooting this horrible.
Another match-up that intrigues me is the potential game between Colorado and Arizona. This will be another game decided by guard play. I like Arizona’s back court. Even though they haven’t played like it as of late, I still think Nick Johnson and Mark Lyon make for the best guard combination in the Pac-12. Those two need to get back to playing like they did earlier on in the season. When they have it going this is one of the top teams in the country.
Colorado has some good guards themselves. Their leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie can fill up the stats sheet with the best of them. Paired with the paly of their defensive stat Roberson, this will be a tough team to beat.
Colorado will have to get by Oregon State first, though. Oregon State won their last game of the season against Colorado. Colorado was playing without the Pac-12 defensive player of year in Andre Roberson who also leads the Pac-12 in rebounding. He is returning from an illness in which he missed the past two games. Oregon State will have their hands full in this one. I don’t see this one having the same result as their last game.
As it sits right now, ESPN’s Bracketology with Joe Lunardi has the top-5 Pac-12 teams in the NCAA tournament. Colorado, being the fifth team, could be on the cusp of not making the tournament if they suffer an early upset against the Beavers. It would take a couple Cinderella conference tournament champs to knock Colorado outside of the bubble due to their 4-2 record verses top-25 opponents, but anything can happen – it’s March Madness. If not for a couple of those Cinderella stories, they should be a lock, along with the other top-5 Pac-12 teams.
For any team below Colorado in the Pac-12 standings, it will take a conference tournament win to punch their ticket to the dance. All of which would be playing a well-rested top-4-seeded team in the second round. It is highly unlikely that any team, not of the top-5 (UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Arizona, and Colorado) will win this tournament and make it to the big dance. The guard play of these top teams is too tough, and the top-4 will be rested and ready to go. Nonetheless, this will be a fun, entertaining tournament to watch as any of those five teams can win this thing.
Here is my pick: UCLA. I have to go with the hometown kid Shabazz Muhammad. He will play well in the city he grew up in, the city of Las Vegas.
Jason Hartzog is on Twitter. Follow him at @JHartsLife