The 12th rendition of the Pac-10 Conference Tournament begins this evening at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Oregon State and Stanford, seeded eighth and ninth, respectively, will kick off the festivities at 6:00 p.m. PDT, followed by the nightcap matching up No. 10 Oregon against No. 7 Washington State. All games will be broadcast on Fox Spors Net, but check your local listings for specifics.
So much parity in the Pac-10 this year should make for an exciting tournament. We'll break down the teams and give you the odds we think each team has in taking home the tourney title trophy.
No. 15 UCLA (24-7, 13-5 Pac-10) enters the tourney as the No. 2 seed after falling just short of upending Washington from atop the conference standings. The Bruins, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-10 title, have endured a mildly disappointing season, but are entering the tourney amid a four-game winning streak. Are they starting to peak just in time for an NCAA Tournament run? It's too early to tell. But given their emmense talent, led by First-Team All-Pac-10 senior Darren Collison, the Bruins are my odds-on favorite to capture their third Pac-10 Tourney title in four years. You can bet on it.
In a year of surprises, the No. 13 Huskies (24-7, 14-4 Pac-10) have been arguably the Pac-10's biggest. They enter the tourney as the field's No. 1 seed and will use the momentum from their current six-game winning streak as fuel to boost them to their first-ever Pac-10 Tourney title. Picked in the preseason media poll to finish fifth in the conference, UW started the season with a shocking loss at Portland, but quietly rebounded and put together an impressive list of wins behind Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Isaiah Thomas and First-Team All-Pac-10 selections Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon. However, with a freshman point guard and three of their four Pac-10 losses coming on the road, the Huskies just aren't the safest pick.
It's hard to make sense of Arizona (19-12, 9-9 Pac-10) this year. They beat then-No. 4 Gonzaga, then turn around and lose to UNLV less than a week later. Beat then-No. 6 UCLA, but lose to Washington State. But there's one thing we can be sure of: They're talented. Behind First-Team All-Pac-10 juniors Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, the Wildcats can beat anyone on any given night; or lose to them. But with a lot of talent and so much on the line, plus a pretty fair draw as the tourney's No. 5 seed, I'm giving the Wildcats a good shot at playing their way into the tournament final. So, don't be surprised if they show up like they did on Valentine's Day, when the Wildcats beat the Bruins handly in the desert. Or if they don't show up at all.
Arizona State (5-to-1)
The No. 23 Sun Devils (22-8, 11-7 Pac-10) take on Arizona first as the No. 4 seed. Here's the problem: They've already beat the Wildcats twice this year. And you know what they say: It's hard to beat any team thrice in a season. You could make the same case for Oregon beating Washington State, except the Wildcats have experience. When it comes to the Big Dance, I like ASU, who's led by Pac-10 Player of the Year James Harden. But I just don't see them beating their in-state rival three times in the same season.
USC (18-12, 9-9 Pac-10) is a bubble team with a lot to prove. But will they need more than just a solid showing in the tourney as proof to get an NCAA Tourney bid? The truth is, it won't matter. The Trojans were fortunate to land the No. 6 seed, but the way the chips fell, they'll end up with a likely second-round match-up with UCLA. I think USC's headed for an NIT bid, but the talent and motivation is certainly there to prove me wrong.
Cal has to be the conference's biggest surprise this year under Bay Area rival Stanford's former head coach Mike Montgomery. Picked to finish eighth in the preseason media poll, the Golden Bears (22-8, 11-7 Pac-10) turned heads when they jumped out to a 15-2 record, including 4-0 to open conference play. But immediately came back down to Earth, dropping four of their next five. There's no question the Bears are motivated, and they'll likely need at least two wins to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. But I just don't see them beating both L.A. schools, especially when six of their nine losses came on the road.
Washington State (100-to-1)
If there's one thing Tony Bennett's Cougars do well, it's play defense. Wazzu (16-14, 8-10 Pac-10) leads the nation in scoring defense, limiting its opponents to 55.2 points per game. Unfortunately, that doesn't always translate to victories. And after a heart-breaking loss to in-state rival Washington last weekend, the Cougars end up as the No. 7 seed, taking on Oregon in the first round. And although it's not much of a first-round match-up, it's an additional game that reduces their odds of advancing to the title game significantly.
Despite a relatively weak non-conference slate, the Cardinal (17-12, 6-12 Pac-10) entered conference play undefeated and, after upsetting then-No. 23 Cal on Jan. 17, were in a position to make some noise. Then the wheels came off, as they dropped six of their final nine games. However, one stat jumps out at me: Stanford is second in the conference (only to UCLA) in turnover margin. Teams that don't turn the ball over tend to do well in tournaments. Of course, they'll have to play an extra game, and like Wazzu, their odds decrease considerably.
Oregon State (250-to-1)
The Beavers (13-16, 7-11 Pac-10) have been a big surprise this season behind "First Coach" Craig Robinson. Led by local product Seth Tarver and sophomore Calvin Haynes, I think OSU has a chance to be good...next year. More than likely, they're the first team eliminated.
We talk about the Ducks (8-22, 2-16 Pac-10) an awful lot around here, so there's not whole lot left to say. If I'm a betting man (and I am), I'm not putting anything on Oregon winning more than a game, especially with UCLA awaiting them in the second round.
Players to Watch
Jon Brockman, Washington: The 6-7 255-pound senior led the conference with 11.5 rebounds a game
Darren Collison & Josh Shipp, UCLA: The Bruins have something to prove, and these two seniors are motivated to keep the momentum rolling
James Harden, ASU: Do-it-all sophomore is the conference's POY and leading scorer, and likely a top five NBA draft pick in June
Jordan Hill, Arizona: Another likely top 10 pick in June's draft, Hill is a bulky PF in the same vein as Chris Bosh
Jerome Randle, Cal: Sharp-shooting point guard is a former high school teammate of Oregon's Matthew Humphrey and Josh Crittle
Isaiah Thomas, Washington: Pac-10 Frosh of the Year is a scoring point guard, not unlike his namesake
Taj Gibson, USC: The Pac-10's Defensive POY is a talented leader who could have a big impact on how far his team goes