2014 Pac-12 Conference Tournament Preview

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Updated: 3/10/2014 9:23 am

(SportsNetwork.com) - The 17th edition of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament will feature plenty of intrigue, as the 12 league members get together at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to fight for the crown and claim the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Several of the teams in the field don't need to win the conference tournament to get into the Field of 68. Chief among them is Arizona, which is among the top-ranked teams in the country and fighting for a possible top seed in the Big Dance at this point. The Wildcats, who went 28-3 overall and 15-3 against teams from the rest of the conference, are the odds-on favorite to collect hardware this week. They did lose in the regular-season finale to Oregon (64-57), but their three league losses came by 12 points combined. Sean Miller will now get his team focused to add to its conference-best collection of tournament crowns, which currently stands at four.

UCLA is another squad that has more than likely punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The second-seeded Bruins, who are out to make up for a 78-69 loss in the title tilt to Oregon last year, rolled to a 23-8 overall record in their first year under head coach Steven Alford. Although the season featured more success than disappointment, the Bruins did endure some troubling losses, including a 73-55 rout to 11th-seed Washington State in the regular-season finale.

Arizona State narrowly grabbed the third seed and the bye that is attached. Despite having plenty of opportunities to secure it down the stretch. The Sun Devils lost four of their final six games of the regular season, but won the tiebreaker with Colorado, Stanford and California, all of which finished 10-8 in conference play. Still, at 21-10 overall, including a marquee win over Arizona, ASU should be among the 68 teams to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

The future is much less certain for California, which secured the fourth seed and a bye in the first round thanks in part to a thrilling 66-65 victory over Colorado in the regular-season finale. However, the Golden Bears did not put themselves in as strong a position as they could have, losing four of their final six games of the campaign.

The rest of the field is made up of Colorado (5), Stanford (6), Oregon (7), Utah (8), Washington (9), Oregon State (10), Washington State (11) and USC (12).

Opening up the tournament is a battle between eighth-seeded Utah and ninth- seeded Washington.

As might be expected of two teams with the same record in league action, these teams fought to a split in the regular season, with Utah earning a 78-69 triumph at home on Feb. 6, following a 59-57 win for Washington on Jan. 8.

It has been a slow climb to respectability in the Pac-12 for Utah, which made the move to the league three years ago from the Mountain West Conference. This year's squad is the best Larry Krystkowiak has had, as the Utes went 20-10 overall, its best record since 2009, which was also the last year the squad reached the NCAA Tournament. However, the Utes really didn't play well at all away from home, going 18-2 at the Huntsman Center and 2-8 everywhere else. No matter the venue, Utah has made a habit of being selective with its shots, helping it to the fifth-best field goal percentage (.497) in the country. Delon Wright (16.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.6 spg) helps keep the Utes moving at both ends of the floor, and he ranks second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage and among the top-15 in scoring, assists, steals and rebounds.

Washington didn't have as much disparity between success at home and on the road, but was just as inconsistent, rarely ever stringing together long winning or losing streaks. In all, the Huskies finished at 17-14 overall with as many wins as losses in conference play (9-9). However, they bring a bit of momentum into the postseason as they won three of their final four home games of the season. The hope is that Lorenzo Romar's squad can parlay that late success into a run to Washington's fourth conference title and first since 2011, when it repeated as league champs led by Isaiah Thomas, one of only two players ever to win tournament MVP honors more than once. C.J. Wilcox (18.5 ppg) and Nigel Williams-Goss (13.3 ppg, 4.4 apg) are the most likely candidates to fill Thomas' shoes, with Wilcox ranking among the top-five scorers in the conference, and Williams-Goss being one of the league's best freshmen.

Awaiting the winner of the Washington/Utah clash is Arizona. The Wildcats have spent the entire season jostling for position in the national rankings and is one of the teams on shortlist for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They may have hurt themselves a bit with their recent loss to Oregon, but not by much. Last year, Arizona made a run to the Sweet 16 before being dispatched by Ohio State (73-70), and it is now looking for its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since its streak of 25 consecutive invitations was snapped in 2010. Miller really pushes a defensive focus for the Wildcats, who are in the top-10 nationally in scoring defense (58.7 ppg) and opponent field goal percentage (.385). Nick Johnson (16.1 ppg) and talented freshman Aaron Gordon (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) anchor the squad, which has also gotten significant contributions from Kaleb Tarczewski (10.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), especially since Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg) was lost for the season due to injury.

The second first-round matchup will pit the fifth-seeded Colorado Buffaloes against the 12th-seeded USC Trojans.

Colorado deserves a lot of credit for how well it has done this season in the face of an injury to their most important player. When Spencer Dinwiddie (14.7 ppg) was lost for the season with a knee injury in mid-January, many thought the Buffaloes' season would go down with him. Tad Boyle's group has shown resiliency, and even put itself in a position to capture the third seed entering the regular-season finale, which they unfortunately lost 66-65 in overtime to California. Josh Scott (14.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg) deserves a great deal of the praise for keeping CU afloat in Dinwiddie's absence. He is the leading scorer and rebounder for the team, while Askia Booker (13.7 ppg) and Xavier Johnson (12.2 ppg, 6 rpg) have done their best to pick up the slack. It would still be a surprise if this squad can make a run to the conference title, but the Buffaloes know a little bit about surprises. In 2012, just their second year in the league, the Buffs stunned many by rolling to the league title with a 53-51 win over Arizona in the championship game.

There was a lot of excitement surrounding USC entering this season, as Andy Enfield brought his 'Dunk City' style over from Florida Gulf Coast in taking the head coaching job. Fast forward to today and the optimism that was once rampant has dissolved into disappointment. In their first year with Enfield at the helm, the Trojans went just 11-20 overall and a league-worst 2-16 in conference play. Enfield has done his best, shifting lineups constantly, but it has all been for naught as the Trojans are the second-lowest scoring team in the Pac-12 (71 ppg). Byron Wesley (17.6 ppg) does provide a bit of a spark, but he doesn't receive much in terms of support. With such limited success during the regular season, the chances that USC, which has been knocked out in the first round the last two seasons, can earn its second league title are slim. That is especially true considering the Trojans lost both contests in the regular season to their first-round foe.

If Colorado can defeat USC again, it would get a chance to earn some revenge against fourth-seed California. Justin Cobbs sank a pair of free-throws in the waning seconds of overtime to lift the Golden Bears to a 66-65 overtime win against the Buffaloes in the regular season finale. The victory secured the fourth seed for California, which could have been seeded higher, if not for their struggles down the stretch. Cobbs (15.6 ppg, 5.8 apg) is the most important holdover from last year's NCAA Tournament team, which got knocked out of the first round of the Pac-12 tourney, but recorded an upset victory over fifth-seed UNLV in the Big Dance. There is a solid group for Cobbs, who is second in the league in assists, to rely on. Tyrone Wallace (11.3 ppg) helps in the backcourt and David Kravish (11.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Richard Solomon (11.2 ppg, 10 rpg) form a strong duo inside. If they play at their best, the Golden Bears have a shot at their first ever Pac-12 title.

In-state rivals collide in the third first-round matchup, as seventh-seeded Oregon battles 10th-seeded Oregon State.

It has been a roller coaster campaign for defending tournament champion Oregon, which came out of the gates red-hot, rising to 10th in the national rankings, before falling off into obscurity due to a weak start in league play. The Ducks have come on with a vengeance down the stretch though, posting wins in seven straight games, including a 64-57 triumph over Arizona in the regular-season finale. They are 22-8 overall entering the postseason, with that mark the third-best record in the Pac-12, although the Ducks were one of six teams in the conference to finish at 10-8 in league play. A rapid offensive pace has been the norm for Oregon, which leads the Pac-12 and ranks ninth nationally in scoring (82.3 ppg). At the forefront of the offensive barrage is Joseph Young (18.2 ppg), while Mike Moser (13.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg) produces at a steady rate on the interior.

Oregon State is seeking its first-ever conference crown, with its most hated rival the first obstacle to that goal. The Beavers' chances are not great, considering they went 16-14 overall and only 8-10 in league play this season. However, they proved to be a tough out all year, earning wins over Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State, while fighting to a five-point loss to Arizona on March 5. They have only made it past the second round once since 2002, and are just 8-14 in the tournament all-time. The team is helped by the presence of league-leading scorer Roberto Nelson (20.6 pp, 3.7 apg), who can knock down shots from anywhere on the floor and also improved as a passer this season. Devon Collier (13.5 ppg), Angus Brandt (12.2 ppg) and Eric Moreland (8.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 2 bpg) highlight a talented group in the frontcourt as well.

Whichever team survives between Oregon and Oregon State gets the chance to play UCLA in the second round. UCLA, which was the top seed in this tournament a year ago, has won the event three times. The most recent occurrence came in 2008 when it rolled to the title and an appearance in the Final Four. Like cross-town rival USC, the Bruins welcomed in a new head coach this season. Alford, formerly of New Mexico, enjoyed a much more successful year than Enfield. He did not change much on offense, as UCLA ranks in the top-20 nationally in scoring (82 ppg), assists (17.3 apg) and field goal percentage (.486). Alford's most valuable assets are versatile guards Kyle Anderson (14.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.6 apg) and Jordan Adams (17.5 ppg, 2.8 spg), who does more than score as the league leader in steals.

The last pairing of the first round pits 11th-seed Washington State against sixth-seeded Stanford, with winner advancing to take on No. 3 seed Arizona State.

Stanford is on the fringe of NCAA Tournament contention. The Cardinal went 19-11 overall and is one of six teams in the league to have finished 10-8 in league play. However, they lost three straight games before barely surviving against Utah in the regular-season finale. Stanford is one of the mainstays of the old Pac-10 and the current Pac-12, but has only one conference tourney crown in its history, that coming during its historic 2004 campaign when it went into the NCAA Tournament a staggering 29-1. The Cardinal haven't made it further than the second round in this particular event in the last four years, and the squad was bounced in the first round last year. Potent scoring guard Chasson Randle (18.8 ppg) and frontcourt powers Dwight Powell (14.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Josh Huestis (11.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg) lead the charge for this year's squad.

Washington State routed UCLA, 73-55, in a stunning end to the regular season. However, the Cougars had very little success throughout the campaign, finishing at just 9-20 overall and 3-15 in league play. Clearly things are not lined up for the Cougars, who have been knocked out in the first round of this event in each of the last four years, to finally claim a conference title. Making the task that much harder is the fact that they are facing a Stanford team that swept them during the regular season, including an 80-48 rout on Jan. 15. DaVonte Lacy (19.1 ppg) is the only consistent offensive threat for WSU, which is dead last in the Pac-12 in most offensive categories.

Arizona State backed its way into the third seed and a first-round bye, getting help from other teams to make up for its own struggles down the stretch. The Sun Devils are yet another team in the conference that has never cut down the nets at the end of the tournament. In fact, they are tied for the most losses (15) in tournament play among current league members. They did advance to the second round a year ago, but that came after three straight first-round exits. Leading the way for Herb Sendek's squad, which is seeking its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009, are Jahii Carson (18.9 ppg, 4.5 apg), Jermaine Marshall (15.4 ppg) and Jordan Bachynski (11.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 4.2 bpg), who is the national leader in blocked shots.


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