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March 7, 2012
Tournament Preview

by Kevin Pelton


Pac-12: March 7-10, all games at Staples Center, Los Angeles

               Qtrs  Semis  Final  Champ
 2 California   100   69.3   48.6   32.3
 5 UCLA        90.1   48.3   30.2   14.9
 4 Arizona      100   50.6   28.8   12.7
 1 Washington   100   63.0   29.2   12.2
 3 Oregon       100   63.3   24.3   12.2
 7 Stanford    87.8   29.9   16.4    8.0
 6 Colorado    92.8   36.3   10.5    3.9
 9 Oregon St.  59.7   24.2    8.3    2.8
 8 Wash. St.   40.3   12.7    3.3    0.9
12 USC          9.9    1.1    0.2    0.02
10 Arizona St. 12.2    0.8    0.1    0.01
11 Utah         7.2    0.3    0.01   0.0006

By now, you've surely heard more than enough about the Pac-12's hard times. In the first year of its modern incarnation, the Pac-12 slipped behind three "mid-major" conferences in Ken Pomeroy's rankings: the little brother Mountain West, the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley. In statistical terms, the Pac-12's fate was cast by New Year's Day. It was a disastrous non-conference season for the Pac-12, whose marquee win came when Oregon State beat a Texas team that resides firmly on the bubble at a neutral site. The conference mastered the close quality loss, with Washington falling by a combined eight points to Duke and Marquette at Madison Square Garden, Stanford coming within six points of beating Syracuse at the same venue and the Beavers losing by two to Vanderbilt.

Intraconference games cannot do anything to change the league's statistical ratings, but they can shape the league's perception. Had two or three teams dominated, especially the ones that succeeded out of conference, the Pac-12 might still safely be a multi-bid league. Instead, non-conference surprises Oregon State and Stanford collapsed once conference play began. When California lost on the last day of the season, Washington won the first Pac-12 title, and those two teams look safest heading into the conference tournament. After them is a logjam including Oregon and Arizona, on the bubble, and a UCLA team that will assuredly have to win the automatic bid to go dancing.

Adding to the complexity of the Pac-12's situation is that the numbers don't match up with the standings. The Huskies finished 14-4 thanks to a series of close wins and ranked just fifth in efficiency differential, behind the 11-7 Bruins. The upside is that should make for a balanced bracket in Los Angeles. With a slight boost from getting half of the usual home-court advantage (so too does last-place USC), UCLA comes out with the second-best chance of emerging victorious. The winner of the likely Arizona-UCLA game on Thursday looks like the favorite to face California in the final, but any of six teams can realistically hope to cut down the nets on Saturday afternoon.

The favorite: California
As our John Gasaway noted yesterday, the Golden Bears were guilty by their association with the rest of the conference for much of the season. Sure, there was an ugly loss to Missouri in Kansas City and a conspicuous lack of marquee wins, but California was rolling along at 15-4, 5-1 in conference before sophomore forward Richard Solomon was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the year due to academics. In their first game without Solomon, the Golden Bears beat a short-handed Washington team in Seattle 69-66, and they also reeled off six consecutive wins from Feb. 4-23. Still, there is ample evidence California misses the depth Solomon provided up front, even with efficient freshman David Kravish sliding into the frontcourt alongside senior Harper Kamp. The team's Pomeroy ranking has slid from 16th to 22nd in that span, and losses at Colorado and Stanford in the season's final two games cost Cal a chance to win the conference regular season. With two of the conference's top five players in versatile Jorge Gutierrez (a debatable pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year, statistically speaking) and underrated sharpshooting wing Allen Crabbe, the Golden Bears still head to L.A. as the favorites--but not quite as prohibitively so as the numbers might suggest.

The contenders: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Washington
The Huskies can add just their second outright conference title of the past 59 years to the Hec Ed rafters and may have boosted their chances of making the NCAA tournament, but winning the regular season did little to help them in L.A. If Washington reaches the semifinals, one of Arizona and UCLA likely awaits, and those teams outscored conference foes by 0.10 and 0.09 points per possession, respectively. The Huskies, who were blown out at Colorado and at Oregon, boast a more pedestrian +0.07 efficiency margin. Thanks to the interior presence of 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye, Washington defended about as well as anyone in the Pac-12. However, the Huskies' offensive attack was not as robust as two Player of the Year candidates (sophomore wing Terrence Ross and guard Tony Wroten, the conference Freshman of the Year) would seem to indicate. The streaky Ross was middling from downtown in Pac-12 games, making 34.3 percent of his threes, and Wroten is a volume scorer whose best offense was often rebounding and putting back his own misses. Washington has one lights-out shooter in sophomore reserve C.J. Wilcox (41.2 percent from three) but needs role players Abdul Gaddy (31.4 percent) and Darnell Gant (32.8 percent) to find the range, especially against zone defenses.

Arizona was neither as good as a spot in the preseason rankings nor as bad as appeared in an exhibition loss to D-II Seattle Pacific University. After more early scares at home, Sean Miller pared his rotation, dropping center Kyryl Natyazhko and making burly, 6-7 Jesse Perry the replacement for the departed Derrick Williams. Despite lacking size (freshman reserve Angelo Chol is the only regular taller than 6-9), the Wildcats were second in the conference in per-possession defense. However, they found open shots beyond the arc more difficult to come by without the threat of Williams in the paint. Still, senior guard Kyle Fogg made 43.2 percent of his threes and forward Solomon Hill emerged as a go-to threat thanks to his ability to beat bigger, slower defenders off the dribble. Ultimately, Arizona's fate in this tournament--and chances of an at-large bid--hinge on mistake-prone freshman point guard Josiah Turner, who has yet to live up to big expectations.

Like the Wildcats, the Bruins needed a couple of months to sort things out. A big part of that was moving forward without Reeves Nelson, who was tossed from the team, a decision that makes far more sense in the wake of last week's George Dohrmann expose in Sports Illustrated. With the Wear twins and Joshua Smith, UCLA still has the conference's best frontcourt. Smith is a wild card in this tournament, as capable of scoring an efficient 20 points as he is of spending the entire night in foul trouble due to his horrendous conditioning. The Bruins' guards are also up and down. When Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson and Tyler Lamb hit from the perimeter, UCLA can beat anyone in the conference.

During Dana Altman's two years at the helm, Oregon has risen from tied for eighth in the conference in Ernie Kent's final season to tied for third. The Ducks too have improved as the season has gone on, integrating multiple transfers into the lineup. Most notable among the group is senior guard Devoe Joseph, my pick for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Joseph's 118.1 Offensive Rating was third among conference players who used at least 20 percent of their team's possessions. Joseph is supported by a fleet of capable role players. Tony Woods is one of the conference's better shot blockers, Olu Ashaolu a top rebounder, Garrett Sim a top three-point shooter and E.J. Singler a quiet all-around threat. Don't overlook junior forward Carlos Emory, who made a remarkable 69.2 percent of his two-point attempts in conference play. Oregon's lone losses in the second half of the season were by one point at Colorado and by three points at Cal. So the Ducks head to Los Angeles as the conference's hottest team.

The dark horses: Colorado, Oregon State and Stanford
Tad Boyle earned Coach of the Year consideration for leading a team picked 11th in College Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 to a sixth-place finish. Colorado benefited quite a bit from home-court advantage at altitude in Boulder, going 8-1. On the road, the Buffaloes were a much more pedestrian 3-6, beating the conference's three worst teams. So unless Boyle can find a way to elevate the Staples Center, Colorado may struggle to advance beyond the quarterfinals. Still, the Buffaloes are building something solid. Though they lose three senior starters, including All-Pac-12 Second-Team Pick Carlon Brown, they could contend if high-energy forward Andre Roberson (my pick for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year) sticks around for his junior year to join the talented freshman backcourt of quicksilver Askia Booker and well-rounded Spencer Dinwiddie.

Oregon State and Stanford both failed to translate solid non-conference play once the calendar turned, finishing seventh and eighth in the conference. The Cardinal was feisty at times, including Sunday's win over rival California, but saw Pac-12 foes have far more success against a defense that looked elite early in the season. Stanford's offense was dependent on senior forward Josh Owens. When opponents took Owens away with double-teams, only freshman guard Chasson Randle proved capable of creating his own offense in efficient fashion.

The Beavers were slightly better in conference play than their 7-11 record would indicate, getting outscored by just 0.02 points per possession. They suffered some tough losses, including a one-point heartbreaker against rival Oregon. Still, Pac-12 opponents torched the Oregon State defense, making 51.8 percent of their twos and 39.8 percent of their threes. Beyond the conference's leading scorer, athletic guard Jared Cunningham, the Beavers lacked the firepower to keep up.

The rest: Arizona State, USC, Utah and Washington State
There's a fair bit of variation within this group, ranging from occasionally competitive (the Cougars) to historically awful (the Trojans and Utes). Washington State has the talent to beat Oregon State and give rival Washington a scare. Junior Brock Motum, the conference's Most Improved Player, made a case for Player of the Year consideration by using a robust 31.9 percent of the Cougs' possessions in conference play with a remarkable .588 True Shooting Percentage. Motum's size and shooting ability allow him to get off a shot whenever he wants. Alas, Motum often got little offensive support and opponents beat the WSU zone over the top by making 38.7 percent of their threes in conference play.

Arizona State already capped the season with a highlight win by beating Arizona on the season's final day. The Sun Devils have two nice pieces in sophomore center Jordan Bachynski and junior guard Trent Lockett. The 7-2 Bachynski has developed into a threat in the post, while Lockett can score one-on-one and is a 42.0 percent shooter from downtown. Nobody else on Arizona State poses much of a threat to opponents, however.

That Utah reached three conference wins, matching their non-conference total, was borderline miraculous. Arizona State, Stanford and Washington State all stumbled in Salt Lake City. Still, the Utes were outscored by 0.20 points per trip, even worse than USC. They got rocked by 46 points in last Saturday's regular-season finale at Oregon. Junior center Chris Washburn was the only Ute with an Offensive Rating above 100, and somehow Utah was relatively worse at the defensive end of the floor.

The battered Trojans might not lament the likely end of their season on Wednesday. Point guard Maurice Jones has logged 38.1 minutes a night as USC's primary ballhandler, leading to ugly shooting percentages. Sophomore forward Garrett Jackson is the Trojans' only other Pac-12-caliber starter left after DeWayne Dedmon, Jio Fontan and Aaron Fuller were all lost to season-ending injuries. The only good news is USC beat Utah by 17 at home to avoid a winless conference season.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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