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March 9, 2010
Tournament Preview
Pac-10

by Kevin Pelton

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Pacific-10: March 10-13, all games Staples Center, Los Angeles

                 Qtrs    Semis    Final    Champ
1 California      100     89.1     74.0     47.1
3 Washington      100     85.2     48.9     24.0
2 Arizona St.     100     80.1     43.1     20.5
4 Arizona         100     53.4     12.2      3.5
5 UCLA            100     46.6      9.7      2.5
7 Stanford        100     19.9      4.9      1.0
6 Oregon St.      100     14.8      3.1      0.5
9 Washington St. 52.4      5.9      2.3      0.4
8 Oregon         47.6      4.9      1.8      0.3

There are no shortage of reasons why the Pac-10 has slipped to the bottom of the rankings of the NCAA's power conferences in 2009-10, but at the conclusion of the double-round-robin schedule, one of those issues has largely righted itself. Early on in conference play, it seemed possible that none of the Pac-10's teams might emerge from a pack (pun intended) around the .500 mark. Teams like UCLA and Oregon State, who struggled badly against lesser nonconference foes, managed to knock off the conference's presumed powers.

Ultimately, a clear pecking order emerged in the conference, and one that means the Pac-10 now stands a much better chance of getting at least one and possibly two at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament depending on how things play out at the Staples Center this week. California, having won the regular-season title, seems safely in no matter what. Both Arizona State and Washington reside firmly on the proverbial "bubble," but reaching the conference championship game should be enough to secure an invite to go dancing.

Everyone else--a group that numbers six teams and not seven because USC is ineligible for postseason play, including the Pac-10 Tournament, due to self-imposed recruiting sanctions--will have to win out to reach the NCAA Tournament. To maximize its chances come Selection Sunday, then, the conference will probably be hoping against upsets, especially in Thursday's quarterfinals. Fortunately for the Sun Devils and Huskies, log5-projections make them (along with the Golden Bears) overwhelming favorites to reach a semifinal matchup against each other.

Like the rest of the top of the conference, California looks better in the Pomeroy Rankings, sitting No. 16, than in the view of experts. Essentially, the disconnect seems to come from this: the numbers credit the Bears for being competitive in difficult non-conference road games at New Mexico and Ohio State, whereas humans only see a pair of losses (along with defeats at Kansas and to Syracuse as part of a brutal November and December slate). Washington is at No. 33 thanks to several lopsided home victories and Arizona State No. 37, a pair of rankings that would typically translate into at-large locks.

With a trio of terrific seniors on the perimeter led by Pac-10 Player of the Year Jerome Randle, Cal boasts the nation's fourth-best offense. The Bears have taken a more significant step forward at the defensive end, improving from No. 101 a year ago to No. 70 this year. Sophomore guard Jorge Gutierrez is disruptive at the defensive end, while center Jamal Boykin has been solid in the paint. Cal has been rolling lately, going 7-1 over the last eight games with statement wins at Haas Pavilion over the other two primary contenders in the Pac-10.

Shrugging off the loss of NBA-bound James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, Arizona State improved from 11-7 in conference play a year ago to 12-6 this year, earning Herb Sendek Coach of the Year honors. Junior guard Ty Abbott, who spent most of 2008-09 battling a devastating shooting slump, bounced back to emerge as the Sun Devils' best player, hitting 42.2 percent of his frequent three-point attempts. Senior Derek Glasser is Arizona State's emotional leader and one of the conference's best distributors. Still, the most important Sun Devil might be junior forward Rihards Kuksiks, whose ability to space the floor from the power forward position opens things up for his teammates and makes it difficult for opponents to give help.

Arizona State is 8-2 in its last 10 games, losing only at Cal and Washington in that span. Sendek's matchup zone has given opponents fits in a conference that generally struggles to shoot from distance, but the Bears have successfully outshot the Sun Devils in both head-to-head matchups, meaning Arizona State's best chance of winning the conference will come if Cal is knocked off before the finals.

Four weeks into conference play, Washington was a disappointing 3-5, but--stop me if you've heard this before--the Huskies found their stride down the stretch, going 8-2 the rest of the way. The biggest difference has been the consistent play of junior center Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who was benched for the second half of a loss at UCLA on Jan. 21, playing four total minutes. Bryan-Amaning has scored double-figures in seven of his last eight games, averaging 13.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg and shooting 62.7 percent in that span. Along with standout senior Quincy Pondexter, Bryan-Amaning gives the team a pair of legitimate threats in the post.

Defensively, Washington has improved since junior forward Justin Holiday made his way into the starting lineup and high-scoring guard Isaiah Thomas committed to the defensive end. Along with ballhawking guard Venoy Overton, that gives the Huskies three quality perimeter defenders, helping them match up with Cal. Overton also has a history of frustrating Glasser with his relentless defensive pressure. Depending on the way the game is whistled, however, Washington's pressure defense can translate into a Villanova-style parade to the free throw line for opponents.

It's going to take three straight wins in L.A. for Arizona to extend the nation's longest streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to 26 years, but the Wildcats have overachieved in Sean Miller's first year at the helm, moving in a positive direction after the turbulent end to Lute Olson's career. Arizona plays just three non-freshmen, and lost several highly touted recruits. That's put a lot of pressure on the team's top two players, freshman post Derrick Williams and senior point guard Nic Wise. Williams, the conference's Freshman of the Year, has been in an instant star in the paint, making 60.4 percent of his twos and living at the free throw line. Still, all that youth has left the Wildcats inconsistent.

As late as Feb. 4, UCLA was 6-4 in Pac-10 play, but the Bruins limped to the finish line by losing six of their final eight games. A zone defense that initially helped Ben Howland cover for his team's inability to execute his trademark man-to-man at anything near the level we've come to expect was eventually picked apart by opponents. UCLA's run seems to have been derailed by the poor class of 2008. Jrue Holiday left for the NBA after one year and Drew Gordon transferred early this season, leaving Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and J'mison Morgan from a class ranked the nation's best by Scout.com. Only Lee is a starter, and Anderson's inability to step up at the point has left him having to play out of position and limited Lee's effectiveness. Fortunately, this year's freshmen show more promise: Tyler Honeycutt is a phenomenal athlete and Reeves Nelson a physical post player. The Bruins will be the only team with the benefit of home-city advantage this year, but their fans may not be enthusiastic about the slight hope of salvaging the season with a Pac-10 Tournament run and Arizona is still a clear favorite in the 4-5 matchup even with UCLA getting half-credit for home court.

Your perspective on Oregon State depends on whether you look at John Gasaway's conference efficiency margins (which rank the Beavers a solid sixth in the Pac-10) or Ken Pomeroy's season-long metrics (which put Oregon State 10th). As I've hammered home to death, the Beavers are an enigma, as capable of beating Cal (they're the only team to do so since Feb. 4) as losing to Stanford at home two days later. The best news from Craig Robinson's second season was that his 1-3-1 defense proved quite stout with Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Seth Tarver (tops in the conference in steals) at the point. Oregon State ranked 59th in adjusted defensive efficiency (fourth in the Pac-10), but a dismal 216th on the offensive end, in large part due to horrific 28.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

On paper, Stanford should be a lock for the play-in game. The Cardinal boasts just two players (senior forward Landry Fields and sophomore guard Jeremy Green) who would start for most other teams in the conference. Still, thanks in large part to sweeping the Oregon schools twice, Stanford ended up winning a respectable seven conference games. Fields is surely the conference's most underrated player. Carrying an enormous offensive load, his numbers have been every bit the equal of Pondexter's. He ranks in the top 500 in 13 of the 15 statistical categories Pomeroy tracks. Fields is one of seven major-conference players with usage rates higher than 30 percent and Offensive Ratings of 110 or better. The other six: James Anderson, DeMarcus Cousins, Luke Harangody, Dominique Jones, Evan Turner and Greivis Vazquez. So if you haven't seen Fields play, try to do so before Arizona State likely dispatches of the Cardinal in the quarterfinals.

Washington State and Oregon will play each other Wednesday night for the right to face California in the quarterfinals in what could, according to all reports, be Ernie Kent's last game as head coach of the Ducks. Oregon finished in the conference's cellar for the second consecutive season, and for a school with the resources and recruiting base like the Ducks have, that's simply unacceptable. It will be a sad end too for Tajuan Porter, whose long-range bombs helped Oregon reach the Elite Eight during his freshman season. But Porter's shot selection never improved, and eventually people noticed how often Porter missed those attempts. He shot 35.7 percent on twos and 35.9 percent on threes this season.

Speaking of low shooting percentages, Klay Thompson posted a 48.2 percent True Shooting Percentage in Pac-10 play after starting the year on fire (his TS% against a weak non-conference slate was 61.4 percent). That's the biggest reason a Cougars season that started in fairly promising fashion unraveled into nine losses in the last 11 games. Just three Washington State players used more than 20 percent of the team's possessions (promising freshman Reggie Moore and sophomore center DeAngelo Casto were the others), so Ken Bone had nowhere else to turn when Thompson faltered.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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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