The Pac-12 race this season had some similarities to the Mountain West race, in that there were two teams entering the season that many pegged to be the class of the conference. Arizona and UCLA, due in large part to the newcomers joining both programs, were thought by many to be far ahead of the other ten programs but the race didn’t exactly play out that way.
Ben Howland’s Bruins won the regular season title thanks not only to their talented freshmen but also due to the play of veterans who proved to be more useful than many anticipated. The Pac-12 race was tight all season, with Arizona, Oregon and even California having a shot at the Pac-12 crown. With that in mind look for the conference’s first weekend in Las Vegas to be just as unpredictable as most trips to Sin City. The only difference: someone goes home with the trophy and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Where: Las Vegas (MGM Grand Arena)
When: March 13th – March 16th
Final: March 16th, 11 p.m. (ESPN)
This is a group that’s had bouts with inconsistency, with a loss at Washington State last week being the most recent example of that. Drew led the Pac-12 in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, quite the turnaround given how things ended at North Carolina. Jordan Adams led the way for the freshmen to start the season, with Kyle Anderson and Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year Shabazz Muhammad hitting their stride as the season wore on. Those players, as well as Travis Wear, are the ones who will lead the way but UCLA will also need contributions from David Wear and Tony Parker inside.
And if they lose?: Arizona
The Wildcats were the best offensive team in the conference from an efficiency standpoint, which may come as a surprise to those who lament their lack of a “true” point guard. Sean Miller’s team has senior leadership in Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons, with Lyons being the one running the show, and sophomore Nick Johnson can be a factor on both ends of the floor.
A few keys for the Wildcats in Las Vegas: Lyons playing under control, the freshmen bigs holding their own inside and doing a better job of defending the three. Arizona was the worst team in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage defense, an interesting development when considering how good they’d been under Miller in the two season prior.
Other contenders: Oregon, California and Colorado are all capable of winning the tournament, with the Buffaloes needing to win four games in order to do so. Tad Boyle’s young team did just that last March, and in Spencer Dinwiddie and Andre Roberson he’s got two all-conference selections. (UPDATE: Roberson has been cleared to play.) Dominic Artis’ return makes Oregon a far better team when it comes to taking care of the basketball but they limp into the weekend after losing at both Colorado and Utah last week. As for the Golden Bears, Crabbe and Justin Cobbs form one of the league’s best perimeter tandems but they need consistent production from David Kravish and Richard Solomon inside if they’re to win.
Guards Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle are solid on the perimeter, and in Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell head coach Johnny Dawkins has two of the league’s better front court players as well. But will Stanford score as they did in wins over Utah and Cal to end the regular season? If so, the Cardinal may have a run left in them.
Deeper sleeper: Arizona State
With USC without the services of two big men this week it’s either the Sun Devils or Washington here. Despite their struggles of late (2-6 in their last eight games) take Arizona State, which is led by Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year Jahii Carson. Carson’s been a culture-changer of sorts for Herb Sendek’s program, and in senior Carrick Felix ASU has one of the best front court defenders around as well. The one concern: depth. Just six players average double-digit minutes, meaning that foul trouble will prove problematic as it did in their regular season finale at Arizona.
– G/F Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA): Third in the conference in scoring (18.3 ppg), Muhammad is the one Pac-12 player destined to end up in the 2013 NBA Draft lottery.
– G Allen Crabbe (California): Crabbe led the conference in scoring (18.6 ppg) but he’s doing more than that, grabbing five board or more in each of Cal’s last nine games.
– F Solomon Hill (Arizona): Don’t be fooled by the numbers (13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Hill is one of the league’s most versatile players.
– F Brock Motum (Washington State): This is the swan song for Motum, and while the Cougars haven’t performed well he’s been one of the best players in the league.
Prediction: The third time is the charm for Arizona, who gets past a UCLA team that swept the season series on the way to its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2002.