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2014 Pac-12 Tournament Preview: No. 4 Arizona looks to cap dominant campaign

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After three incredibly lean seasons, the Pac-12 has looked more formidable for much of the 2013-14 season. For some that may not be easy to see, as there’s just one conference team (No. 4 Arizona) ranked in the national polls. But the conference has improved, as evidenced by just how much is on the line in Las Vegas. The top three seeds, Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State, will certainly hear their names called on Selection Sunday and Oregon’s well on its way after knocking off the Wildcats last Saturday.

The question that will be asked quite often at the MGM Grand Garden Arena: how much work do the Pac-12 bubble teams have to do in order to ensure themselves of a spot in the NCAA tournament? Fans of California, Colorado and Stanford will ask this question, and it’s anyone guess what the right answer is. And they won’t be alone in this mission, as Utah can earn another shot at Arizona with a win over Washington in the first round. Larry Krystkowiak’s team reached the semifinals of last year’s event and played the Wildcats tough in both meetings, but thanks to their non-conference strength of schedule the Utes have the steepest climb of the Pac-12’s bubble teams.

Outside of Arizona, which will be a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, there’s a lot to be decided in Las Vegas. And even though these teams aren’t in the at-large discussion, both Washington (C.J. Wilcox) and Oregon State (Roberto Nelson) have guards capable of getting scalding hot from the field. Instead of hoping to get two or three teams into the NCAA tournament field as they have in recent years, the Pac-12 finds itself working to get (at least) half of its teams into the Big Dance. And that will make for an incredible four days at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

When: March 12 – 15

Where: Las Vegas, Nev. (MGM Grand Garden Arena)

Final: March 15, 6:00 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Favorite: No. 4 Arizona

Sean Miller’s team finished three games ahead of the pack, and their defense was a big reason why. The nation’s best defense from an efficiency standpoint, Arizona limited conference foes to 39.5% shooting from the field and 33.0% shooting from beyond the arc. Simply put there are times when the Wildcats simply decide that the opponent isn’t scoring, no matter how hard they try. With their length, athleticism and effort, Arizona’s controlled multiple games in which they haven’t put up eye-popping offensive numbers.

As for that offense, this was the area in which Arizona had the biggest adjustment to make in the aftermath of Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury but they were still third in the conference in offensive efficiency. T.J. McConnell has been a great fit at the point, combining with Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson to form one of the nation’s best perimeter tandems. Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski lead the way in the front court, and Arizona’s ability to hit the offensive glass (35.1% offensive rebounding percentage) factored into their efficiency rating. If Johnson and Gabe York can hit perimeter shots at a decent clip, look out.

And if they lose?: Oregon

Shocked to see the 7-seed in this spot, huh? Well, that position on the bracket says more about Oregon’s 3-8 start to conference play than their current seven-game win streak. Dana Altman seems to have a perimeter rotation he’s comfortable with, as Johnathan Loyd, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste have emerged as the primary options. In the front court Elgin Cook’s earned more playing time and Mike Moser’s playing his best basketball of the season. They’ll have to win four games in as many days to repeat as tournament champions, but given the way Oregon’s playing right now it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Ducks pulled it off.

Other Contenders:

  • UCLA: With first team All-Pac-12 selections Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson being the headlines, Steve Alford has more than enough perimeter talent to win this event. The question is the front court, with the Wear twins (David and Travis) and Tony Parker needing to be consistent on both ends. This trio doesn’t have to be world-beaters, but UCLA can’t afford to have all three struggling if they’re to win the title.
  • Arizona State: Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bachynski and first team All-Pac-12 guard Jahii Carson have led the way all season long for the Sun Devils, who are the three-seed in the tournament. And if Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic can continue to give Herb Sendek quality minutes, Arizona State can win three straight games.

Sleeper: California

The Golden Bears lost three straight before beating Colorado in overtime on Saturday, providing Mike Montgomery’s team with a much-needed confidence boost before the conference tournament. Justin Cobbs will lead the way, and if their young guards (Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews) can be productive in supplementary roles, Cal will be a team to keep an eye on.

Deeper Sleeper: Colorado

Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes had some major adjustments to make when Spencer Dinwiddie was lost for the season with a torn ACL in January. The two players who have stepped up the most in his absence are guard Askia Booker and forward Josh Scott, with the latter earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. If Xavier Johnson can consistently produce on the offensive end, Colorado can make some noise in Vegas.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Josh Huestis, Stanford: Dwight Powell was the first team All-Pac-12 selection but it’s the versatile Huestis who is one of the league’s best defenders.
  • Delon Wright, Utah: Wright is one of the most versatile players around, as he led the Utes in points and assists and is second on the team in rebounds.
  • DaVonte’ Lacy, Washington State: The Cougars’ lack of team success is one reason why Lacy doesn’t receive more attention. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
  • Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: A first team All-Pac-12 performer, Nelson’s scoring a conference-best 20.6 points per game along with 3.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game.

CBT Prediction: No. 4 Arizona wins its first conference tournament title since 2002.

Best Pac-10/12 Tournament Memory: Isaiah Thomas + Gus Johnson = Magic (2011)

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.

VIDEO: New Mexico loses game on blown call by officials

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Nothing like a nice, controversial finish to get the blood flowing.

New Mexico was on the receiving end of a rule misinterpretation on Saturday afternoon, and that interpretation likely cost the Lobos a win over San Diego State and, arguably, a shot at the MWC regular season title.

Here’s the situation: New Mexico is up by three with 12 seconds left and the ball under their own basket. Their allowed to run the baseline, so Craig Neal calls a play where the inbounder throws the ball to a player running out of bounds.

Totally league as long as the player establishes out of bounds before touching the ball. The referee rules that he doesn’t.

Here’s the video:

The problem?

According to the rules, Xavier Adams — the player receiving the pass from Cullen Neal — only needed one foot on the floor out of bounds in order to establish himself as an inbounder that was able to catch that ball. He got one foot down (see the picture above), but the referees appeared to rule that he needed to have both feet down.

That was incorrect, according to the Mountain West office.

“While this was a very close judgment call made at full speed, it has been determined after careful review of slow-motion video replays the call was in fact incorrect,” the league said in a release. “The New Mexico player did get one foot down (two feet are not required) out-of-bounds before receiving the ball, thus establishing his location in accordance NCAA Basketball Playing Rules 4.23.1.a and 7.1.1.  By rule, the officials were not permitted to go to the monitor during the game to review this play.”

And here’s the kicker: When SDSU got the ball back, they hit a three to send the game into overtime, where the Aztecs won. But if New Mexico had won this game, they’d be sitting at 8-2 in MWC play, one game behind SDSU in the loss column with a return game against them in The Pit.

Instead, they’re now three games back with seven to play, meaning that the race is effectively over.

It’s tough to blame the referees here — it was a bang-bang call that is only clear in slow-motion replay — but man, that’s a big call to miss.