The Pac-10 Basketball Tournament

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A Little History

The original Pac-10 tournament started in 1987, but was canceled after only four years due to "poor attendance and low revenues".  (Actually, the original tournament was a best-of-three series between the PCC North and South winners, held between 1923-55, but that's neither here nor there.)  Having attended several Pac-10 tournament games myself, this does not shock me.  However, after taking more than a decade off, conference officials remained jealous of other conference tournaments that actually made money and drew fans, and so decided in 2001 to start up again.

This, of course, did not please everyone.  Both Lute Olson and Mike Montgomery were staunch opponents of the tournament, which they claimed overburdened student athletes with more games to play, tired out the best teams just when they wanted to rest up for the NCAA Tournament, and cheapened the conference championship that was won over the course of an 18-game round-robin.  Indeed, since the conference already played a balanced, home-and-home full round-robin, wouldn't holding a tournament to determine the league champion be redundant?

Well, it was never really about that.  It was always about money and exposure.

"We are the only conference other than Ivy League that doesn't have a post-season tournament," said Jim Muldoon, assistant commissioner for the Pac-10. "During the last week of the season we drop into a black hole when all of the other conferences are playing in their tournaments."

This was not a convincing argument for Mike Montgomery, whose teams were used to resting up for the tournament:

"So, what, we just do what everyone else does?" Montgomery said Monday. "Is that the rule of thumb?"

I guess it is.  So has exposure increased?  Now, instead of the last week of the regular season, in which one team may have already wrapped up the conference title, we get a 4-day tournament where everyone had a shot at the title.  Of course, most of those games are played way too late for East Coasters to stay up for, and that's if they could even watch them, which is unlikely, given that they're all broadcast by Fox Sports Net.  Nationally, the conference gets one title game on CBS.  That's it.  Hardly seems worth it, don't you think?

Oh, but conference officials were careful to ensure that academic concerns remained a priority.

The format of the tournament will also differ from its previous capacity. Only the top-eight Pac-10 teams will participate in the men's tournament. This move was made in order to limit class time missed by players, which was a major concern in the past. If it returns, the tournament can be played on a Thursday through Saturday schedule.

This is a nice gesture to those who want to believe in the myth of the student-athlete, nothing more.  If academics were really a concern, why did the women's tournament invite all 10 teams?  Don't the ladies have classes and midterms as well?  And if academics were really a concern, why did the men's tournament expand to 10 teams four years later?  Perhaps academics aren't really a concern after all...

Home-Court Advantage?

In any case, the tournament is here, and it looks to be a fixture in the near future.  It's also a fixture at the Staples Center, where it has resided since it was resurrected in 2002.  Many have idly wondered, 'With NBA arenas in Oakland, Seattle, Phoenix and Portland, why doesn't the location rotate?'  Well, besides needing a sweetener to get UCLA's support behind the tournament (the Pac-10 needed 8 votes to approve the tournament -- Stanford and Arizona dissented), there's the matter of the 'financially lucrative' package that Fox pays the conference for broadcasting rights; don't think that with all that money doesn't come a say where the tournament is held, and LA is quite convenient for them.

Of course, such an arrangement might perhaps lend an unfair home-court advantage to UCLA and USC, one that they didn't necessarily earn through their play in the regular season.  So, I did a little research to see whether the LA schools have, in fact, benefited from a home-court advantage over the years.  As it turns out, I think there is some evidence that they have, especially USC.

If you look at the 6 'upsets'** that have occurred over the past 7 years, 4 of them have been pulled off by LA teams (3 by USC itself).  And while UCLA pulled off a spectacular 8 over 1 upset, they were also victim to the same fate a few years later; USC has never been upset in the tournament.  Moreover, 5 of the 7 tournament finals have featured either USC or UCLA (though, interestingly, never both); the other two were 1 v 2 matchups.  And while UCLA has made it to the finals twice as a No. 1 seed (winning both times) USC had made it three times despite never having been seeded higher than 3rd (of course, they lost all three times).  While it's hard to make a rock-solid case for home-court advantage from this relatively small sample size, it sure seems clear to me that USC has enjoyed some LA home cooking over the years.

**see below for my definition of an 'upset'

A Little Help To Get Off The Bubble

(Note:  when I talk about Pac-10 tournament history in subsequent sections, I'm only talking about post-2002 history.  I don't consider the 80's tournament at all, mostly because records for that event are really hard to find for free on the internet.)

For most major conferences, the conference tournament is a rather redundant affair.  All of the top teams are already going to the NCAA Tournament, and even with some early round upsets, it's very rare to see a tournament winner that hadn't already locked up a bid to the big dance anyway.  There are exceptions (Georgia just last year, where the Bulldogs, winners of 4 conference games all season, suddenly won 4 games in 4 days to grab an improbable invitation to the tournament), but these are very, very rare.

And so it goes with the Pac-10 tournament.  Pretty much every year, by the time the championship game rolls around, both participants know they're in the NCAAs, win or lose.  The one exception was 2003, when No. 5-seeded Oregon, very probably in the tournament anyway (22-9, 10-8 in the conference), knocked off No. 7 USC (13-16, 6-12 in the conference), foiling the Trojans' one shot at the postseason.

For the most part, the only real drama in major conference tournaments is in regards to the 'bubble teams', those squads with iffy NCAA credentials who just need another good win or two to secure their bid, and for whom an unexpected bad loss could relegate them to the NIT.  So, to judge the success of the Pac-10 tournament, one major criteria would be to see if it has helped or hurt the conference in terms of bubble teams and the overall number of bids?

Honestly, I'd say it's had basically no effect whatsoever.  For the most part, good teams got in, even if they were bounced in the first round, and mediocre teams did not, even if they had won a game or two.  Recent NIT teams from the Pac-10 include Oregon '04 (15-12, 9-9 Pac-10), Oregon State '05 (17-14, 8-10 Pac-10) and California '08 (16-15, 6-12 Pac-10) -- in other words, mediocre teams that all deserved the NIT bid they got (FYI, all three of those teams won their opening round Pac-10 tournament game, and it helped not a one).

In 7 years, I can find just two instances of bubble games in the Pac-10.  Last year, Arizona State came into the tourney with a 19-11 record, but was just 9-9 in the conference.  A win over USC would have given them 20 on the year, and just might have gotten them into the NCAAs.  Instead, they lost, making a run to the NIT quarterfinals instead.  However, the only 'true' bubble game occured back in 2006, when Arizona (18-11, 11-7) faced Stanford (15-12, 11-7) in the opening round.  One could make an NCAA argument for both teams, although probably Arizona was in and Stanford was out were there no Pac-10 tournament.  In any case, Arizona beat the Cardinal and went to the NCAAs, while Stanford "enjoyed" the NIT.

And this year?  While USC could conceivably hold out some hope of winning a couple games, losing in the finals, and maybe possibly securing an at-large bid, those odds seem slim.  The only real bubble team this year is Arizona, who currently has just a 19-12 record (9-9 Pac-10), but against a very strong schedule.  Maybe they're in if they lose to Arizona State on Thursday, but probably not.  The real question; if they lose and are relegated to the NIT, could they look back and say, "we woulda been fine had there been no tournament"?  A tough question to answer, one that you can never really know the answer to.

So Who's Gonna Win This Thing, Anyway?

Forced to pick a winner in this year's bracket, I'd go with UW or UCLA.  The No. 1 or No. 2 seeds have capture five of the seven titles, with lower-seeded Oregon (No. 5 in 2003, No. 4 in 2007) winning the other two.  With Oregon seeded 10th this year and clearly the worst team in the conference, I'd be at least mildly surprised if someone other than the Huskies or Bruins walked away with the automatic bid.

Overall, No. 1 seeds have a 12-4 record in the tournament, with No. 2 seeds right behind at 11-5.  It's a big dropoff to No. 3 seeds, who are just 9-7, though No. 3 seeds at least have the distinction of having made it through to the second round every year.  While No. 7 seeds are 6-7 all-time, and No. 8's are 3-7, No. 6 seeds are a "perfect" 0-7.  A good sign for the Bears on Thursday night?

Cannon Fodder

Interestingly, although the Pac-10 tournament is a zero-sum game, just three teams have losing tournament records since 2002.  Collectively, the rest of the league has been beating up on Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona State for 7 straight years now.  Combined, those three teams are just 4-16, providing plenty of first-round gimmies for Arizona and UCLA.  Actually, considering their seeding, Oregon State hasn't done too bad, going 2-5 in the tournament despite being the lower-seeded team all 7 times.  When the 8th-seeded Beavers take on the 9th-seeded Cardinal tonight, it will be their first-ever tournament game as a favorite.  Hope they can handle the pressure.

On the flip side, Arizona State has had a really tough time at the Staples Center.  Sure, they've only been a favored seed twice (No. 4 in 2003, No. 8 in 2006), but they're 0-6 all-time in the tournament.  They'll be looking for their first win tomorrow against Arizona, a team that really, really could use a win to lock up an NCAA tournament bid.  Should be a good, competitive game; 4-5 games usually are.

Upset Special

Of course, one of the things everyone loves about single-elimination tournaments is the unpredictable upsets that occur.  However, if we define an upset as a win by a team seeded at least 2 spots below the loser (which would include a No. 4 over a No. 1, but not a No. 5 over a No. 4), the Pac-10 tournament has produced just six such upsets over its last seven years in Los Angeles.

Top seeds have bitten the dust in the opening round twice (UCLA over Arizona in 2003 and Cal over UCLA in 2007), with both of those games going to overtime.  Second seeds have also fallen twice to seven seeds (USC over Stanford in 2003 and Oregon over Washington in 2006), and in 2003, we were treated to an unpredictable tournament full of upsets.  Furious opening round action saw seed Nos. 1, 2 and 4 all lose in the opening round, leaving No. 3 California as the favorite in the remaining field.  Of course, Cal would eat it the next night against No. 7 USC, leaving No. 5 Oregon as the highest seed remaining and a clear path to the crown.

In fact, I was surprised to see no upsets in either of Oregon's lower-seed runs to the title, but upsets elsewhere in the bracket helped pave their way both times.  In 2003, No. 5 Oregon only had to defeat No. 4 Arizona State, No. 8 UCLA and No. 7 USC to claim the title, while in 2007, No. 4 Oregon took down No. 5 Arizona, No. 8 California, and No. 3 USC.  These two years are part of the reason Oregon has, by far, the best record of any team in the Pac-10 tournament at 10-4, with 2 tournament wins.  UCLA (7-5, 2 wins) and Arizona (8-6, 1 win) are a distant second.

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Anyway, that's a brief rundown of some Pac-10 tournament history and miscellaneous errata.  Feel free to use this post as an open thread for tonight's opening-round games pitting Oregon State vs. Stanford and Washington State vs. Oregon.  First game tips off at 6pm!

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