Ah, the Pac-10 Men’s tournament. Thrilling, season altering finale to the conference season or unnecessary sacrifice to our television network overlords that dilutes the regular season round robin? Cal has had some of their best, most exciting games in recent memory in the tournament, from Leon Powe’s Herculean performance against Oregon in 2006 to Cal’s shock upset of eventual final four participant UCLA in 2007.
Here's the schedule:
|First Round: Wednesday, March 10
|#8 Oregon vs. #9 Washington St.
|8 p.m. PT
|Quarterfinals: Thursday, March 11
|#4 Arizona vs. #5 UCLA
|12 p.m. PT
|#1 Cal vs. Oregon/Washington St.
|2:30 pm. PT
|#2 Arizona State vs. #7 Stanford
|6 p.m. PT
|#3 Washington vs. #6 Oregon State
|8:30 p.m. PT
|Semifinals: Friday, March 12
|6 p.m. PT
|8:30 p.m. PT
|Championship Game: Saturday, March 13
|3 p.m. PT
But this will be a tournament like no other. Only Cal has any reasonable claim to an at-large tournament berth, and only Arizona St. and Washington will be able to watch the selection show with anything resembling hope. Perennial powers Arizona and UCLA know that their hopes end with a loss. As much as traditionalists (justifiably) complain about the conference tournament, it’s here to stay and has added relevance this year. So with that in mind, who can actually win this thing? Let’s take a look:
The Extreme Long Shots: Washington St., Oregon, Stanford and Oregon St.
I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which the above four teams walk away with a trip to the NCAAs. WSU and Oregon just aren’t good enough to string together four wins in a row, particularly when they need to play one game against each other late Wednesday night and then turn around and play a rested Cal team early in the day and then win two more games if they survive that far. Oregon St. is playing much better than early in the season and I might have convinced myself that the Beavers are a dark horse candidate. But OSU drew a Washington squad in the first round that beat the Beavers soundly twice, is riding a hot streak, and desperately needs to win the whole tournament. Stanford faces a similarly poor matchup against Arizona St. The Sun Devils will also be desperate for wins, and unless Stanford has magically grown a defender capable of stopping Eric Boateng (a combined 14-14 for 32 total points in two games against Stanford this year) the Cardinal will be leaving L.A. early as well.
Dark horses: Arizona and UCLA
(Note: A big thanks goes out to OJ Mayo, Tim Floyd and the entire USC Athletic Department. If USC were participating in the Pac-10 tournament they would have been the 5th seed matched up against Arizona, and Cal might have ended up with another painful game against the stifling Trojan defense. One less scary team for Cal fans to worry about!)
Arizona vs. UCLA is the most intriguing first round game if only because of the history of the two teams. Arizona has the longest active NCAA tournament appearance streak in the nation and UCLA has the strongest history of basketball success on the West Coast…and neither will make the NCAA tournament without winning the Pac-10 tournament.
I hesitate to call UCLA a dark horse because that implies that they might win the whole thing. UCLA has shown very little consistency this year and their record is perhaps inflated from a number of close wins that include two buzzer beaters. It’s hard to see them beating an Arizona team they’ve already lost to twice, then winning two more. But they’ll be playing very close to home and they have a couple of players who are capable of getting hot. UCLA is a long shot, but the neurotic Cal fan in me can’t count them out until they lose, and based on the draw alone they have a better shot than the four long shots listed above.
Arizona is probably the team that scares Cal fans the most. I’m confident in Cal’s ability to beat whichever team survives the play-in game. But if Arizona knocks off UCLA I’ll be nervous about the semi-finals. Arizona isn’t exactly setting the world on fire right now (three straight victories by 5 points or less, one of which was in double OT over USC and required a huge gift from the refs) but they appear to have righted the ship after losing 5 of 6 to remove themselves from the regular season title race. Maybe I shouldn’t fear Arizona, since Cal’s four point loss on the road came without Markhuri Sanders-Frison and with a not-completely-healthy Jorge, and because Cal blitzed the Wildcats with those players later in the season. But Cal may be without Jorge next week, and if so I’ll watch this hypothetical matchup with white knuckles.
The Contenders: Arizona St. and Washington
If they both win their first round games the semi-final matchup between ASU and UW will be the best, most important game of the tournament, hands down. Nearly every bracketology projection I can get my hands on has both Arizona St. and Washington listed right on the cusp of making the field. Beating Stanford and Oregon St. again won’t mean anything to the selection committee, meaning that the semi-final would be a virtual elimination game. Both teams blew each other out on their home court, so I have absolutely no clue who wins this game. I can’t wait! Personally I’m slightly more afraid of facing Washington in the finals, although the Huskies are significantly less intimidating away from Hec. Ed.
The Favorite: California
As much as I don’t like proclaiming Cal the favorite in anything, the fact is that Cal has shown themselves to be the class of this conference. Three of Cal’s five losses were close, back and forth games that could have gone either way, and the two teams that managed to soundly beat the Bears are on the opposite side of the bracket. Cal is the best team and they got the best draw, and they should not be lacking motivation. Since most everybody is assuming Cal will make the tournament, what impact will these games have on the Bears?
Lose in the first round to Oregon or Washington St.: The Doomsday scenario. Cal still probably makes the tournament, but there will be a glimmer of doubt that will make Selection Sunday torturous. Plus, Cal will probably be punished with a low seed (10? 11? 12?) and a tougher first round game.
Lose in the 2nd round to UCLA or Arizona: This would probably give Cal an 8 or 9 seed and wouldn’t be much of an improvement. My main hope with the NCAA draw: Avoid the 8-9 game. I don’t want a potential second round matchup with Kansas or Syracuse. That was painful enough the first time. Plus, if the loss came to UCLA, that would be a double heaping of pain. Please make the Pac-10 finals Bears.
Lose in the finals: I could handle this scenario, especially if the loss came to Washington or Arizona St., two respectable teams. I think that would be good enough for Cal to grab a 7 seed, with the added fun of a 2nd Pac-10 team in the tournament. Ideal? No, but it could be worse, too.
Win the whole thing: This would present a fascinating decision to the selection committee. If Cal wins the Pac-10 tournament they can claim complete dominion over one of the power conferences. Any other year and that would be a three seed at worst. This year? That’s hard to say. If Cal won they would be riding a 7 game winning streak and they would be 10-1 in their last 11 games, potentially an important seeding factor. Depending on how ASU and UW do they would perhaps add another win or two over an RPI top 50 team. Farudo speculated that if Cal did all this they could end up with a 5 seed, which might even get the Bears to San Jose! It all comes down to what the committee values most. Do they give Cal credit for the toughest nonconference schedule in the nation, and for winning a traditional power conference despite a few key injuries? Do they punish Cal for no ‘marquee’ wins and a few bad losses? I’d like to think that Cal would end up with no worse than a 6 seed, but Cal has been punished with seeds and location enough in the past that I won’t get too optimistic.