mar 7, 2017 | clay fowler | inland valley daily bulletin-LA Daily news | ARTICLE LINK
There is hardly a layer of the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament without intrigue.
The top three teams in the conference standings are fighting with each other — and the country’s elite teams — for critical position in the NCAA tournament. Cal and USC are trying to ensure they simply make the field of 68.
Utah probably needs to win the Pac-12 tournament to make the NCAA tournament, something not entirely out of reach for the No. 4 seed.
Top seed Oregon, which shared the regular-season conference championship with Arizona, has the path of least resistance to the final.
No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 3 seed UCLA are on the same side of the bracket, presenting more risk but the potential for more reward from the NCAA Tournament committee. A possible semifinal matchup between the two of the top 10 teams in the country gives each one more opportunity for a schedule-strengthening victory.
USC, which had beaten UCLA four consecutive times before losing by 32 at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 18, could practically ensure its inclusion in the NCAA Tournament with a win over the Bruins in the quarterfinals.
A fast-fading Cal team likely needs a deeper run than that, but a first-round win will draw a matchup with Utah, the weakest of the teams that received a bye.
The stakes are high and the possibilities are many in Las Vegas this week.
TEAM TO WATCH
Fowler: USC may have the right combination of motivation and ability to make a deep run in the conference tournament. If the sixth-seeded Trojans can beat Washington for a third time, they may catch a UCLA team in the quarterfinals with a less-than-100 percent TJ Leaf. Should it face Arizona in the semifinals, USC has reason to believe it can compete after giving the Wildcats a scare at Galen Center on Jan. 23, when it cut a 23-point deficit to three before eventually losing.
Kaufman: The bubble for California has not quite burst, but the Golden Bears will likely need to advance to the finals Saturday to secure an at-large berth for the NCAA Tournament. Of the 125 brackets compiled by the bracketology aggregator Bracket Matrix, only five have Cal in the field of 68. Even more so than bubble counterpart USC, Cal heads to Las Vegas with some work to do.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Fowler: Lonzo Ball has kept us wondering all season what he has in reserve. The UCLA freshman point guard, who said after the regular-season finale that the season is “just now starting,” has a penchant for the dramatic, giving us reason to think he may take his game to another level in the postseason. He did lead Chino Hills High School to a 35-0 record, a California state title and a No. 1 national ranking last season.
Kaufman: It seems Arizona guard Allonzo Trier has hit his stride in recent weeks after he was suspended for the first 19 games of the season for a positive PED test. The 6-foot-5 sophomore has averaged 23 points over the past four games, including a season-high 28 points against UCLA, and could help give the Wildcats a lift in the top-heavy field.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Fowler: Cal versus Utah, a potential quarterfinal matchup not involving any of the big three teams in the Pac-12, could be the most interesting for how it relates to the NCAA Tournament. Utah is the No. 4 seed, but isn’t currently projected to make the big dance in any of the 107 bracket projections tracked by Bracket Matrix. Cal is one of the last four in, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. This under-the-radar game has big stakes for these two.
Kaufman: For the past two seasons, USC and UCLA have met in the first round. The Trojans won handily last season, while the Bruins did so in 2015. The teams may again meet, this time in the quarterfinals, so long as USC handles Washington on Wednesday night.
Fowler: Colorado quietly won eight of its past 11 games of the regular season, losing only at Cal and Oregon before dropping one at home to Utah. If they advance to the quarterfinals, the Buffaloes will face Arizona, which beat them by single digits in Tucson. Potential semifinal opponent UCLA shot 57 percent from the field and 61 percent from 3-point range when it won at Colorado this season.
Kaufman: Like the top trio of Oregon, Arizona and UCLA, Utah has a first-round bye and has been playing well. It is on a three-game winning streak, including a 30-point rout last week of Cal. It also has a lot on the line. NIT-bound otherwise, the Utes need to win the conference tournament as a last attempt at making the Big Dance for a third consecutive season.
Fowler: Oregon’s 27-point win in its only meeting with Arizona this season is such an anomaly for the Wildcats, it almost seems too good to be true. Oregon shot 65 percent from the field and made 16 of 25 from 3-point range Feb. 4 in Eugene, numbers it won’t duplicate against the team that defended the 3 better than anyone during conference play. Look for Arizona to edge Oregon in the final, 77-73.
Kaufman: Oregon has won the Pac-12 Tournament twice in the past four seasons, including last March, and Dana Altman has another team capable of running through the field unscathed. The top-seeded Ducks also have a favorable path to the title game. They would not have to face Arizona or UCLA until Saturday. Look for Oregon to edge the Bruins on Saturday, 86-83.