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March 9, 2011
Tournament Preview
Pac-10 Tournament

by Kevin Pelton

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Pac-10: March 9-12, all games at Staples Center in Los Angeles

                      Qtrs   Semis   Final   Champ
 3 Washington          100    70.5    45.1    28.8
 1 Arizona             100    82.3    48.9    24.7
 2 UCLA                100    82.0    38.8    19.9
 4 USC                 100    65.9    31.9    13.9
 5 California          100    34.1    15.0     5.7
 6 Washington St.      100    29.5    13.0     5.6
 8 Stanford           67.6    14.1     3.6     0.7
 7 Oregon             55.4    10.8     2.0     0.5
10 Arizona St.        44.6     7.3     1.1     0.2
 9 Oregon St.         32.4     3.6     0.5     0.06

If you were drawing up the formula for an exciting postseason conference tournament, you would probably start with a group of teams with relatively little separation from top to bottom. You would add a format that had most games played in a neutral site, with whatever home-court advantage that did exist favoring lower seeds. On top of that, matchup problems, teams finishing the season in different fashion than they started it and seeding that doesn't correspond to observed performance all figure to add intrigue.

The final Pac-10 Men's Basketball Tournament offers a little bit of everything. Historically, the Pac-10 has featured one of the most wide-open major-conference tournaments since reinstating postseason play in 2002. Since then, the Pac-10 has been won by a four seed, a five seed and a six seed. Just once in the last four years has the top team entering the tournament emerged victorious.

According to Ken Pomeroy's log-5 breakdown, Arizona has a one in four shot of bucking the trend and claiming the Pac-10's automatic berth. But it is Washington, which finished third in the conference after going 4-6 in its last 10 games, that has the best chance of winning--if the Huskies can get by a challenging first-round matchup with Washington State, which swept the regular-season rivalry in dominant fashion. Meanwhile, UCLA and USC both benefit to some extent from playing in their own backyard. The Trojans have a history of surprising Pac-10 Tournament runs, including winning their way into the tournament as the conference's sixth-best team just two years ago.

That may not add up to good news for a conference that has had a tough time earning respect in part because of its lack of dominant teams, but it does figure to translate into an exciting three days in Southern California.

Throughout the season, Arizona has been solid but unspectacular. The Wildcats don't have a single victory over a top-25 team to their credit, but their only bad loss came at Oregon State in the first weekend of Pac-10 play. Arizona went undefeated at home and won the conference outright despite a middling differential (+0.06 points per possession). The Wildcats boast far and away the league's most dominant force in Player of the Year Derrick Williams, whose 70.1 True Shooting Percentage ranks third in the country. Wiliams' shortcoming is that he can't pass the ball to himself, and occasionally Arizona's guards--especially shoot-first point man Mo Mo Jones--tend to forget about Williams. The Wildcats are much more effective when they go inside-out, taking advantage of a fleet of shooters on the perimeter. Arizona ranked 13th in the country by shooting 39.7 percent beyond the arc. The Wildcats were also excellent at defending the three-point line, yet as John Gasaway noted all season, they struggled inside the line. Opponents made 50.2 percent of their twos.

A middling 9-6 on January 9 after losing to USC, UCLA lost just twice more the rest of the season. The run has assured the Bruins a return to the NCAA Tournament. Now it's a question of how high a seed UCLA can grab. After a disastrous 2009-10 campaign, this year's Bruins squad has defended in typical Ben Howland fashion, stifling opponents inside the arc and giving them few three-point attempts. UCLA has two terrific perimeter defenders in stopper Malcolm Lee and rangy Tyler Honeycutt, while the trio of Reeves Nelson, Joshua Smith and shot-blocking specialist Anthony Stover controls the paint. At the other end, Smith is difficult to stop one-on-one and Nelson is efficient due to the combination of 60.5 percent two-point shooting and frequent trips to the line. The arrival of JC transfer Lazeric Jones and the development of holdover Jerime Andersen has given Howland two capable options at the point, allowing Lee to move off the ball. Turnovers are still a problem for the Bruins, but they were above average offensively during the Pac-10 season.

Washington has managed to frustrate both opponents and coach Lorenzo Romar with its Jekyll and Hyde play. After sweeping the Arizona schools at home, the Huskies stood 7-1 in conference play in late January. A loss at Washington State sent the team tumbling to three consecutive losses, and UW finished with two home defeats in three games after apparently righting the ship. The result is that Washington needs at least one win in Los Angeles to feel safe going into Selection Sunday. Despite the poor finish to the season, the Huskies were still far and away the conference's best team on a per-possession basis thanks to a series of blowout wins at home. The road was less friendly to Washington, which is dealing with severe depth issues. Guard Abdul Gaddy was lost for the year with a torn ACL and backup Venoy Overton will not play during the Pac-10 Tournament due to suspension, leaving Isaiah Thomas as the only scholarship point guard on the roster. (When asked who his backup point guard was, Romar replied that it was Thomas.) Undersized Thomas initially thrived after moving on the ball, but defenses adjusted and slowed him late in the season. Meanwhile, senior center Matthew Bryan-Amaning struggled to convert in the post, sending one of the nation's best offenses tumbling. When the Huskies make their threes, they are difficult to stop. If not, they can suffer through extended dry spells that could spell doom to their hopes of repeating as Pac-10 Tournament champs.

At the conclusion of the Pac-10 regular season, USC is arguably the conference's hottest team. The Trojans won five of their last six games, beating Arizona and sweeping the Northern California schools on the road as well as taking down Washington in Seattle. USC's finishing kick has been somewhat surprising to the extent that Kevin O'Neill has relied on a six-man rotation since freshman Bryce Jones decided to transfer. Underappreciated big men Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson anchor a stout defense that contests every shot and allows few second chances. Vucevic is also the Trojans' first option on offense, where he can score over smaller defenders or operate the offense from the high post. Otherwise, USC relies on the quickness of small guards Jio Fontan, Maurice Jones and Donte Smith. None of the Trojan guards are especially efficient, however. USC is the team that enters the Pac-10 Tournament with the best chance of playing its way into the NCAAs and will also benefit from playing just minutes away from its campus. The Trojans are a legitimate threat to win the whole thing.

Forced to rebuild after losing four starters, Mike Montgomery has steered California back into the upper half of the Pac-10. Junior guard Jorge Gutierrez, the most prominent returning player, has added scoring punch to his aggressive defense. Gutierrez scored double-figures in 10 straight games before being held to eight by rival Stanford in the regular-season finale; frequent trips to the free throw line helped make up for his middling shooting accuracy. Meanwhile, Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe emerged as a dangerous perimeter threat during the conference season and made 40.6 percent of his threes overall. Up front, the Bears have a pair of quality players in versatile Harper Kamp and powerful Markhuri Sanders-Frison. California repeated as the Pac-10's leading offense during conference play, but was held back by a defense that was the league's most permissive.

A 10-2 non-conference record with key wins over Gonzaga and Baylor and losses to Kansas State and Baylor put Washington State on track to earn an NCAA Tournament birth, but for the second time in as many seasons under Ken Bone the Cougars were less effective once Pac-10 play started. Inexplicable losses (home against Stanford, at Arizona State) doomed Washington State to sixth in the conference, which means the Cougars will probably have to win three games in as many days to reach the Big Dance. In Klay Thompson (reinstated following a one-game suspension after being arrested for marijuana possession), Washington State has one of the Pac-10's best players. But Thompson was asked to do too much down the stretch, as defenses ignored non-scorers Marcus Capers and Abe Lodwick. The Cougars need streaky sixth man Faisal Aden to contribute and point guard Reggie Moore (questionable with a sprained ankle) to be effective to take some of the pressure off of Thompson. Despite the shot blocking of center DeAngelo Casto, Washington State was merely average on defense. However, the Cougars stifled Washington twice. Bone--a former Romar assistant--seems to have his old team scouted.

For Oregon to finish seventh in the conference was a minor miracle after a severe talent drain greeted new head coach Dana Altman. The Ducks got as high as .500 in Pac-10 play at 7-7 before losing their last four games. Undersized senior post Joevan Catron was an effective go-to player for Oregon. He can score in the post against single coverage as well as stepping away with surprising range. Forward E.J. Singler is the other dangerous scorer, thanks largely to his 84.3 percent shooting at the line. Defensively, the Ducks' pressure produced the conference's highest turnover rate, but their lack of size is problematic in terms of defending the paint and grabbing defensive rebounds.

For an eighth-place team, Stanford was incredibly competitive. The Cardinal was outscored by just 0.04 points per possession and is a heavy favorite in the opening round. Following the departure of NBA standout Landry Fields, Stanford's offense goes entirely through guard Jeremy Green, who managed a respectable True Shooting Percentage (56.1 percent) despite taking 30.0 percent of the team's shots. Green knocked down 42.6 percent of his triple attempts. Post Josh Owens is the other player that troubles opposing defenses, having made 58.3 percent of his two-point attempts. The Cardinal scouting report largely leaves off there. Freshmen Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell showed promise, but neither forward is yet an efficient offensive option. Powell's length has translated at the defensive end, where Stanford was solidly average.

Oregon State enters the Pac-10 Tournament in a state of crisis. The Beavers have lost seven of their last eight games since an upset of Washington left them 4-6 in conference play. Last Saturday in Tempe, Oregon State played with just six players after half the team was suspended for missing curfew. The players will be reinstated for the tourney, but maybe Craig Robinson should have stuck with his on-time sextet. Led by 34 points from talented freshman Roberto Nelson, they were competitive. The erratic Beavers offense assisted on barely half of its field goals, indicating that Robinson's Princeton offense has gone out the window in favor of a drive-and-kick attack that often translates into forced shot attempts by guards. Über-athletic sophomore Jared Cunningham is the only Oregon State player talented enough to pull off the one-on-one game. Cunningham (57.3 percent) and freshman forward Devon Collier (57.2 percent) were the lone Beavers to post True Shooting Percentages better than 54.0 percent.

In College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, your humble author pegged Arizona State for fourth in the conference based on Herb Sendek's track record of success. Instead, the Sun Devils collapsed to the Pac-10 cellar. Arizona State could never replace departed center Eric Boateng. Young behemoths Jordan Bachynski and Ruslan Pateev showed flashes of potential, but too often Sendek had to play 6'7" Kyle Cain in the middle. The Sun Devils were the conference's worst rebounding team at both ends. Offensively, Arizona State still shot the ball well (36.8 percent from beyond the arc in conference play) but had no reliable creator with go-to senior guard Ty Abbott shooting less than 40 percent on two-point attempts. The Sun Devils finished strong with three wins in their last five games and have a chance to knock off Oregon, but that will be cold comfort in the wake of a disappointing regular season.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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