Over the last five seasons, Pac-10 teams have won 71 percent (17 of 24) of their NCAA tournament games in the round of 64. Moving forward, however, the league's teams have only made it to the Sweet 16 in 52 percent of their games, a disappointing recent trend for the conference with the most NCAA championships (15). This season the Pac-10 will look to send multiple teams past their first games. But, do Washington, UCLA, or Arizona have the talent make such a run? Lets take a look at their first round match-ups.
(5) Arizona - West
Arizona (27-7) opens against 12 seed Memphis (25-9), a team that finished fourth in Conference USA. Their record aside, the Tigers only recently guaranteed their presence in the tournament this last weekend by beating UTEP 67-66 and winning the C-USA tournament.
Both teams come into this game with stellar regular season records on paper, though delving deeper into Memphis' schedule leads me to believe the Tigers aren't as good as their record suggests. Josh Pastner's team completed its non-conference schedule going 11-3, with losses to Kansas (away), Georgetown (home), and Tennessee (away). Those are all formidable opponents, but Memphis lost those three games by an average of 16 points. The Tigers also played 11 of their 14 non-conference games at home in the FedEx Forum, with their only "away" win coming on a neutral floor against LSU. Venturing into regular season play, Memphis continued to struggle on the road managing to only win 3 of their 8 road games.
Oftentimes, as is the case here, road losses can be a sign of a young, freshman/sophomore-laden team. Memphis is very young, starting four freshmen and one junior. In fact, the Tigers claim just one senior on their entire roster, 6-9 Will Coleman, who averages 19 minutes per game. Young teams can be vulnerable come NCAA tournament time, as they lack veteran players to lean on when the pressure picks up on the road. Memphis will need its young talent to "grow up" quickly, and on the biggest stage if they want to succeed against Arizona.
Personnel-wise, the Tigers may struggle to handle Derrick Williams and the Arizona offense. Memphis' minutes are dominated by guards who, for the most part, are outsized by the Wildcats. Arizona runs the majority of their offense through Williams, playing an inside-out game. When Williams is effective inside, the perimeter opens up for the Cats, which has allowed them to shoot almost 40 percent from beyond the arc. Expect Williams to dominate inside against an undersized Tiger front line, opening up the perimeter for his teammates.
I expect Arizona to survive its opening round game against Memphis, setting up a potentially explosive match-up against No. 4 seed Texas. The Longhorns are another young team, making the game hard to predict. One thing's for sure, all of the teams in Arizona's bracket will struggle to contain Derrick Williams.
Prediction: Arizona over Memphis
(7) Washington - East
Washington opens its 2011 NCAA tournament run against No. 10 seed Georgia. Looking at the match-up, this should be one of the more interesting games to watch in the round of 64, given that both teams possess NBA talent and know how to score. The key to a Georgia upset will be their ability to slow town the Huskies' high-powered offense. Meanwhile Washington must, you guessed it, slow down the Bulldogs' best players, Trey Thompkins (16.1 ppg) and guard Travis Leslie (14.5 ppg).
Though Georgia's a very talented team, finishing 21-11 in a strong SEC East, I have trouble betting against a Washington team as hot as this. I also believe that the Huskies are the most talented No. 7 seed in the tournament. Had it not been for close losses to Kentucky, Michigan State, and Texas A&M, Washington would likely have earned a much higher seed. In fact, the Huskies' 10 losses came by an average of just 5.3 points per game, making me believe they're much better than their record suggests.
This season I've become a big fan of Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Diaye, Washington's two big men, and I believe the combination of the two defensively will bother Thompkins enough to slow down the Georgia scoring machine. Also, coming back from suspension for U-Dub will be guard Venoy Overton, one of the best on-ball defenders in the Pac-10. He'll look to pressure Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware.
I see Washington holding Thompkins--a potential first-round pick--in check and moving forward against Georgia. Looking to the second round, the Huskies likely would face a very young but talented North Carolina team. If the Harrison Barnes from the first half of the season shows up for the game, I like Washington's chances to upset the Tar Heels and make another Sweet 16 appearance.
Prediction: Washington over Georgia
(7) UCLA - Southeast
UCLA's pairing with No. 10 seed Michigan State is as much a match-up of Hall of Fame-caliber coaches as anything else. Still, both teams have to be considered "down" compared to where they both were just a few years ago. The Bruins finished second in the Pac-10 with an overall record of 22-10, but suffered a bad loss in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament to a very mediocre Oregon team. Michigan State entered the season ranked No. 2 in the country and has since finished with a disappointing 19-14 record, 9-9 in-conference.
Led by Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Draymond Green, the Spartans have struggled to find any sort of consistency. In fact MSU's first- and second-round wins in the Big Ten tournament were their first back-to-back victories since January.
The Spartans' big three has largely failed to play well all at the same time. Michigan State will definitely need these three players to step up and perform well as a group to knock off a tough UCLA team.
For their part the Bruins will look to play to their strengths, namely Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith. Depending on who's in the game MSU can be undersized in the post. If Nelson and Smith are able to score inside and off second-chance points, they'll create opportunities for Tyler Honeycutt and the rest of UCLA's perimeter players. In short, if the big men get going expect UCLA to be tough to beat in this game and beyond in the tournament.
Picking a winner in this game is tough. My loyalties lie with the Pac-10, but it's hard to pick against Izzo in the tournament, no matter how inconsistent his team has been this season. I expect MSU's big three to show up, especially Summers who averaged 20 a game in last years tournament, and beat a tough UCLA team in a very close game.
Prediction: Michigan State over UCLA
Sam Rayburn was a member of the Cal basketball team from 2004 to 2008.