The bright lights of Las Vegas will be shining as the Pac-12 rolls into town for the conference tournament for the first time. With what is looking like one of the most wide-open tournaments in recent memory, there figures to be plenty of drama, surprises and highlights as players take center stage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
After a crazy regular season that saw favorites get upset on a regular basis and several players emerge as West Coast stars, good luck on narrowing down who will take home the Pac-12 Tournament trophy and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament that goes with it. No matter what it should make for plenty of fun on the court.
Here’s the early-round matchups and how the tournament could shake out for each team:
No. 8 Stanford vs. No. 9 Arizona State
Noon PT, Pac-12 Networks
Season results: Stanford 62-59, Feb. 9
The Cardinal has won six straight in this series and narrowly escaped earlier in the regular season. Arizona State has been hot and cold throughout the year thanks in large part to the nature of their front-court play. That will be an issue facing the strong rebounding duo of Dwight Powell (who’s also scored in double-digits every Pac-12 game this year) and Josh Huestis. Sun Devils center Jordan Bachynski wound up second on the conference single-season blocked shots list but he’ll have to step up his game and show off early season form to control the paint on both ends of the floor if ASU wants to move on. Guard Jahii Carson earned co-Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors and has been a great spark plug for the team, making him a priority on the defensive end for Stanford. Both teams are dangerous squads looking to make a surprise run (the Sun Devils in particular as they hunt for an NCAA bid). This has the look of a close, toss-up game to open the tournament.
[Related video: First-round tournament preview: Stanford vs. Arizona State]
No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Oregon State
2:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
Season results: 1-1 split. Colorado won 72-68, Feb. 10. Oregon State won 64-58 on Mar. 9.
These two teams are quite familiar with each other having played just four days prior to their opening-round matchup in Las Vegas. In the last outing, the Beavers were hitting on just about every cylinder and pulled out a surprise win in Boulder. It should be noted that the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year André Roberson wasn’t playing for the Buffs. He’s expected to be back in action in Vegas but given that he was reportedly sick, there’s no assurance he’ll be 100 percent. Either way, the Buffs will have to make a better defensive effort in containing Roberto Nelson (19.1 points in Pac-12 games), Eric Moreland (17 points last game) and two others on the Beavers who have topped the 1,000 career points mark.
[Related video: First-round tournament preview: Colorado vs. Oregon State]
No. 7 USC vs. No. 10 Utah
6 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
Season results: USC 76-59, Jan. 12
The Trojans have won three straight in the series but this is a much different matchup from the beginning of the season. For one, Bob Cantu has taken over as interim head coach and pushed the tempo, resulting in a late-season surge that has his team looking dangerous in a tournament setting. On the other hand, 7-footers Dewayne Dedmon and James Blasczyk have both been suspended for violating team rules last week, an issue facing Utah center Jason Washburn (who averaged 17.5 ppg/10.5 rpg the past two games). The Utes have surged as of late, looking nothing like their 10th seed suggests and coming off a home sweep of the Oregon schools. Guards Jared DuBois and Jio Fontan should be a terrific one-on-one matchup in the backcourt.
No. 6 Washington vs. No. 11 Washington State
8:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
Season results: Washington 2-0.
A third Apple Cup matchup on the hardcourt came about after both teams had strong showing to close out the regular season. The Huskies fell at home to Pac-12 regular season champion UCLA but gave them a game until the very end, and dispatched the previously streaking USC earlier in the week. The Cougars shocked everyone by grabbing a home sweep over the two LA schools, including controlling things from tip against the Bruins to win against them for the first time since 1993. Washington has won five straight in the series and if they want to make it six, they’ll have to keep guards Abdul Gaddy and C.J. Wilcox getting to the rim, distributing and scoring. Wazzu’s Brock Motum has looked sharp and he’ll be a tough matchup.
[Related Video: First-round tournament preview: Washington vs. Washington State]
No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 8/9 winner
Noon, Pac-12 Networks
Consider expectations met for the Bruins this season even if most fans have struggled to get behind a team that is sometimes quite frustrating (see big wins over Arizona and loss to Washington State). Ben Howland has done one of his better coaching jobs in a great career, pushing the offensive tempo while integrating three freshman starters to produce a regular-season title. Larry Drew II has played largely mistake-free basketball as he distributes to scorers like Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams. This is a squad that seems primed for a run in March if they stay focused and will be tough to stop no matter the opponent.
Season results: 2-0 vs. Stanford, 1-1 vs. Arizona State.
[Highlights: UCLA claims Pac-12 regular season title]
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 5/12 winner
2:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
The preseason favorite in the league, the Wildcats captured a first-round bye by a narrow margin. The team feasted on the bottom of the league during the year but curiously wound up 0-4 against the top three seeds. We know the team has plenty of talent (two All-Pac-12 first team players) and has beaten top teams (Florida and Miami to name a few) but Pac-12 foes have proven to be quite a challenge. Kevin Parrom has looked solid since being inserted into the starting lineup but everybody from Solomon Hill to Mark Lyons will have to elevate their game in Las Vegas. This team shoots a ton of threes and if they’re falling at the MGM, look out.
Season results: 1-1 vs. Colorado, 1-0 vs. Oregon State.
No. 2 California vs. No. 7/10 winner
6 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
The Bears were red hot down the stretch to capture the No. 2 seed and be in prime position to grab a good landing spot in the NCAA tournament. However, they’ll have to overcome a bad home loss to rival Stanford to end the regular season and try to avoid losing their first game in Vegas. Luckily they have Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe (18.6 ppg to lead the conference in scoring) and Justin Cobbs (15.1 ppg) as a deadly tandem that will be tough to shut down.
Season results: 2-0 vs. USC, 2-0 vs. Utah.
[Related video: Allen Crabbe named Pac-12 Player of the Year]
No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 6/11 winner
8:30 p.m. PT, ESPNU
For a good chunk of the season it looked like the Ducks would stroll to a conference title thanks to wins over UCLA and Arizona. That course was diverted when guard Dominic Artis went out of the lineup with a foot injury, and Oregon hasn’t quite been the same since. Dana Altman was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year for his efforts and he’s tried to manage things as best as he can despite a shorter bench. Artis is supposed to see an increase in minutes in Vegas but it remains to be seen if he’s ready to go 100 percent. A tough sweep on the road at the mountain schools has cast a lot of doubt on the Ducks’ chances, but this is still a team with plenty of weapons inside (Arsalan Kazemi and Tony Woods) and out (First team All-Pac-12 scorer E.J. Singler) to make a run for the championship.
Season results: 2-0 vs. Washington, 2-0 vs. Washington State.
Who will win it all at the MGM Grand Garden Arena is anybody’s guess. Pac-12 Networks analyst Don MacLean has said as many as nine teams have a realistic shot of cutting down the nets. Who would disagree?
[Related video: Pac-12 teams poised for deep NCAA tournament runs]