Is Pac-12 primed for wild finish?
Two off the first tee.
It's a time-honored amateur golf tradition, because every golfer -- whether horrific (like me) or really good (like most of my buddies, who lose patience with me quickly) -- can recognize the value of a free mulligan on the first swing.
Let's extend the same friendly courtesy to the Conference Formerly Known as the Pac-10, shall we? This year was the first in the new-look Pac-12's existence, and it was totally deserving of a mulligan: As of Tuesday, the Pac-12 was a combined 1-30 against the RPI top 50 in 2012, with the only win coming over RPI inflation case Colorado State, which Stanford beat all the way back on Nov. 15.
That led to an altogether feckless and uninspiring two months of conference play, wherein the title chase between Cal and Washington came down to the final week. Sounds exciting, right? It wasn't: Washington ended its season with a loss at UCLA, but because California dropped its final two games at Colorado and Stanford, the Huskies still won the league outright. Throw in a downright awful season at Arizona State, a disastrous rebuilding entry from new member Utah, quite possibly the worst (and most unwatchable) offensive squad in conference history in USC and a near-meltdown (and revealing Sports Illustrated investigation) at UCLA and, well yeah. The first iteration of the Pac-12 was not one for the history books. Here's to a less-buggy version 2.0.
There was a bright side to all this apparent mediocrity, however: The Pac-12 tournament could be downright thrilling.
Thanks to the utter lack of quality nonconference wins for this league, there are no bid guarantees for anyone -- even Washington or Cal -- at this late date in the season's calendar. This isn't quite like your average mid-major tournament, at which it's clear that the only team going to the NCAA tournament will be the one that wins the conference tourney title. (Chances are there's at least one at-large bid in this league. Maybe two.) Still, it's close -- the closest you'll ever see a "power six" league come to that brand of all-out, win-or-go-home electricity.
It hasn't been a banner season in this league, but for viewers and fans, there's still time for the Pac-12 to go out with a bang. Here are some things to look for as the Staples Center action unfolds:
Top three storylines
Will Washington seal the deal? In any other season, the Pac-12 regular-season champion is by this point a lock to make the NCAA tournament. But not in 2012. The Huskies' best nonconference win came at home against UC Santa Barbara, and but for a Dec. 31 home victory over Oregon, Washington finished 0-6 against the RPI top 50 this season. Given all that -- and given its seeding in the tournament bracket, which sets up for a second-round game against the winner of Washington State-Oregon State and a semifinals matchup with long-shot bubble hopeful Arizona -- Washington should probably plan on making it to the tournament final. That may be enough to get the Huskies in, but once there, UW may as well go ahead and win the whole thing. You know, just in case.
Will Cal reclaim superiority? One of the lingering reasons to distrust Washington (despite its regular-season title) as this league's putative best team is efficiency: The Huskies finished the season ranked fifth in the league (behind even UCLA) in efficiency margin, tracked by Basketball Prospectus writer John Gasaway. Cal -- which for most of the season looked like this league's clear best -- finished first, but only barely, and the Bears now find themselves facing unexpected bubble questions just a few days before Selection Sunday.
Can Mike Montgomery's team flip a switch? Or, better question: Does that switch even exist?
Bedlam in the Staples Center? Bedlam in the Staples Center! And not because of anything Metta World Peace is doing, either. If you clicked through to Gasaway's efficiency margins, you saw the reasons this tournament may just go haywire with upsets: When your No. 1 seed (Washington) finishes the season scoring just .03 points per possession more than your tourney's No. 7 seed (Stanford), it's clear there's parity afoot.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said as much after his team's win over Cal on Sunday (per the San Jose Mercury News's Mark Purdy) "There are a number of teams that could win it," Dawkins said. "We've looked at it that way since the beginning of the season, that there is parity in our league and anyone has a chance. That includes our team, as well. We think we can compete. But there are 11 other teams that can do the same thing."
If Dawkins is right, and he probably is, that parity could make for some very entertaining, very nervy hoops in the next five days.
Five players to watch
Tony Wroten, Washington: The highly touted freshman guard's combination of athleticism, scoring touch and bruising penetration makes him a matchup nightmare for anybody, let alone his fellow Pac-12 guards. However, Wroten can also force the issue and play inefficiently. But if he's rolling, look out. (Also keep an eye out for teammate and fellow future pro Terrence Ross, who, like Wroten, may rightly feel he should have won the Pac-12 Player of the Year honors instead of the winner, listed just below.)
Jorge Gutierrez, Cal: The Golden Bears senior is the Platonic ideal of a glue guy, which is among the reasons he won Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards this week. The league's coaches love and admire Gutierrez's work ethic, defensive skill and versatility. He's the undisputed leader of Montgomery's team and a big-time catalyst for their success.
Devoe Joseph, Oregon: The former Minnesota transfer may have regretted his decision last season -- he would have been the Gophers' starter after point guard Al Nolen suffered another injury just a few weeks after Joseph left the program -- but he can't feel too bad about it now. Joseph's efficient scoring has keyed Oregon's late revival, including four straight wins to finish the season and a sudden surge into the bubble picture.
Jared Cunningham, Oregon State: If Oregon State is going to make a miraculous push deep into this tournament, Cunningham will have to get it there. The senior guard led the Beavers and the league in both points (18.2) and steals (2.6) per game.
Brock Motum, Washington State: The Cougars, like the Beavers, don't look long for this tourney, but Motum deserves the love all the same. The Washington State center came from nowhere in 2012 to finish second in the league in points per game (18.1) while posting a 108.2 efficiency rating, the highest in the league among players with plus-28 percent usage rates. (In simpler terms: Motum did more than most for his team, and he frequently did it very well.)
Hottest team: Oregon. The Ducks won their last four games in conference play, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Joseph, and they did so while Cal dropped its last two and Washington limped to the finish in a loss at UCLA.
Coldest team: USC. Let's not overthink this. The Trojans somehow won just one game in this historically bad edition of the Pac-12. They scored more than 60 points just twice in league play. They are cold in every basketball sense of the term, and there is little hope for an improvement to the contrary.
Sleeper pick: UCLA. I know, I know; It seems foolhardy to trust this Bruins team to make a sleeper run in the tournament. But talent is not the issue: This team has the Wear brothers playing better than ever, and it still has the perpetually-out-of-shape-but-still-productive Joshua Smith anchoring things in the middle. Last week, following the SI report, UCLA dump-trucked Washington State and upset Washington at home, exuding positive vibes and prospective optimism and talk of returning to the "UCLA way" all the while. Maybe some of those vibes can carry over.
Potential upset victim: It wouldn't be right to pick just one team. With the possible exceptions of Utah and USC (and maybe Arizona State, though the Sun Devils did beat Arizona in the regular-season finale), any of this league's teams seems capable of beating any of the others at any given time.
Best first-round matchup: Washington State-Oregon State, I guess? The inside-out battle between Cunningham and Motum will be interesting, at the very least. Neither of these teams is particularly pleasing aesthetically, but maybe, just maybe, they can get hot enough to give the Huskies a run in the second round. We'll see.
Best potential quarterfinal: Cal versus Stanford. The Cardinal cost their Bay Area rivals a share of the Pac-12 title last week, and Cal will be eager to end Stanford's unlikely bid at an automatic tourney ticket with minimal fuss and fanfare.
Pick: Washington. When in doubt, pick with the pros. But if there's one thing I've learned in four months watching this Pac-12, it's that we're all only just guessing.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
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