What to watch at Pac-12 tourney

Originally Published: March 12, 2013
By Jason King | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Unlike last spring, it's a foregone conclusion that this year's regular-season Pac-12 champion (UCLA) will receive a bid to the NCAA tournament. Same thing goes for Oregon, Cal and Arizona. And probably Colorado, too.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsShabazz Muhammad led UCLA back to a familiar spot, first place in the conference.

So while the Pac-12 still isn't great, it's certainly better than it was in 2011-12, when the league was granted only one at-large berth to the Big Dance. Granted, no one will give the Bruins, Wildcats & Co. much of a chance to advance to this year's Final Four, as the Pac-12 is void of elite teams.

But it also doesn't have any truly bad ones, either.

Think about it. The Big East has DePaul and South Florida. The SEC has Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State and the Big 12 has TCU and Texas Tech. But in the Pac-12, the last-place team could beat the first-place team and no one would consider it a huge upset. Heck, it happened last weekend when Washington State topped UCLA.

It's a situation that could make for one of the more entertaining conference tournaments in the country. And one of the toughest to predict. Here's a glance at what could be in store this week at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

Top three storylines

Can anyone steal a bid?

UCLA, Oregon and Arizona are going to make the NCAA tournament. Barring an opening-game loss this week, Cal and Colorado should be in good shape too. But what about the other seven teams? In what is easily the most parity-filled league among the "big six" conferences, it'd hardly be surprising if a lower-seeded team ended up with the Pac-12 tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Maybe it will be Stanford. Last season's NIT champions have certainly had their bright moments. So have Arizona State, USC and Washington.

Can Arizona get back on track?

The Wildcats certainly haven't had a bad season. Sean Miller's squad is 24-6 overall and finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Pac-12 standings with a 12-6 record. Still, Arizona has hardly lived up to expectations. Despite their gaudy record, the Wildcats aren't nearly the dominant team we thought they'd be early in the season. The lack of a true point guard has been an issue, and a highly touted recruiting class hasn't developed as quickly as Arizona fans had hoped. But there's no denying that the Wildcats, who have lost four of their past eight games, are a talented bunch that has shown flashes of brilliance. If Arizona gains some momentum this week it will be a tough out in the NCAA tournament.

Who -- if anyone -- is on the hot seat?

USC is searching for a new coach after firing Kevin O'Neill in January. Ken Bone's job at Washington State may be in jeopardy too, although the Cougars ended the regular season with victories over USC and UCLA. Stanford has underachieved this season, but with most everyone returning next season, I'm guessing Johnny Dawkins will get another year. Same thing goes for Craig Robinson at Oregon State. The biggest buzz surrounds the future of Ben Howland at UCLA. The Bruins won the conference title with a lineup that features three freshmen, yet there are still folks in Westwood who want Howland gone. Such is the life of a coach at a high-profile school.

Five players to watch

Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA: Catch him while you can, folks. The freshman and future NBA lottery pick is entering his final stretch in a Bruins uniform. Muhammad averages 18.3 points and shoots 41 percent from 3-point range. His game improved significantly after he lost some of the weight that slowed him down early in the season.

[+] EnlargeAllen Crabbe
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire Allen Crabbe's scoring abilities give Cal reason to hope for tournament success.

Allen Crabbe, Cal : The Pac-12's scoring leader at 18.6 points per game was selected as the conference's player of the year by league coaches. Crabbe, who shoots 81 percent from the free throw line, helped the Golden Bears win nine of their final 11 games.

Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon: If you enjoy watching hard-working veterans who take pride in playing defense and rebounding, Kazemi is your guy. The Rice transfer, who is lauded for his high basketball IQ, ranks third in the Pac-12 in rebounding (9.6 boards per game) despite standing just 6-foot-7. And his 2.2 steals per contest rank second in the conference.

Andre Roberson, Colorado: A junior, the high-flying Roberson leads the nation with 11.5 rebounds per game, and his 2.3 steals per contest are the best in the Pac-12. Roberson missed the Buffaloes' final two regular-season games because of a viral illness, but he is cleared to play this week.

Larry Drew II, UCLA : Drew struggled as North Carolina's starting point guard two years ago, but those days are long gone. Not many players in America have improved as much as Drew, whose transfer provided a huge boost to UCLA. Drew averages a conference-best 7.7 assists, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (3.32) ranks second in the nation.

Hottest team: Cal. The Golden Bears had won nine of 10 games before dropping their regular-season finale to Stanford. Included in that stretch were wins against upper-tier teams UCLA, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon (twice). Mike Montgomery is regarded as one of the Pac-12's top coaches and Allen Crabbe was the conference's player of the year. Don't sleep on Justin Cobbs (15.1 points per game) or David Kravish (seven rebounds).

Coldest team: Oregon. The Ducks appeared to have a clear path to the Pac-12 title midway through the conference season. Dana Altman's squad defeated league favorites Arizona and UCLA -- and it only had to play the Wildcats and Bruins once. Oregon, though, went 0-for-2 during a season-ending trip to Colorado and Utah. A victory in either game would've given the Ducks a share of the crown. Instead they finished in a three-way tie for second at 12-6. UCLA (13-5) finished first.

Sleeper pick: Arizona State. The Sun Devils fizzled a bit down the stretch, but the league's most-improved team is also one of its most dangerous. Point guard Jahii Carson (17.7 points, five assists) is one of the nation's top freshmen and Carrick Felix (14.2 points, 8.2 rebounds) is regarded as the conference's top defender. Center Jordan Bachynski is among the national leaders in blocks with 3.6 swats per game. Another team to watch is USC, which improved immensely after the firing of head coach Kevin O'Neill in January.

Potential upset victim: Is there really such a thing as an upset in Pac-12? In the last weekend of regular season play we saw the league's three worst teams (at least according to their record) beat three of its best. Washington State topped UCLA, Utah upset Oregon and Oregon State knocked off Colorado. Expect more of the same this week.

Best first-round matchup: Arizona State vs. Stanford. Both of these teams are capable of winning the tournament. Stanford defeated the Sun Devils 62-59 Feb. 9 in Palo Alto in their only meeting.

Best potential quarterfinal: Arizona vs. Colorado. The Wildcats defeated the Buffs in overtime in a controversial finish back on Jan. 3, when Colorado guard Sabatino Chen had what appeared to be a game-winning 3-pointer waved off at the end of regulation. The Buffs avenged the loss in a 13-point win on Valentine's Day in Boulder. Hopefully we'll see the rubber match Thursday.

Predicting a champion: Colorado. The Buffs won last year's tournament and, in a wide-open field, could easily do it again. They'll need big performances from standout freshmen Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson and a healthy Andre Roberson to pull it off, but Colorado is as good as any team in the league when things are clicking.