The "Clash of the Titanics", as gbruin put it, is just over 24 hours from tipping off at Staples Center. To bring us into the tournament, I have put together a brief set of thoughts together with the records of each of the teams and a few of the computer ratings that might be interesting to look at coming into the week. For a couple of the teams, the tournament represents a particularly short week. Arizona State and Stanford will be playing on Wednesday after having played their regular season finales on Sunday afternoon. Their opponents in those games - Arizona and California - did earn first round byes and a closer to normal break entering the tournament.
Interestingly, there is not much separation among the top half of the conference - there is not that much difference in terms of record or in the computer ratings created by folks like Ken Pomeroy or Jeff Sagarin. The real division is between the bottom three teams - Arizona State, Southern Cal and Utah - and the rest of the conference, with Oregon State and Washington State as a sort of buffer below the top-7 teams.
Washington State (8 seed): 15-15 overall, 7-11 Pac-12, 5-11 road/neutral. RPI: 174, KenPom: 124, Sagarin: 126 v. Oregon State (9): 17-13 overall, 7-11 Pac-12, 5-8 road/neutral. RPI: 149, KenPom: 94, Sagarin: 88.
The Beavers and Cougars finished in a tie for 8th place in the conference regular season, with WSU's season sweep over OSU giving them the higher seed. But in a neutral court game like this, the difference between being the 8th seed and the 9th is little more than the ability to don the home uniforms. While Oregon State has a clear advantage according to the computer formulas, their two losses (by a total of 15 points) to the Cougs reminds us that the computers are not a perfect predictor of what will happen on the court. WSU does have a home victory over Cal on its resume, but little else to foretell advancement deep into the weekend - their remaining victories in conference were: a season sweep of USC, and home games against ASU and Stanford . Oregon State has home wins over Cal, UCLA and Colorado and a win at Oregon, and suffered a close loss to Vanderbilt early in the season.
I will leave the heavy lifting of a UCLA review to the normal Bruin game week previews here, but to say that the Bruins, more than any other team in this tournament would be, are greatly advantaged by playing this week's games as essentially home games. Not a whole lot to say about the Trojans - their sole win in Pac-12 play came at home against 11th place Utah, though in Mid-December they did beat a TCU team that is likely to earn an NIT bid. They have a freshman 2-guard - Byron Wesley - that is on a bit of a hot streak, scoring at least 18 points in 3 of USC's final 4 games.
By the numbers, this matchup looks to be just as lopsided as the UCLA/USC game that comes before it. The formulas think see the Sun Devils as barely being better than Southern Cal over the course of the season, though ASU did win 6 games in conference play, including a season-ending victory over Arizona. That win over the Wildcats capped off the team's only winning streak of this season, following a home win over USC. Stanford won the lone regular season meeting 68-44 at Maples Pavilion.
Another barnburner for the people who bought all-session tickets for the tournament... Diehard Colorado fans aside, being stuck inside a burning barn might be preferable to the knowledge that you paid money to attend this game, or are foregoing the quality television programming found on CSPAN3 or your local public access channel to watch this game. As bad as Southern Cal is, the computers think that Utah has been even worse - while the Utes did pull off a 1-point home win over Stanford, they failed to win a single game away from home. Colorado finished their debut season in the Pac-12 respectably, though they did struggle in games away from home, with their away wins in conference play coming against the aforementioned national doormats ASU, USC and Utah, with their remaining non-conference away wins coming against sub-.500 Air Force and Western Michigan. They should not have a problem with Utah, but Oregon should be a different story.
The Wildcats were the final team to clinch a first-round bye, thinks in part to critical losses by Colorado and UCLA in the final two weeks of the regular season. Looking at their Thursday afternoon matchup, the team pulled off the season sweep USC, and split against UCLA - with each team winning on the road. While a 21-10 record and 12 wins in the Pac-10/12 would typically be enough to secure an NCAA Tournament bid, the weakness of the conference has diminished those accomplishments and even their coach knows that Arizona has to advance in this tournament in order to make it into March Madness.
"We're not good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team right now," Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. "That's not to say that we've waved the white flag or we're not going to L.A. to try to win the (Pac-12) tournament. We have a bye for a reason."
The Ducks entered the season looking to take a step up in regional and national relevance after having won last year's CBI title. While success in the present-day Pac-12 does not grant much wider legitimacy, Oregon's 3rd place regular season finish in the conference and 22 overall wins does put them in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. A win over Colorado on Thursday - Oregon split the season series with Colorado, including a 90-81 home win last Thursday night - would make the discussion in Indianapolis more favorable for the folks in Eugene.
Going by the eye test and following the Pac-12 throughout the season, Cal did seem to be the conference's best team despite their runner-up finish in the regular season. The Pac-12's new unbalanced schedule makes a simple comparison of conference W-L records to figure out the best team tricky - for what it is worth, the various computer ratings and formulas also view the Bears as the class of the conference to date. With 23 wins and a strong RPI, Cal should have an at-large Tourney bid regardless of their performance this week, but blowout losses to the only two ranked teams that they played this season (Mizzu and UNLV) will not help their cause. The Bears are likely to have a rematch with Stanford on Thursday, the team that cost them a regular season title with a 75-70 win at Maples Pavilion last Sunday afternoon.
The Huskies are the regular season champions in the Inagural season of the Pac-12. Looking at the effect of the unbalanced schedule, Washington played 2nd place Cal just once, losing the lone meeting 66-69. They split the series with 3rd place Oregon, winning at home but suffering a 25-point loss in Eugene. Again considering the relative strength of the conference this year, the regular season champion is not quite a lock for an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament, but winning a game this week should help their argument. Looking at their possible Thursday afternoon opponents, they defeated Oregon State in their only meeting, 95-80 in the opening game of conference play in Seattle. They swept their season series against their rivals from the Palouse, winning 59-55 away and 75-65 at Hec Ed.