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Looking at the Pac-10 Tournament

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Note: This post will also serve as our Wednesday Pac-10 Tournament open thread

Tonight sees the beginning of yet another Pacific-10 conference basketball tournament, the 10th and final edition of this TV money grab before another sort of TV money grab by the conference takes effect and actually makes this tourney a fair and competitive necessity. As much as it seems unnecessary due to the double-round robin scheduling of the Pac-10 and the dislike by many coaches, fans and conference alumni, the tournament - if nothing else - does give teams exiting the regular season on the bubble a chance to boost their resume for the NCAA selection committee, as well as an extra 4 days of basketball.

There are several ways to break down and review a tournament; here, I am going to organize and begin the discussion by way of (and in the order of) each team's opening game. For the teams without a defined opponent as of this writing - Arizona and UCLA - I will give a rundown at the end of the post. For more background on the tourney, CGB's Avinash has several posts at SBNation-Bay Area breaking down the teams and games that you should take a look at. To save me from having to constantly link below, these are the links to ESPN InsideRPI (Insider), Ken Pomeroy's Pac-10 page (KenPom), and Jeff Sagarin's ratings.

Wednesday night's Pac-10 action consists of two games - ASU/Oregon and Oregon State/Stanford - whose action is relevant less because of how dangerous the winners of these games could be further into the week than to see what Arizona and UCLA will be facing tomorrow night. Vegas has these four teams distinct from the remaining six that open tournament play on Thursday for a reason, after all.

The tournament opens at 6pm Pacific with the 8-seeded Stanford Cardinal playing the 9-seed Oregon St Beavers 

  • Stanford Cardinal: (15-15, 7-11 Pac-10), RPI-140, KenPom-96, Sagarin-105.
  • Oregon St Beavers: (10-19, 5-13 Pac-10), RPI-231, KenPom-162, Sagarin-181.
  • Game projections: KenPom - Stanford 71-66; Sagarin - Stanford by 5

Stanford enters the week on a cold streak; after starting conference play 3-1 with wins over Cal and Washington, the Cardinal have floundered, continuing on to a 4-6 mark since the beginning of February (3-6 against Pac-10 opponents). The only thing making Stanford's closing stretch look good would be... Oregon State's finish. The Beavers opened conference play with a home sweep of the Arizona schools, but collapsed after that, somehow winning at home over Stanford, Washington and USC while closing the season with a 2-10 record since mid-January.

The teams split their regular season match-ups, each team winning its home game (70-56 @ Stanford, 87-80 @ OSU). As it happens, playing at home was very important to the 'success' of Oregon State this season - the Beavers finished the season with a 1-12 record away from Gill Coliseum, the one victory coming against Howard (RPI-331, KenPom-339). Other notable wins came against Illinois-Chicago (RPI-287, KenPom-258), Texas-Arlington (RPI-274, KenPom-249) and Texas-Pan American (RPI-343, KenPom-332). Stanford at least had some success away from Maples, and beat somebody OOC in the top-200. Looking at the RPI and Pomeroy info on the Beavers, it is no question why - despite their second from worse finish in the conference round robin - they were considered to be the Pac-10's worst team. With a 5-16 record against the RPI top-150 and no OOC wins against a top-200 team in either the RPI or Pomeroy ratings (they did beat Sagarin #196 Charlotte!), it is hard to believe that they have much claim in this tourney. Winner of this game goes on to play Arizona on Thursday afternoon.

The second game of the opening night's doubleheader features the 7-seeded Oregon Ducks playing the 10-seed Arizona St Sun Devils in a contest that the computers, at least, see as a fairly even matchup at Staples Center.

  • Oregon (14-16, 7-11): RPI-149, KenPom-99, Sagarin-119
  • Arizona St: (12-18, 4-14): RPI-146, KenPom-115, Sagarin-125
  • Game Projections: KenPom - Oregon 66-64, Sagarin - Oregon by < 1.

Despite the even-looking matchup, ASU swept the season series with Oregon, beating the Ducks in a close one in the final game at Mac Court, and blowing them out last week in Tempe. In these losses, the Ducks offense was flumoxxed by ASU's defense - while the games were played at a slightly slower than normal pace for Oregon, their offensive efficiency took a big hit, leading to lower scores than simply what a couple fewer possessions would indicate. The Sun Devils have seen little success during conference play outside of Dana Altman's guys however, with home wins over Oregon and WSU their only other victories. Outside of Tempe, they went 3-3 in non-conference play (4-11 overall).

In the most closely matched game of the tournament, the 4th seeded Southern Cal Trojans face off against the 5-seed California Golden Bears in what amounts to an NCAA tournament elimination game (though neither team is guaranteed a bid even with a victory here). The teams split their regular season series with a pair of nailbiting road victories. Game Projections: KenPom - Southern Cal 68-65, Sagarin - Southern Cal by 2 (considering the Pac-10 tourney as a semi-home game for USC).

  • Southern Cal (18-13, 10-8): RPI-68, KenPom-42, Sagarin-63.

More than any other team in the conference - and few other teams in the nation - Southern Cal has ridden the rollercoaster of great wins and inexplicable losses in 2011. As I wrote yesterday, Southern Cal currently finds itself just on the wrong side of the bubble conversation, but has the chance to play themselves into the NCAA at-large picture - or at least in the final discussion - with two wins this week, a win against Cal and against Arizona the following day. Southern Cal has admittedly been on a hot streak rivaling that of the Bruins over the past month, with a 6-2 record since opening the second half of Pac-10 play with their loss @ Pauley. While they have a fair chance of advancing through the tournament, they have been playing with a short bench; only 7 scholarship players participated in the past couple of series, making the three games in three days a tough task.

  • California (17-13, 10-8): RPI-66, KenPom-65, Sagarin-65.

An interesting note that Avanash noted in his preview at SBN-Bay Area: both of Cal's games against Southern Cal have come in the immediate wake of injury or turmoil for the Golden Bears. The early loss in Los Angeles came just days after freshman guard Gary Franklin left the university with the intent to transfer, while the recent win @ Haas Pavilion came with Allen Crabbe on the bench, recovering from a concussion. Barring any injuries during the pre-game shoot around, this should not be an issue for Cal this time around. Cal's RPI is at the same level as at-large possibilities Southern Cal and WSU, but the strength of schedule leading to that high ranking relies heavily on games against high quality opponents that the team never was competitive in (Kansas, SDSU, Notre Dame and Boston College). Overall, Cal has 5 wins among the RPI top-100 (5-12) and has a pattern of sorts going on: they won their last 4 games of the regular season, lost the 4 games prior, and won the 4 games before that. For their sake, let's hope the pattern does not hold tomorrow.

In the final game of Thursday night, the 3-seed Washington Huskies play the 6-seeded Washington St. Cougars in an Apple Cup matchup for the road, and maybe a place in the NCAA tournament in the balance. Game Projections: KenPom - Washington 80-74, Sagarin - Washington by 2.5.

  • Washington (20-10, 11-7): RPI-46, KenPom-16, Sagarin-35

The Huskies travel to Los Angeles in a much different circumstance than they would have expected a month ago. After being considered a lock to advance into march madness, they find themselves perilously close to the tournament bubble, having lost 6 of their last 10 Pac-10 games, without any supportive OOC wins of note (Long Beach State, RPI-91 is their best non-conference win), and needing a win over a Wazzu team that recently completed a season sweep in order to secure their dance card. This would be a difficult task in normal circumstances, but they enter Staples with two of their starters out, or at least hindered - Venoy Overton will sit out this tourney due to some boozing and sexing of 16 year old girls, while Justin Holiday is recovering from a concussion and also may not play. Despite these losses, the presence of a pair of first-team all Pac-10 honorees - Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning - gives them a fighting chance.

Washington State could not have asked for the conference tourney to have been set up better for them. Needing at least a run to the conference title game to open the possibility of an NCAA at-large bit, the Cougars open against an injury and suspension weakened Washington side that it has already beaten twice. If they advance past the Huskies, they are likely to face a UCLA team dealing with injuries and illnesses to Malcolm Lee, Zeek Jones and maybe Jerime Anderson. Particularly in Los Angeles, that is not a game that WSU can count on, but with the return of Klay Thompson, and hoping that injured point guard Reggie Moore can play this week, it would not be out of the question to see Washington State playing on Saturday night.

  • UCLA Bruins (22-9, 13-5): RPI-34, KenPom-39, Sagarin-41.

There is not a whole lot to say about UCLA's season that has not already been written on this blog throughout the past few months. Not to take the easy way out here, but I'll ask the readers to pour through our recent writings, as well as to keep an eye open for tomorrow's game preview by DCBruins to get the most on the Bruins.

The Pac-10 regular season champions enter the conference tournament as co-favorites with the runner-up Bruins. While this is not a surprise, given the Los Angeles location of these games and the strong play of UCLA as of late, it does seem to shortchange the strong run that the Wildcats have found themselves on. Since an inexplicable loss to Oregon State dropped Arizona to 1-1 after the first weekend of conference play, they have gone 13-3; in the last six weeks, they have lost only at USC and UCLA. That lost weekend hurt their appearances, but what really damaged them was how they lost, capped by a 71-49 beatdown at Pauley Pavilion that may have showed Coach Sean Miller that he can't always count on Pac-10 POY Derrick Williams to drag the team to victory (after Williams' 18.8 PPG, no other Arizona player averages 10 PPG).

Arizona shares a pair of early high-profile out of conference opponents with the Bruins: Kansas and BYU. While both teams lost to the Jayhawks, UCLA was in their game in Lawrence until the final whistle, while Arizona suffered a 87-79 loss in Las Vegas. The best win for UCLA to date was their Wooden Classic triumph over BYU, while Arizona got fully Jimmered, losing in an 87-65 blowout in Salt Lake City. Hidden in Arizona's record and high RPI is the fact that outside of those two ugly losses, the Wildcats played no one of consequence outside of the conference, relying on the Pac-10 slate to give them strong victories for NCAA seeding time. Their best wins outside the Pac-10 came against ACC 10th place finisher NC State (RPI-114, KenPom-91), Robert Morris (RPI-104, KenPom-151) and Northern Colorado (RPI-110, KenPom-123). In seeding terms on Sunday, their 7-5 record against the RPI top-100 won't be too damaging, but in terms of competitiveness this week and beyond, it leaves many questions unanswered.