Pac-10 Tournament Preview
The Pacific Ten figured to be a good race for the top in 2001-02, and it lived up to that billing better than most thought in the preseason. Entering the final weekend, two games separated first place from sixth place, and in the end, only three games separated the top six teams and four teams tied for second with a 12-6 conference record. Throughout the season, the top six teams beat up on each other consistently; all of the top six teams could enter the NCAA Tournament with at least 20 wins, as three have reached the mark and the other three won 19 regular season games.
With that said, the first Pac Ten Tournament in 12 years, held in Los Angeles, figures to be a dandy. Any one of the top six teams could walk off the Staples Center floor on Saturday with the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, though all six teams figure to go regardless. Regular season champion Oregon appears to be the only team with a chance at a number one seed.
Thursday, the tournament opens with two games that look like easy picks, then two great matchups. One game that is in the former category is of note since it pits two in-state rivals against one another, as Arizona takes on Arizona State in the first game of the evening session (don’t sleep on the Sun Devils, though, as they did take one from the Wildcats this season). The matchups worth watching involve 4-seed USC and 5-seed Stanford in the afternoon, and 3-seed California and 6-seed UCLA in the day’s final game.
The California/UCLA matchup will be a very good one, as the two teams split during the regular season with the home team winning both games. This game will pit the offense of UCLA against the defense of California; the Golden Bears are the best defensive team in the conference, while the Bruins are an explosive team on offense and was second in the Pac Ten in field goal percentage. California forced more turnovers than anyone in the Pac Ten and had the second best turnover margin, while only Arizona State, Arizona and Washington turned the ball over more than UCLA.
Perimeter defense will be a big key with Bruin shooters Jason Kapono, Matt Barnes and Billy Knight all threats from downtown, with Barnes a very good threat off the dribble. Offensively, the Golden Bears are all about balance; Joe Shipp is the primary option, but after him and freshman Amit Tamir, six players average between seven and ten points per game. Jamal Sampson, who joins Tamir on the Pac Ten’s All-Freshman Team, and Solomon Hughes help make the frontline a big focus of the offense.
USC took both regular season meetings with Stanford, including a 19-point win in Palo Alto in late February. That, along with the tournament being held in Los Angeles, would seem to make the Trojans a favorite, but that would be quite presumptuous given the flow of the Pac Ten season. Stanford enters having won six of eight including a win at longtime nemesis Arizona, while the Trojans have split their final eight games. Both teams are solid at the defensive end, as they are in the top three in the conference in field goal percentage defense, and they are very similar offensively as they rank near each other in many statistical categories.
A big factor will be taking care of the ball, something the Cardinal failed to do in the first meeting between the two teams when they committed 27 turnovers; in the two games, they averaged 21.5 turnovers while the Trojans had just 10 turnovers each time. The Trojans have the best turnover margin in the conference, thanks largely to committing a league-low 12.1 turnovers per game; Stanford is seventh in that category largely due to forcing a league-low 12.2 turnovers per game.
Predictions: Look for Oregon to have a relatively easy time with Washington and Arizona to take out their in-state rivals. In the two best matchups of the day, look for California to continue its late season roll by topping the Bruins behind a good defensive effort, and I predict USC will knock off Stanford for a third time this season. But the way this season is gone, making any predictions in this conference may be futile.