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Pac-10 Quarterfinals Preview

March 11, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Pac-10 Conference Quarterfinals Preview

Preview by Scott Allen

The dawn of the 2004 Pac-10 Tournament means different things to different people and teams. For the fans, it means three exciting days of basketball at a glamorous facility, but as Arizona head coach Lute Olson reiterated earlier this week, not everyone loves Championship Week. The Hall of Fame coach, who has long opposed a conference tournament along with Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery, lashed out at the conference’s athletic directors for scheduling decisions he says are killing the Pac-10’s national image. In particular, Olson cited the lack of non-conference play due to the Pac-10’s 18-game conference season. As for the Tournament, which Olson and Montgomery voted against reviving after a 12-year hiatus in 2002, Olson feels it should at least involve the entire conference. Under the new format, only the top eight teams make their way to Staples Center.

For six of those eight, the next three days provide one final chance to dance. Stanford and Arizona are the only sure-bets on Selection Sunday with Washington sitting squarely on the bubble. The Huskies likely need at least a couple of wins to bolster their tournament resume. Meanwhile, Oregon and Cal, who at one point in the season figured to be solidifying their spot or playing for a higher seed in the field this weekend, must win the tournament to punch their tickets. Thursday could be the swan song for USC’s Desmon Farmer and the end of the road for UCLA, perhaps not soon enough for first-year head coach Ben Howland. Yes, the conference is down. Yes, it may send only two teams to the Big Dance. But if the last couple years are any indication, the next three days will include a few surprises and their fair share of intriguing storylines — like it or not.

(1) Stanford vs. (8) Washington State
A week ago, the Cougars were a Matt Lottich desperation heave away from handing then-perfect Stanford its first loss of the season in Pullman. Washington State led by six with 25 seconds to play before Cardinal guard Dan Grunfeld converted a rare four-point play to set up Lottich’s game-winning jaw-dropper after a mad scramble for a loose ball as time expired. Though heart-broken, the Cougars left the game with the greatest proof to date that its suffocating defense and lull-you-to-sleep offense makes it a tough opponent for even the best of teams and certainly a tough out at Staples Center. Dick Bennett’s squad rebounded from the loss to Stanford with a 70-58 victory in the regular season finale over Cal to secure their first spot in the Pac-10 Tournament since its revival. Relieved, the Cardinal left Pullman with head coach Mike Montgomery saying his team should treat the game like a loss. Perhaps losing, even if only in thought, is contagious, as Stanford suffered its first and only official loss of the regular season two days later in front of a raucous crowd in Seattle.

Stanford, which has won 16 straight against the Cougars, has been upset in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament each of the past two years, both times by USC. While the Cardinal is likely relieved to not have to face Henry Bibby’s crew, with talk that anything short of cutting the nets on Sunday would jeopardize the Cardinal’s stranglehold on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the pressure is on against a Washington State team hungry to finish the job it nearly completed in Pullman. Then again, pressure is nothing new for a Stanford team that played the majority of the season with the biggest bulls-eye in the nation on its back. Look for Pac-10 Player of the Year Josh Childress, who was held to 12 points on 3-for-11 shooting in last week’s meeting, to put the Cardinal back on track and for Lottich and point guard Chris Hernandez to rebound from a dreadful shooting performance against the Huskies. If the Cougars can control the tempo of the game as they did a week ago, and Marcus Moore gets hot, Stanford might have to sweat another one out down the stretch.

Prediction: Stanford 62, Washington State 50

(4) California vs. (5) Oregon
It’s Bracket Buster Thursday at Staples Center! Well, sort of. Cal is in fact playing for its postseason life, but we’re talking the NIT barring a surprise run to the Pac-10 Tournament title, which would likely pass through Stanford in the second round. After a late-season collapse, the youthful Bears need two wins to finish the season with a .500 record and thus become eligible for an NIT bid. Oregon, meanwhile, is already a lock -for the NIT of course. But with senior Luke Jackson and a pair of the best three-point threats in the conference in James Davis and Andre Joseph, the Ducks are a sleeper that could pull rank over the next three days and defend their first Pac-10 Tournament title of a year ago. The two teams split the regular season series with the home team winning both games. Cal was swept by Washington on the road last weekend while Oregon enters Thursday’s contest fresh off a home sweep of the L.A. schools.

Cal’s Leon Powe, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, and fellow freshman Marquise Kately pose matchup problems down low for Oregon. The Oakland native’s 20 points and 11 boards paced the Bears in an 85-81 overtime victory in Berkeley two weeks ago. Oregon freshman point guard Aaron Brooks had a career-high 16 points in that game and his return to the lineup after suffering a fractured wrist in early January has paid immediate dividends for the Ducks’ offense. Whereas Cal’s offense relies heavily on feeding the ball inside, the Ducks opt for the long-range attack. Jackson, Davis and Joseph all shoot above 40 percent from beyond the arc. That puts the pressure on Cal guards Richard Midgley and Ayinde Ubaka, who will have to expend a lot of energy chasing the Ducks’ trio of threats from three. For Cal, the game could come down to the play of Amit Tamir, who has been inconsistent throughout the season and had just five points and three rebounds in the last meeting with Oregon.

Prediction: Oregon 80, Cal 74

(2) Washington vs. (7) UCLA
Five games into the conference season, the prospect of the Huskies finishing above the Bruins in the conference standings were about as good as Arizona State’s Ike Diogu being held under 10 points in a game. Washington was 0-5 and UCLA a perfect 5-0. My how things change. The Huskies won 12 of 13 conference games to end the season, capped by an inspired 75-62 victory over Stanford at Bank of America Arena last Saturday. The Bruins took a nosedive, losing six straight and eight of 10, including a 71-55 blowout at the hands of lowly St. John’s on January 31. The Bruins limp into the tournament losers of five straight with their last win coming over Cal on February 19. UCLA swept the Huskies during the regular season, including an 80-75 win at Pauley Pavilion in early February.

Last season, under former head coach Steve Lavin, the Bruins shocked Arizona in the first round of the tournament before losing to Oregon. Howland won the Big East Tournament at Pittsburgh last season, but he’s got his work cut out for him in Los Angeles, especially having to face one of the nation’s hottest teams. Even after the win over Stanford, with an RPI in the 70s, Washington NCAA chances are up in the air. A loss could very well pop their bubble, but look for Nate Robinson and the Huskies to run all day on the Bruins and advance to the semifinals with an easy win.

Prediction: Washington 85, UCLA 68

(3) Arizona vs. (6) USC
Desmon Farmer and the Wildcats get reacquainted in one of the more intriguing first-round matchups at Staples Center. The Trojans exposed Arizona’s defensive vulnerability in a 99-90 USC victory at the Sports Arena on January 15. Farmer scored 40 points in the victory but Arizona got even a month later at home with a 97-70 shellacking. The underachieving Trojans bounced Stanford from the tournament each of the past two seasons, while Arizona was upset by UCLA last year. The ‘Cats won the whole thing two years ago. After starting the season 10-1, Arizona was up-and-down in conference play and needs one more win to reach 20 for the 17th consecutive season. Lute Olson’s squad enters Thursday’s game winners of two straight, including a dominating 106-81 win over rival Arizona State to close the regular season. USC earned a split at the Oregon schools last weekend and, like Cal, needs two wins to become eligible for an NIT bid.

USC and Arizona boast two of the most athletic squads in the Pac-10 and Thursday’s game could turn into a track meet. The Wildcats should be focused on stopping Farmer, putting extra weight on the shoulders of the Craven and Stewart twins, as well as Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year Jeff McMillan. The matchup between USC’s Rory O’Neil and Channing Frye will be pivotal, as both big men will try to avoid getting lost in the shuffle of what should be a fast-paced game. O’Neill’s numbers are down as a junior but he ended the season scoring in double figures in four of his last five games, including a 16-point, 12-rebound, six-block performance against Cal. USC must also contend with a hot-shooting Salim Stoudamire, who, like Farmer, can drop 30-plus on any given day.

Prediction: Arizona 89, USC 82

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