The Pacific 10 Conference is so feeble this season that even defending-tournament champion USC doesn’t want to be a part of this year’s tournament.
In reality, the Trojans can’t defend their championship because of a self-imposed sanction, but the idea of skipping the historically great league’s competition isn’t as absurd as you might think when considering the fall the Pac-10 has had this year. Regardless, the show must go on. Minus USC, nine hopefuls begin a journey at Staples Center today.
Hoping to lock up a dance ticket for a second consecutive season, regular-season champion and top-seeded Cal (21-9, 13-5 Pac-10) is the odds-on favorite to take the tournament due to its experienced squad and balance. Four of the Golden Bears’ starters are seniors, and they all average double-digit points (in order: guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher and forwards Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin). The Bears, winners of seven of their last eight games, will face the winner of tonight’s play-in game between No. 8 Oregon (15-15, 7-11) and No. 9 Washington State (16-14, 6-12) (11 p.m. EST, FSN National).
Winner of six of its last seven games, No. 2 Arizona State (22-9, 12-6) might be the only Pac-10 team not named Cal that has secured itself an NCAA Tournament at-large bid even if it gets bounced out of the tourney early, which is unlikely. After dropping their first two Pac-10 games, the Sun Devils demolished then-No. 22 Washington to start a hot streak that saw them win 12 of their last 16 games, dominating every team but Cal, which won both regular-season meetings against ASU comfortably. The Sun Devils will take on the Landry Fields’ show, No. 7 Stanford (13-17, 7-11), on Thursday (9:18 EST, FSN).
The third-seeded Huskies repaid Arizona State when the Sun Devils came to Washington Feb. 6, knocking them around in a 79-56 win that was a shred of brilliance from the last Pac-10 team that still has a shot at an at-large bid. Led by senior forward Quincy Pondexter, who had a career-high 34 points against Oregon Thursday, Washington was ranked as high as tenth in the nation before entering a Pac-10 stretch in which it lost five of seven games. Pondexter didn’t let his Huskies lose many more games thereafter, though. Along with sidekick, sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas, Pondexter’s 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game helped Washington go 9-2 in its last 11 regular-season games.
The bubble Huskies get No. 6 Oregon State on Thursday (11:40 EST, FSN). Washington is fresh off a Beaver-pounding session as its last game was an 82-70 win at Oregon State Saturday.
No. 4 Arizona is a mystery, a streaky team that can take down the best, as evidenced by its Jan. 31 win over Cal, or choke against the worst, shown in a Jan. 8 last-second loss to Washington State. The Wildcats (16-14, 10-8) had two different three-game losing streaks as well as a winning streak of four games. They’re streaking in the right direction as they enter the tournament, however, as they’ve come up victorious in their last three games, including a win against its Thursday tournament rival: No. 5 UCLA (13-17, 8-10).
The only thing the Bruins will have going in their favor Thursday (3 p.m. EST, FSN) is that they’ll be playing at home. Young talents Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday are in the NBA now — like every other young UCLA star, seemingly — and unable to help them, and Arizona swept the regular-season series from them. UCLA’s attack is balanced, but it won’t be enough. Home court is the wild card for the Bruins. At least they know the NBA won’t be taking any of their players this year.
The Staples Center crowd will be disappointed to see UCLA fall early as all the higher seeds will advance to the Friday semifinals, where Cal will down Arizona and the Huskies will mildly upset Arizona State. Then, in the Saturday final, Cal will prevail over Washington, securing itself a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Both Washington and Arizona State will receive at-large bids.
Lastly, all three conference representatives will lose in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, finally putting an end to a disappointing Pac-10 season.