Pac-10 Tourney Final hinders UA's NCAA push

Lute Olson has long since considered the Pac-10 Tournament a wasted exercise. While the results achieved in the annual conference encounter have done little to predict Arizona's ultimate NCAA tourney fortunes, the loss to Washington, the UA's last allowed misstep of the year, could have been the most significant setback of the season.

The script played out perfectly. When Arizona landed the No. 1 seed, it got the matchups it wanted, and took advantage. It pounded Cal and blew out Oregon State while Washington struggled in its encounters with ASU and Stanford. The UA had the table set to win the rubber match, but Washington was better down the stretch.

Generally, the overall affect of such setback would be little more than a slight seeding adjustment and a recognition that the likelihood of actually seeing the team again could only happen if both made deep tournament runs. Thus, Arizona can put the loss behind it and move onto more important things.

But as the NCAA Committee made readily apparent, the loss to Washington cost Arizona a No. 1 seed. Moreso, it placed Arizona in a difficult bracket, whereas Washington tops a wide open Albuquerque bracket with teams the benefited the UA in terms of matchups. The Albuquerque bracket features Wake Forest, a team a still-improving Arizona took to the limit in the NIT Finals. The No. 3 seed is Gonzaga, four Louisville and five Georgia Tech. Each team loves the open-floor option while not presenting a particularly physical presence.

Compare that list to what looms for the UA in the Chicago Region. First off, Utah State is about as difficult a 14 as Arizona could draw. The Aggies are a ball-control team with depth and balance. Logan, Utah is also a five-hour drive from Boise. If the UA shows a willingness to play at Utah State's pace, it will be in a serious fight for survival.

The Wildcats appear better suited for advancement in their second-round encounter. LSU has some physical options and is playing well, but matching Arizona offensively could be problematic. UAB loves to press and run, which could play right into the UA's hands.

If Arizona escapes Boise, it faces daunting obstacles in Chicago. First off, a potential matchup with Oklahoma State looms in the third round. OSU advanced to the Final Four last year with most of this crew, and has lingered around the top 10 all year long. It hits the glass with abandon and possesses excellent veteran leadership in the backcourt and on the frontline.

And if Arizona survives there, Illinois might be waiting at the Elite Eight spot, close to home in Chicago. The Illini have earned preferential treatment, and while Oklahoma State and Arizona potentially pose significant challenges, the smart money suggests Illinois has the best opportunity to advance to St. Louis.

The tournament is always about matchups, and how well one positions itself to be versatile as it progresses. Arizona possesses many of the qualities necessary for a deep run, but it didn't get any favors in its journey. The difference between the Sweet 16 and the Final Four might have been determined by virtue of a fateful Saturday at the Staples Center.

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