Oregon is the 2002 conference champion and is the number one seed going into Thursday's first round. The Ducks will face the team that played them tougher than any of the other six entrants: eighth-seeded Washington. In a conference that changed by the week, it became apparent that it's all about the match-ups and nothing proved that point more than Washington's two games against Oregon this year.
If regular season results have any bearing on how the tournament will play out, it should make for a very interesting three days.
Oregon dominated Arizona, swept UCLA and USC but split with ASU and Washington. It makes no sense, but Oregon's toughest game might be in round one.
Arizona dominated Cal, split with everyone else but got humiliated by Oregon not once but twice. If the Cats stay hot and meet the Ducks in the championship game, will the psychological damage Oregon caused two months ago be too much to overcome for the young Wildcats? Think Jason Gardner even remembers who won those games, and if so, think he cares? Me neither.
USC plays the team that it owned the most in the first round: Stanford. But USC can't beat Cal and got swept by Oregon too. Stanford crushed Washington twice but that doesn't really count for much seeing as the Huskies are the eighth seed. The problem for the Cardinal comes in round one and it's likely to be too much.
California matches up well with USC somehow but doesn't stand a chance when it plays Arizona. Cal also played Oregon tough twice but lost by double digits at Washington. Consistency isn't a strength of the Bears.
ASU doesn't "own" anybody but it beat No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Arizona and No. 6 UCLA on its way to the seventh seed in this tournament. ASU would probably be seeded higher if not for the NCAA's crazy notion of doing away with full-contact rugby during basketball games.
UCLA split with everyone except Oregon (lost twice)and Washington (won twice). Inconsistency and the lack of extended winning streaks must be driving Bruin fans batty. Is the problem the inexperienced point guard spot, the injuries and foul trouble to its gifted senior center or does it center on the greasiest head in Hollywood? Hmm…
The point to all of this madness is that different teams match-up with each other favorably and poorly. Oregon is the definite favorite, if it can get by Washington, but UCLA would have to be favored if each team was given a "do-over".
Anyway, here's a game-by-game breakdown of all four of Thursday's games.
Game 1: (1) Oregon vs. (8) Washington, 2:00 p.m. MST
*Washington beat Oregon in Seattle and played the Ducks to within six points on the road in Eugene, where only Cal and USC had stayed close before the Huskies came to town. U-Dub's Doug Wrenn is a match-up nightmare for anyone and especially for Oregon. The Ducks are playing so well right now after sweeping USC and UCLA on their home floors that it's hard to pick against Oregon in the rubber match between the Northwest rivals.
Pick: Oregon by 15.
Game 2: (4) USC vs. (5) Stanford, 4:30 p.m. MST
*Stanford is coming off an impressive sweep of the Arizona schools in the desert but that will make no difference when it tries to beat USC for the first time this year. USC annihilated Stanford two weeks ago in Maples Pavilion, winning by 19 points in a game that wasn't even that close. Stanford has no answer for the Trojans' Sam Clancy and can't handle USC's pressure defense with its less-than-athletic backcourt. USC looked great against Oregon State in its regular season finale and there is no reason to think that Stanford can close the gap on USC in such a short amount of time.
Pick: USC by eight.
Game 3: (2) Arizona vs. (7) ASU, 7:30 p.m. MST
*The Sun Devils are everyone's "team to watch" in this tournament but if you've ever seen them play, you must realize by now that they are painful to watch. Ugliest brand of basketball in the Pac-10 and that's including Washington State. Maybe since John Wooden will be in attendance he can remind ASU coach Rob Evans that basketball is a game of skill and athleticism; not one of wrestling, shoving and piling-on. ASU is the team nobody wants to play because none of the other coaches wants to get his players injured or suspended for retaliation because Kyle Dodd just jump kicked someone in the groin (he's not big enough to kick much higher). Arizona has twice played poorly against the Sun Devils and you can bet that the Wildcats won't be anything but on top of their game the third time around. Arizona is Arizona and ASU is inferior, period.
Pick: Arizona by 11.
Game 4: (3) California vs. (6) UCLA, 10:00 p.m. MST
*"Matt Barnes vs. Shantay Legans II: The Rematch!" Can't wait for that one, can you? The Golden Bears completely outclassed the Bruins in their last meeting in Berkeley, winning 69-51. What gets me is that in all the times I've watched Cal I have never once left impressed. And after watching the Bears lose by 46 at Arizona, I officially gave up on hoping the Pac-10 would send four more teams to the Sweet 16 like it did last year. It ain't going to happen, folks. Cal's backcourt is just not good enough and its best player (small forward Brian Wethers) comes off the bench and doesn't play nearly enough minutes. Wethers makes things happen, the other 28 guys that seem like they play 20+ minutes for Cal, don't. Well, maybe Amit Tamir does with his passing, but not really anyone else. Shantay "The Skull" Legans has the biggest head in the United States but that doesn't mean he makes the best decisions with the ball. UCLA gets its act back together against the Bears and takes advantage of the Staples Center's proximity to home with a close win.
Pick: UCLA by three.
So you have Oregon advancing to meet USC in the second round and then Arizona matching up with UCLA in the nightcap of the doubleheader. On Friday, everything will change. In fact, everything is going to go "bizzaro", to use an old Seinfeld reference.
In the Oregon-USC game, the Ducks realize that they have little chance of making a run to the Final Four unless it gets more production out of frontcourt players Chris Christoffersen and Robert Johnson and make them the focal points of their offense. Johnson does his best Freddie Jones imitation and Arvydas Sabonis, whoops, I mean Christoffersen, has to adapt his game to become more offensive-minded. It doesn't work. The Ducks fall completely apart in the second half when Luke Jackson gets bitter about not getting more of the ball and sits down on the floor, refusing to guard SC's David Bluthenthal, who has taken over point guard duties in place of new Trojan center Brandon Granville. Sam Clancy never enters the game because he is sitting on the bench reading Part III of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, "Return of the King". When the game is over and USC has won, Henry Bibby does his best Jim Valvano and runs around wildly with a huge smile looking for someone, anyone, to hug. He finds Jackson still sitting on the floor and they embrace. Oregon coach Ernie Kent races to the locker room to check out his new hairdo, which he changed after realizing the "Kid ‘n Play" look went out with "House Party II".
In the second game, Arizona coach Lute Olson hands the reigns over to assistant Josh Pastner, who quickly implements a new offense: "The Wing-T". He says after the game that, "It worked great for TCU back in the day they had a great quarterback." In the actual game, Will Bynum gets bored and begins shooting only left-handed shots…he finishes the game 11-14 from three-point land and scores a career-high 41 points. Dennis Latimore and Channing Frye double team UCLA freshman point guard Ryan Walcott so tenaciously that Walcott never gets a chance to be in the spotlight, as was Steve Lavin's strategy going into the game. Dijon Thompson calls a timeout at the 19:57 mark of the first half and walks over to Lute Olson, who is playing "Tetris" on a GameBoy video game set, and asks if he can please come play for Arizona next year? Lute loses concentration for a split second and he loses his game. He throws a fit like Bobby Knight and chucks the GameBoy high into the 83rd row of the Staples Center. Dijon signs the next day. Bruin center Dan Gadzuric reverts back to his childhood days when he begins trying to kick the ball through the net like he did as a 12-year-old playing soccer in Holland. Everytime Bynum shoots one of his deadly left-handed threes, Gadzuric can be heard screaming, "HANDS!" T.J. Cummings shocks everyone in attendance when he passes the ball to Matt Barnes midway through the second half. No one thought he had it in him. So much for the theory of "like father, like son". Luke Walton is in the game but he's an absolute ballhog. He will not pass to anyone, especially Bynum, with whom he's having a personal three-point shootout with. Ricky Anderson is perfectly athletic and shows no signs of being awkward with or without the ball in his hands. Scouts on hand say he is the next Keith Van Horn. Then there's UCLA's Jason Kapono. He's the most stable and normal of them all. He quit the team earlier in the day and is in the stands in street clothes (no headband!) sitting next to his unbelievably gorgeous girlfriend. Why? Because wouldn't you be too?
Anyway, Arizona is awarded the conference tournament crown based on total baskets made. Thanks to Will Bynum's new shooting stroke, Arizona edges USC for the title.