Vegas Takeaways

Reflections from the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas

1.  Vegas Baby!! Vegas!!!- The move of the conference tournament to Sin City was pure genius. The experience of descending a hotel elevator, walking through the MGM Grand casino, and then into a basketball arena for three nights was amazing, and easily worth sacrificing the convenience of Staples Center for this L.A. resident. Frankly, if Stanford wants to move its entire home schedule to the MGM Grand, I'd be down.

2. 'Twas a good weekend to be a burglar in Tucson.
It seemed obvious that the entire city had migrated to Vegas.  Press releases will say that Pac-12 fans sold out the MGM Grand Arena, but the truth is that Arizona fans sold out the building. Nevertheless, after years of watching games in Maples and empty Staples, it was great to be in a packed arena to be reminded how exhilarating college basketball can be.

3. Monty Cuts to the Point: 
I overcame my starstruck state and introduced myself to The Great Mike Montgomery, whose camp I first attended as a 7 year-old and whose teams galvanized my college experience.  Nobody had a bigger impact on the way I watch and understand the game and the way I love college basketball.  We walked out of the MGM Grand Arena and as numerous Arizona fans (?!?!) stopped him for photos, he graciously talked to me about the nuances of the top of the key pick and roll.  He even scribbled some O's on a paper for me to illustrate the point. I asked him if Arizona had any chance against Kentucky.  "No, no shot," he quickly responded. "Kentucky does all the things they do well better than they do." Ok, then. He didn't share that opinion with the Tucsonians who were stopping him for photos, but he would have.

4. The Rock Star: 
Unquestionably the Show this weekend in Vegas was at the announcer's table. Bill Walton couldn't go ten feet at MGM Grand without being greeted, saluted, and stopped for photographs and autographs. Many seem divided on the board about his "style," but I for one find him a breath of fresh air from the Automatrons currently dominating the sports announcing landscape.  In fact, the Pac-12 Tourney was well covered with the Volcanic One on TV and Monty on the radio.  Though completely polar opposites, both have staggering amounts of basketball IQ that comes through during their commentator.  Coach Montgomery is more explicit, but if you pay attention to Walton, you get insight that very few are able to convey.  Plus he cracks me up.

5. Scream about UCLA
all you want, but...They did show well in Vegas against Arizona.  I didn't think they'd get in because I didn't think the tournament wanted any part of "moral victories" but the Committee Chair suggested otherwise.  Two Bruins who really showed me a lot this weekend:  Steve Alford and Norman Powell.  That semifinal against Arizona was not only a display of great athleticism and skill, but a tactician's delight. Alford threw plenty at Sean Miller's Wildcats, including a 3-2 zone that really gave Arizona struggles for prolonged stretches of time.  UCLA had to deal with hard doubles on Tony Parker, and was able to find some success by utilizing him in screen-rolls.  I've had my doubts about Alford's ceiling overall with the Bruins, but he had his team ready and resilient against top competition last Friday night.

    Two quick points about UCLA's inclusion into the field of 68:  First, it's totally reasonable to doubt their qualifications.  They had one marquee victory (Utah at home) and 13 losses is quite a few.  That being said, don't be surprised to see the Bruins win a game and maybe even threaten in the second. They have a gutsy point guard, a physical and aggressive shooting guard in Norman Powell, and Isaac Hamilton has quietly developed into a very dangerous player for the Bruins.  Add Looney and Parker to that line-up and there aren't too many bubble teams that are as much of a threat to make the second weekend as UCLA. That doesn't mean that it was right to include them just that they certainly have NCAA-level talent. Secondly, it's pretty clear that Stanford's two brutal losses to the Bruins was the difference between NCAA and NIT for both.

6.  At least one problem Stanford doesn't have: 
I was watching Colorado play with a Pac-12 assistant coach who told me that it was clear to him and to many others that Colorado was not a team that particularly enjoyed playing with one another. He said you could see it on the bench, where players rarely reacted to anything that happened on the court. Given that insight, it wasn't surprising to learn that Askia Booker has decided not to play in the CBI while his teammates do.  Coach Tad Boyle has reportedly said that any Buffalo who roams off campus this summer and doesn't participate in preparation for the upcoming season won't be welcomed back to Boulder next season.  Power plays like that work less and less frequently in college basketball, so it will be interesting to see how the summer goes.  Injuries were thought to be the biggest obstacle to Colorado's success this year, but it sure sounds like something's not working right at CU right now.

7.  Oregon made a tournament run, and don't be surprised if they make a TOURNAMENT run.
Now, given that they would be looking at a second round matchup with Wisconsin, "run" may be a bit of a stretch.  However, the Ducks play with quickness, a gutsy and outstanding guard in Mighty Joe Young, and they are well-coached.  They lack size, and the athleticism of Arizona's size basically roasted the Ducks on Saturday night.  Oregon also struggled to find a second scoring option due  mainly to the foul trouble on Brooks.  That being said, they stand a good chance of taking down Oklahoma State, and a hot day from Mighty Joe might be enough to at least throw a scare into Bucky.

8.  It's about $: 
I asked a long time Phoenician who was working the Tournament for the Pac-12 what was the biggest impediment to success at ASU.  He said that at the moment there is virtually no funding and institutional support for hoops and that the focus was on football.  Now, ASU has completed a new basketball practice facility but unlike in football, those facilities don't move the needle as dramatically in basketball.  Because of the focus on football, it sounded to me like Coach Herb Sendek's job was in no immediate jeopardy despite only one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last six seasons. These are the kinds of conversations you have on press row that never really get reported, but I've always felt that Arizona State could be a juggernaut in football and basketball.  Though they are on their way on the gridiron, it seems like it's going to be a couple more years of Herb before the institution makes a serious commitment to hoops.

9.  Utah is a tough team to figure, but Larry Krystkowiak does enjoy a good chicken finger. 
Utah absolutely devoured a gassed Stanford team in the second half of its quarterfinal game Thursday night.  However, the Utes came right back to be upset by Oregon for the second time in in under a month.  They've also lost four of the past seven, and in games decided by single digits are 3-6.  Now, you can't punish Utah for blowing its opponents out so frequently, but they do seem to struggle when games get tight.  They have the talent and the system to get to the second weekend of the Tournament, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can break out of their funk in time to do so. The game against Oregon saw the Utes betrayed by their defense.  Coach K must have been meditating on this when I passed him at the MGM pool chomping down on some breaded poultry.

  Larry Scott set up a four-day rager in Vegas and all he got from Pac-12 fans was....a cascade of boos, every time his name was mentioned or he had a microphone in his hand, either to congratulate the newly inducted Pac-12 Hall of Famers or the winners of the tournament. The success of this event alone would seem to have earned him some good grace from the fans, but there was no room for interpreting how he was regarded in MGM  Garden Arena.  It would have been nice to do better than an 8 PM start time for the Tournament's final, and the TV demands have spread the schedule all over creation.  However, it's hard to argue that the Pac-12 right now is worse off than when he took over. Also, he's got Bill Walton doing every game possible. 

11.  Sean Miller may call it "A Player's Program" but...
it's his.  In every shape and form.  It's clear that he's found his stride in Tucson, winning an elusive conference tournament and now getting set for a deep March run.  Arizona plays both ends of the floor, laps the conference in fan devotion, and may very well be defending its national championship had Brandon Ashley not been injured last year. Ashley was spectacular, going and capturing Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. In the only game where Arizona was really tested, Ashley was outstanding against UCLA.  He was 19-27 over the three days, and he played great defense both on the ball and in help situations.  He added four blocks and 19 rebounds to the Wildcat cause.  Stanley Johnson may be the most heralded newcomer and T.J. McConnell may be the most beloved, but it's guys like Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who take the Wildcats to the next level. They have size and athleticism and erase so much of the floor. Arizona's relentlessness shrinks the floor and leaves very little operating room for the opposition. They may not be able to topple Kentucky, but few teams have a shot to beat the Tucson Kitties themselves.

12.  The trends of all these teams are directly connected to their coaches. 
Arizona, Utah, Oregon, and UCLA were the conference's NCAA invitees, and are all extremely well-coached. Oregon State's got its man in Wayne Tinkle. After that, you have some shaky situations.  Stanford and Arizona State are stuck on the wrong side of  mediocrity, and at least in Palo Alto, the few remaining diehards are well past restless. Washington State's Ernie Kent gets a few years based on his relative success this year and his track record. Lorenzo Romar has been at Washington long enough to be the Dean of Pac-12 coaches with 13 seasons in Seattle.  However, after six NCAA tournament appearances in his first eight years, it's now been four straight years without a bid for the Huskies. Andy Enfield doesn't yet appear to be the answer in Troy, but with the Trojans football team returning to huge national hype, will anybody notice?  We talked about Tad Boyle, who may be losing his grip on a program where he's brought success.

13.  There's nothing wrong with 'chalk.'
After some exciting opening day games, Thursday was a sequence of foregone conclusions.  However, the benefit of all four top seeds advancing was that we got two extremely exciting and well-played games on Friday. The Saturday night Duck Demolition was more the result of Arizona's superiority over the entire league than the flaws of Coach Dana Altman's team. It's hard to say there was really anything new learned in Vegas, but if you have to take a refresher course, doing it in Sin City means you won't be bored.

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