HOW GOOD IS GOOD ENOUGH?
Back-to-back twenty win seasons, the best freshmen point guard in the Pac Ten, the top power forward with more double-doubles this season than any player in the league... This must be a quick breakdown of Stanford, Arizona or Ucla, but it's USC. Three players: Brandon Granville, David Bluthenthal and Sam Clancy are the Trojans' own blood, sweat and tears. These three and their coach Henry Bibby have built USC basketball into a winning program. They were why Troy made it's run to the round of eight in the 2001 NCAA tournament and they are the principal reason USC has earned a trip back again for 2002. Twenty wins, back-to-back. That is good, but as the Trojans enter post season play, in the Pac Ten Tournament and head straight to the frontlines for March Madness, the question becomes... How good is good and is USC good enough to weather this storm?
Ask coach Lute Olson about his thoughts on the return of the Pac-10 tournament this year, and he'll say he's trying to ignore such a thought. "It's just asinine that we beat up on each other for 18 games, then turn around and exhaust whichever team goes through to the finals in preparation for the real tournament," Olson said in the Oregonian. "There will be three days of classes missed. And, you know, you hear this argument sometimes about how it gets you ready for the NCAA Tournament. Go back and check how our teams did in the NCAA Tournament in the years we had the conference tournament."
So, with Olson's feelings, why even have a Pac Ten tournament and just who does it favor? At the end of the 2001 season the coaches were asked to vote on whether the league needed an end of season tournament. At the time, only two coaches were clearly opposed - Montgomery of Stanford and Olson of Arizona. What do these two men have in common? They are winners. In fact for the last decade, they are the two most successful coaches in the Pac Ten and have managed to keep our league on the radar. Ucla's habit of early collapses and absolute no-shows mixed in with occasional brilliance have put them in a place where they aren't taken very seriously. So with Stanford and Arizona at the head of the Pac, why would their two coaches not want a tournament? Really, because the only teams with anything to gain in post season, interleague play are nationally unknowns. If they play big and beat a team recognized as a national powerhouse, then the spotlight shifts enough to at minimum enhance their recruiting and perhaps earn them a trip to the show. Whereas a tournament tough team like Stanford or Arizona risks injury to players as well as physical and psychological exhaustion. And with the NCAA tournament games beginning just a few days after the Pac Ten tournament wraps, team continuity and spirit are greatly at risk. However, eight coaches outnumbered two and the Pac Ten now has a post season tournament to show the nation the depth of our league. Here's how it might shake out...
USC vs. STANFORD
It is near impossible for one Pac Ten team to sweep another through three games. For that reason, I'm going with Stanford. SC is favored by 1pt from the oddsmakers and this speaks volumes about what the Trojans have accomplished this year. I don't think it would hurt either squad to get out of this tournament early and start prepping for the NCAA's. Considering Montgomery's distaste for the whole endeavor, we might see Stanford pull a mental no-show. In conjunction with that, the Trojans would love nothing more than to win out, so we'll see how things shake out. Right now, Stanford by 4
CAL vs. UCLA
The oddsmakers have this as a pick. As much of a keen dislike I have for anything in blue and gold, one does have to choose a winner. Regrettably, I must go with the Bruins. As poorly coached and out of sync Ucla has been, they are a team that rises to the occasion. Cal, on the other hand, is a hustling, blood and guts type of ball club that will be in it until the end - the Bruins in a virtual route (for them) win by six. The difference makers for Ucla will be Knight, Kapono and Barnes all from the outside. Look for the Bruin's big man, Dan Gadzuric to get in foul trouble early trying to keep up with Cal's freshman phenom, Jamaal Sampson. In fact, if Cal can work the ball underneath to Jamaal, keep the score low and then make a run in the last five minutes with their outside shooting, then watch the scores flip putting the Golden Bears on top and ready for the second round. As we speak, however Ucla by 6.
OREGON vs. WASHINGTON
Two players: Freddie Jones and Luke Ridnour are without a doubt the keys to success for the 2002 Ducks. And if they can keep their heads on straight, they just might help their team reach the final four in the NCAA's. All that praise aside, everyone's beatable and their big men leave a lot to be desired. Washington, on the other hand should not be in a tournament anywhere in the country this year. They're a heartbeat better than Oregon State (one of two not invited to play) and therefore won't put up much of a fight against their hated foes. As we speak, Oregon is picked to win by 12. Look for them to add six more to the count and send the Huskies packing. Oregon by 18.
ARIZONA vs. ARIZONA STATE
Always trust the oddsmakers and they've got this game picked to be a close one with the Wildcats winning by four. Call me crazy, but the Arizona schools split this year and Coach Olson has bigger things on his mind - like the NCAA's. Combine those things with the knowledge that this is the Sun Devils' post season and you might have an upset. Then again, if Walton and Gardner pull out their magic hats, watch out - this could be a runaway train leading all the way to Union Station, Pac Ten tournament champ trophies tucked under UofA arms. That's right, this game could decide the tournament. If Arizona comes out hot, nobody's going to stop them until they've won it all. But if they come out, even a touch off their game, but still beat ASU then they'll lose to their next round opponent and perhaps be so scarred for the NCAA's that they lose right out of the gate. Olson is a great coach and will probably have them prepared. UofA by 5 in OT.
So that's the end of round one. Ucla, Stanford, Arizona and Oregon all advance. Where it goes from there will be discussed in tomorrow night's recap and preview for the coming games.
For SC, this tournament could be critical to their success in the NCAA's. If they can somehow beat Stanford for a third time and really gel as a squad, then that bodes well for the show. However, another buzzer-beater or close loss and kiss their mental games good-bye. For SC to win and really build a streak, they need Bluthenthal and Granville to produce bigtime. Clancy will get his points and boards. Craven will drop 15pts with his all out hustle and game breaking steals. O'Neil will bring his consistent 10 plus points to the game and even Farmer will add a few dagger type three's when SC needs them. But, Granville and Bluthenthal have to post some career high games for the Trojans to make a run. Without them, the Cardinal and Gold fades away. Let's hope that is not the case and these boys pull off as solid a run as they posted last year, when reaching the round of eight. Let's hope they close out the season like champs. All they have to do is answer the question, "How good is good enough?"