COMMENTARY: Pac-10 tourney could be wild

A COLLEGE BASKETBALL coach, long since forgotten, once described his job as "watching a bunch of teenagers run around with my paycheck in their mouths." Never have college basketball coaches earned their soggy paychecks more than this winter in the Pac-10. Or maybe it should be the Pack-9, since the league is packed with nine quality teams and…the Corvallis Bad News Bears.

Picking a winner at the Pac-10 Tournament this week in Los Angeles is akin to picking your favorite child. All 10, er, nine can test your patience at times, but they are essentially good, and they make you so proud at times.


The best team in, maybe, the best conference in the country? UCLA, no question. Well, there might be some question, but the refs took care of that the last two games, didn't they?

(Memo to Pac-10 commish Tom Hansen: When you're done hiding your teams from most of the country by televising games on Fox Sports instead of the legion of ESPN affiliates, you might want to slap the guys in the striped shirts upside the head and ask them just one question: What the hell were you THINKING? Thank you.)

Can the Cougars win the Pac-10 Tournament? Damn right they can.

Can the Cougars lose their first game at the Pac-10 Tournament? Damn right they can.

THE REASONS WSU can win the tournament are obvious. The Cougars play staunch defense, have balanced scoring and are loaded with battle-tested seniors. Defense and experience are invaluable in the postseason. Plus, a 23-7 record is flat-out dazzling in a league this tough.

Just as obvious are the reasons WSU could be one-and-done in L.A. The third-seeded Cougars lack a superstar, a blinding talent who can simply take over the game when it is needed most. Also, Washington State has barely played .500 ball (6-5) over the past six weeks.

AN EVEN BIGGER factor in a possible 0-1 scenario for the Cougars is their first-round opponent. WSU is 2-0 against Oregon this season, but the Ducks won the previous 13 straight and 21 of 22.

That said, most of those WSU teams were vastly inferior to the current crew. Also, the 18-12 Ducks struggle to score inside, and their defense is spotty at best and atrocious at worst.

Ah, but few teams can light it up from the perimeter like Oregon. Hot shooting carried the fourth-seeded Ducks to the tournament championship last year, and they wound up advancing to the Elite Eight.

Just like WSU, Oregon returns four starters from a year ago, including Tajuan Porter. The 5-foot-6 Porter has been MIA more than MVP this season since moving from shooting guard to point guard after the graduation of standout Aaron Brooks. However, Porter and the Ducks have been heating up down the stretch, just as they did a year ago.

The Ducks buried their first eight 3-pointers of the second half on Saturday against Arizona. Realistically, how many teams can beat someone shooting like that? On the other hand, how many teams defend like Wazzu?

Just like last season, the Ducks were wobbling before winning their last three games coming into the tournament. Just like last season, the Cougars split their last four games prior to the tournament, including a double-overtime win the last time out.

MORE HISTORY: THE Cougars own the worst record (3-8) in Pac-10 Tournament history, and they haven't won a conference championship of any sort since 1941. Of course, no WSU team had ever been ranked all year before this one, and the only Cougar team seeded higher than this year was the No. 2 squad of last season.

Except for Arizona, the Ducks have won more tournament games (12) than any team and are tied with UCLA for the most titles (two). Oregon beat out Arizona for the sixth seed Saturday, but the Wildcats are fighting desperately to extend their string of Big Dance cards to 24, and they get a freebie Wednesday when they open against Oregon State.

The dilemma facing the Cougars is this: If they beat Oregon on Thursday, they should face No. 2 seed Stanford (24-6) or No. 7 seed Arizona (18-13) in Friday's semifinals, and WSU is 0-2 against both teams. UCLA (28-3), the third team WSU is 0-2 against this season, is on the opposite side of the bracket.

Keep in mind, however, that the No. 1 seed has just as many first-round losses as championships (two of each) in the tournament over the past seven years. The 0-1 brigade includes the 2007 Bruins, who lost to Cal, although they recovered to make a second straight Final Four run.

A year ago, the best team (arguably) in WSU history went 1-1 at the tournament. This week, an even better (arguably) WSU team will be hard pressed to better that mark -- or, perhaps, to equal it. A first-round exit might clinch a mid-range seed and trip back east in the NCAA Tournament, but two or three wins would bolster WSU's seed and quite possibly shorten their plane ride next week.

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