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March 13, 2013
In a league without a consensus favorite, 18th-ranked Arizona may feel in its element at the Pac-12 Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
The pursuit for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament begins when the first round gets underway Wednesday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Wildcats, seeded fourth in the field, will face the winner of this afternoon's 5/12 contest between Colorado and Oregon State on Thursday.
But even the No. 5 Buffaloes are not a sure thing against the last-place Beavers. Pac-12 defensive player of the year Andre Roberson (viral illness), who has missed the last two games, is expected to start for CU, but OSU will carry in the momentum of a victory in last Saturday's regular-season finale between the teams.
Not that the Beavers have much of a shot to run the table and steal the tournament, but you could make the case that at least five teams have realistic hopes of hoisting the trophy Saturday night. With that in mind, and brackets on the mind of several others around this time of the year, it's time to make some predictions.
Just do not hold me responsible for your losses at the sportsbook this week. (Predictions are in italics.)
No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Oregon State - Buffaloes
The rundown: Although the Sun Devils lost four consecutive games to end the regular season, they still have Pac-12 co-freshman of the year Jahii Carson on their side. In a one-and-done setting, give me the team with the best player on the floor.
The Buffaloes should be able to get through to the next round regardless of Roberson's effectiveness, while the Cougars do not have enough around Brock Motum to take down their in-state rivals.
No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 8 Arizona State - Bruins
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 5 Colorado - Wildcats
No. 2 California vs. No. 10 Utah - Bears
No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 6 Washington - Huskies
The rundown: The Wildcats and Buffaloes could produce the game of the tournament. A lot of people look at UCLA as the premier rival for Arizona, but Colorado has proven to be a headache for Arizona in each of the past two seasons. But in what would be Roberson's second game in as many days after recovering from an illness, there is no way to tell how his body will respond to the quick turnaround.
The Bruins' three-headed tandem led by the other half of the freshman of the year vote, Shabazz Muhammad, coupled with steady senior point guard Larry Drew II, should be too much for Carson and Co., to overcome.
Pac-12 player of the year Allen Crabbe should have no issues asserting himself against Utah. Meanwhile, the Ducks look like a team that has lost their rhythm since the return of point guard Dominic Artis, who missed nine games before returning in time for the end of the regular season.
No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 4 Arizona - Wildcats
No. 2 California vs. No. 6 Washington - Bears
The rundown: UCLA's regular-season title and series sweep will be enough fuel for Arizona to pull out the win that will matter most. Like blindly picking a 13-seed to upset a four-seed in the Big Dance, there is little reasoning behind why it is so tough to beat a good team three times in one season. The Wildcats are playing the hungry card in the tournament and will find a way into the championship game for a third consecutive season.
Cal will continue to get the luck of the draw with the easier half of the bracket. Washington owns the league's second-worst field goal percentage defense and shoots below 68 percent from the free-throw line.
Championship No. 2 California vs. No. 4 Arizona - Bears
The rundown: Consistency has not been the Wildcats' best quality since the calendar turned to 2013 and that's exactly what would have to happen in order to win the tournament. The Bears, meanwhile, won seven consecutive games before slipping up in the regular-season finale against Stanford.
In the only meeting between the teams this season, Crabbe and his 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting was too much for Arizona's top defender, Nick Johnson, to handle and his length at 6-6 should make it another tough night for the 'Cats.
What may carry Arizona to the title
Arizona needs Johnson to perform more like the player who was stellar throughout the nonconference slate and looked like a conference player of the year candidate during the hot start to the season.
In 12 games, Johnson averaged 12.7 points on 49.5 percent shooting - including 39.5 percent from the 3-point line. Defensively, the sophomore collected 2.3 steals per game.
In Pac-12 action, the 6-3 guard's numbers are down to 10.8 points, 41.6 percent shooting - 31.5 percent beyond the arc - and 1.8 steals in 18 contests. Battling an illness of his own for part of the stretch, Johnson scored below double figures in five consecutive games from Feb. 2-17, attempted five shots or less in four of the games and swiped four of his eight steals in one of the contests.
Arizona is a better team when it does not have to solely rely on its stagnant halfcourt offense, and Johnson's honorable-mention-worthy defense creates easy transition opportunities.
What may send Arizona home early
The Wildcats have made games more of an adventure than they have to be since conference play started in January.
For as much as head coach Sean Miller points to the defensive end of the floor - and it was bad, at times - UA can be puzzling on offense, too. Forget about the arguments revolving around not having a true point guard. The shot selection of several perimeter players and turnover issues this season have been just as guilty.
Only ASU (647) and Wazzu (642) attempted more 3-pointers than Arizona (631) in the Pac-12. Only one other team - Stanford (582) - attempted more than 500 this season. Although the trigger-happy 'Cats were the league's second-best team from long range (36.3 percent), there were several ill-advised shots early in the clock and/or contested that killed possessions.
The Wildcats are the second-best free-throw shooting team at 74.4 percent and the easiest way to get to the line is by attacking the basket. In a tournament where every possession could be important, smart decision-making will be necessary.