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March 12, 2014

Pac-12 tournament preview, predictions

It's time to raise the stakes, and what better place to do it than Las Vegas?

The Pac-12 Conference tournament will take over the MGM Grand Garden Arena the next four days, starting with opening-round action Wednesday afternoon and concluding with Saturday's championship game for the automatic NCAA tournament bid.

The top four seeds, headlined by runaway regular-season champion and fourth-ranked Arizona, have earned a bye into the quarterfinals. The middle seeds in the field and on down have plenty riding on the tournament.

Here's a rundown on how each team looks:

1. Arizona (28-3, 15-3 Pac-12)

Streak: L1

The only real question about the Wildcats will point to their urgency, with little left to play for outside of the title of tournament champions. A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament already looks likely, and it will be a chance for the others in the field to land a quality victory and impress the selection committee.

Then again, this also is a team that boasts the Pac-12 player of the year (Nick Johnson), coach of the year (Sean Miller) and freshman of the year (Aaron Gordon). UA has wins over each of the three teams it has lost to, as well, and it has rebounded from the season-ending injury to Brandon Ashley nicely.

A defense led by the backcourt - T.J. McConnell joined Johnson on the Pac-12 all-defensive team - has been the identity of the Wildcats.

Those pesky free throws could be an issue, though.

He said it: "We want to try and win the tournament; if we don't, it's not going to be because we didn't take it as serious. … We're hoping that we have a chance to play three games. I know this: We could play really well and not win the tournament because of how good our conference is." - Miller on the quality of the field

2. UCLA (23-8, 12-6 Pac-12)

Streak: L1

The Bruins had a shaky end to their season, losing three of their last five games. Included was a one-game suspension to first-team all-conference selections Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, and an 18-point loss in the regular-season finale at Washington State.

But UCLA is a veteran team led by Anderson, who put up the best numbers in the league with averages of 14.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists. So the talent is there, but stringing together wins in a single-elimination tournament may be a challenge sitting on the tougher side of the bracket.

He said it: "You only get like 25, 30 minutes to shoot (in pregame warm-ups). And I've said this before, I've been in a lot of these tournaments: That first game in the (quarterfinals) always benefits the team that's getting to play the night before because they've been in that environment. Now, as you move forward the bye helps you." - Steve Alford on a possible disadvantage of the first-round bye

3. Arizona State (21-10, 10-8 Pac-12)

Streak: L2

The double-overtime win over in-state rival Arizona on Feb. 14 is the one that may push ASU over the top and into the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. But losses in four of the last six regular-season games doesn't do much for momentum entering the tournament.

No longer are the Sun Devils in the friendly confines of Wells Fargo Arena, either. ASU hasn't won a game away from Tempe since Jan. 29, a stretch spanning five games.

But Jahii Carson loves Sin City. In five career games in Vegas - including a pair of tournament games last season - the All-Pac-12 first-team guard is averaging 28.8 points and shooting 59.6 percent.

He said it: "We think we've done enough to build up a pretty good (NCAA tournament) résumé, but winning in the (Pac-12) tournament wouldn't hurt." - Carson on ASU's body of work

4. California (19-12, 10-8 Pac-12)

Streak: W1

The Bears handed the Wildcats their first loss after a 21-0 start to the season. Now, they find themselves on the same side of the bracket.

And if you're looking for the team with a first-round bye most likely to fall first, the Bears may fit that description.

The end to Cal's season was not a pretty one, losing four of five - including three by 18 points or more - before salvaging the finale with a 66-65 overtime home win over Colorado.

A positive sign of any kind is welcoming right now, as the task of winning three games in three days may be a daunting one for the Bears.

He said it: "It's going to give us a little more confidence going in and a little feel good. We still have 19 wins and we're still fourth in the league. Are we a top-10 team? Probably not. But this is where we are." - Head coach Mike Montgomery on going in with a victory

5. Colorado (21-10, 10-8 Pac-12)

Streak: L1

Like the Wildcats, the Buffaloes had to rebound from a devastating injury. In Spencer Dinwiddie's absence, Colorado posted a 7-7 record to close the season. Splitting a tough Bay Area trip, including a one-point overtime loss at California, isn't a bad way to end the season.

Included in that 14-game stretch, however, are two losses by a combined 39 points to UA, which may be a potential semifinal opponent. The postseason, above all else, is about match-ups and it looks to be a bad one for the Buffs if they want to win the whole thing.

He said it: "A bad stretch of a game this time of year - a bad two or three minutes in a game can cost you a game and you're done, you're coming home. … You have to play with an edge and understand that every possession could be our last. You're not guaranteed a tomorrow, not now." - Head coach Tad Boyle on his players' mindset

6. Stanford (19-11, 10-8 Pac-12)

Streak: W1

Is this the year Johnny Dawkins finally gets the Cardinal into the Big Dance?

Stanford posted a combined 3-6 record against the Pac-12 teams slotted ahead in the standings, leaving doubt and labeling the group as a bit of a disappointment. Oregon's early struggles took some of the heat off.

But the Cardinal has a pair of first-team all-conferences standouts in Dwight Powell and Chasson Randle to go with all-defense honoree Josh Huestis and Pac-12 most improved player Anthony Brown. Only Arizona and ASU had better representation among the major awards.

Stanford also scored a season-ending win over one of the hottest teams in the league, Utah. Just one win this week could provide enough of a boost to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.

He said it: "I think it's important, the way we won. You go into the tournament, you can't say you're always going to shoot a great percentage. You have to win defensively, and then when you shoot, it just becomes a bonus. The teams that have been the most successful, and I think you watch Arizona right now, they're a great defensive team. And so you can overcome some of your struggles." - Dawkins on winning when the offense isn't clicking

7. Oregon (22-8, 10-8 Pac-12)

Streak: W7

Nobody is playing better right now than the defending tournament champion Ducks, who capped the win streak with an upset over then-No. 3 Arizona in the regular-season finale. But there also was that ugly double-overtime escape at UCLA that has kept the doubters skeptical.

Oregon is among the teams on the bubble because of a cold start to Pac-12 play, but the recent run has revived its chances immensely - if not all but assured a spot. A team littered with transfers that looked like the biggest disappointment, and was left for dead a month ago, now has the look of the squad ready to make a final push for a repeat.

But look out for that dangerous Civil War contest in the opening round to possibly spoil things for the Ducks...

He said it: "Glass half full, we got it going and played our tails off. Half empty, what the heck were we doing for those eight games?" - Head coach Dana Altman on Oregon's 3-8 start in Pac-12 play

8. Utah (20-10, 9-9 Pac-12)

Streak: L1

The Utes have been the undisputed surprise of the Pac-12 and finished the season strong, winning six of eight before the one-point loss at Stanford.

Close calls, particularly away from home, are something Utah is well-versed in, too. Of its 10 losses this season, only one was decided by a margin greater than four points.

That team: Arizona, which is a potential second-round opponent. Look out, the Utes could be the darkhorse of the tournament.

He said it: "We're a 9-9 team. I don't like the proverbial, 'You're better than your record,' because I think you are what you are. I'm confident that we're ready for the next chapter going into Vegas, and we'll be prepared." - Head coach Larry Krystkowiak on Utah's momentum

9. Washington (17-14, 9-9 Pac-12)

Streak: W1

The Huskies are the highest seeded team yet to win four consecutive games all season - and now the idea is to win four in four days.

Utah isn't the ideal team to try and start that streak against, and a potential second-round game against Arizona doesn't look promising if UW advances. But the Huskies have won three of their last four to enter the tournament with some semblance of momentum.

He said it: "Very little margin for error. We have to come out starting Wednesday with just a great focus and a great togetherness." - Head coach Lorenzo Romar on what it takes to advance in the Pac-12 tournament

10. Oregon State (16-14, 8-10 Pac-12)

Streak: W1

Nobody in the tournament may have a bigger chip on his shoulder than Roberto Nelson, who was left off the first team despite leading the Pac-12 in scoring. Nelson, a second-team selection instead, was the only player in the league to average more than 20 points per game.

Now, he gets the opportunity to take that slight out on an in-state rival. At the very least, the first-round match-up could bring the entertainment value.

The Beavers, who are coming off an overtime win against the Sun Devils, also split the head-to-head series with the Ducks.

He said it: "That's an NCAA tournament team we just beat. In order to play in the postseason, you have to beat teams like that. They're probably going to go to the tournament, so I feel like our confidence is already high." - Junior forward Eric Moreland on OSU's momentum

11. Washington State (10-20, 3-15 Pac-12)

Streak: W1

The good news: The eight-game losing streak is over, avoiding last place and the 12th seed.

The bad news: The "reward" is first-round opponent Stanford, which swept the season series by a combined 45 points.


He said it: "Our backs are against the wall and sometimes you end up in a situation where that brings the best out of you." - Head coach Ken Bone on extending the season

12. USC (11-20, 2-16 Pac-12)

Streak: L1

It was far from the reincarnation of Dunk City in Year 1 under head coach Andy Enfield.

The Trojans' first five losses in Pac-12 play - and 11 of the 16 in league action - were decided by double digits. The trek on the recruiting trail can't come soon enough.

He said it: "A new coach in his first year usually struggles." - Senior transfer Pe'Shon Howard on Enfield's first season at USC


First round: Utah over Washington; Colorado over USC; Oregon State over Oregon; Stanford over Washington State

Quarterfinals: Arizona over Utah; Colorado over Cal; UCLA over Oregon State; Stanford over ASU

Semifinals: Arizona over Colorado; Stanford over UCLA

Champion: Arizona

Coincidentally, Stanford was the opponent that watched Arizona cut down the nets for the regular-season title.

The dominance of the battle-tested Wildcats is hard to ignore. UA looks like a team on a mission, hoping to conquer some past demons in the Pac-12 tournament in recent years and go charging into the NCAA tournament.

For a team that started 21-0 and has blocked out the distractions of such a streak and their respective futures, a four-game run in Vegas could just be the beginning of another hot streak and a testament to its season-long focus.

A perfect NCAA tournament bracket submission can win $1 Billion in the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge with Yahoo Sports. Join the GOAZCATS.com pool today.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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