USC’s quest for an NCAA tournament bid heats up beginning Thursday when they look to win the Pac-10 tournament. The road will not be easy, but the Trojans have as good of a chance as any. Of 10 ESPN pundits, 4 chose USC to cut down the nets at Staples Center, 3 chose UCLA, 1 chose Cal, 1 chose Arizona, and one chose Washington.
Here is how I see the Pac-10 tournament playing out. As always these predictions are for amusement purposes only:
Wednesday March 9 (Opening Round)
10 Arizona State (12-18, 4-14) over 7 Oregon (14-16, 7-11) 6 pm
Arizona State limped into the final weekend of Pac-10 play with an awful 2-14 record in conference. They built some momentum by blowing out Oregon by 20 and Oregon State by 14. The Sun Devils looked awful when they came to Galen Center, but they have to have some confidence after the beating they put on their opponents. By contrast, Oregon has lost four in a row and needs to address serious issues with their defense. The chances ASU blows out Oregon are very slim, but I like them to squeak past the Ducks and notch a win in the tournament.
9 Oregon State (10-19, 5-13) over 8 Stanford (15-15, 7-11) 8:30 pm
Whose stench is less foul? Oregon State has lost 7 of their last 8 and Stanford has lost 5 of their last 6 games in conference. Both teams are young and hope to progress next year. Oregon State won the match-up two weeks ago to split the season series. Stanford was just blown out 74-55 by their rival Cal, and you have to wonder about a team that won’t even show up for a rivalry game. Oregon State has pulled off a few head-scratching upsets over Arizona and Washington, and they will take care of the sliding Cardinal.
Thursday March 10 (Quarterfinals)
4 USC (18-13, 10-8) over 5 California (17-13, 10-8) 12 pm
These two teams split the season series as both games were decided by a combined 5 points. Both teams pride themselves on defense and it will likely be a tightly-contested game that comes down to the final possession. Cal lost the most recent meeting, and used it as a rallying point to finish the season strong. They have won four in a row, but two of those games came against the Oregon schools. USC will be fresh and brimming with motivation knowing that an NCAA bid is within reach. Down the stretch, I would rather have Nikola Vucevic, Donte Smith, Jio Fontan, and Maurice Jones than Jorge Gutierrez. The important stat to look at: USC hasn’t lost in the quarterfinals since 2006.
1 Arizona (25-6, 14-4) over 9 Oregon State 2:30 pm
Oregon State beat Arizona early in the year, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. The Wildcats are the superior team and, if the game is even close with 10 minutes to go, they will pull away. Inferior teams beat favorites by knocking down 3s and hoping for a bad shooting night by the other team. The problem? Arizona leads the conference in 3-point made percentage and is the best in the conference at defending the 3.
2 UCLA (22-9, 13-5) over 10 Arizona State 6 pm
Malcolm Lee has a slight tear in the knee but is expected to play. Even without him, UCLA should not have trouble with Arizona State. The Bruins are strong inside and have relied on good guard play to take opponents down. Arizona State just doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with UCLA.
6 Washington State (19-11, 9-9) over 3 Washington (20-10, 11-7) 8:30 pm
Lorenzo Romar’s program has had a tough year off the court, and things hit a low point when he suspended Venoy Overton for the Pac-10 tournament after he was charged for providing alcohol to a minor. Now, the Huskies are thin at the guard position and will be missing their most pesky defender. This team has the talent to win the Pac-10, but the off-court issues and injuries are getting in the way. Washington State swept the season series and did so in convincing fashion. The Cougars seem to have the Huskies number this year and Klay Thompson will be chomping at the bit after missing an overtime loss to UCLA for marijuana possession.
Friday March 11 (Semifinals)
4 USC over 1 Arizona 6pm
Arizona shot over 60% against USC in Tucson, but the Trojans made many adjustments in the second contest and upset the then-No. 10 Wildcats. USC now has the blueprint for beating Arizona and a plan for guarding Derrick Williams. If they can keep him off the line like they did in the second meeting, Arizona is in trouble. They rely heavily on Williams to carry them, and when he struggles so do they. In that upset, USC only made 1-10 from 3, and that number will most assuredly increase in this game. The Wildcats didn’t have an answer for Nikola Vucevic and the aggressiveness of the guards put Arizona on its heels as USC got to the line 27 times. The Trojans also have more to play for and will be amped up.
2 UCLA over 6 Washington State 8:30 pm
UCLA just beat Washington State to complete the season sweep. The Bruins dug themselves a whole, but the came storming back and Josh Smith inside will keep down DeAngelo Casto. Despite the loss to Washington last weekend, UCLA is playing some of the best basketball in the conference and will be hungry to prove their worth after letting a chance to win the regular season title slip away.
Saturday March 12 (Championship)
4 USC over 2 UCLA 3:10 pm
The rivals split the regular season series and USC won the last time these two squads met in the Pac-10 tournament in 2009. UCLA is playing much better now than they were when USC beat, but USC has surpassed that level and they are now playing their best basketball. With Donte Smith in the starting lineup, their offense has been more spread out and given defenses much more area to cover. As a result, teams have had to come out to the perimeter and leave the middle open for Vucevic and Stepheson to emerge. UCLA has improved their guard play considerably as well, and it will be interesting to see the battles between Malcolm Lee and Jio Fontan. Lee may not be 100% and that could hinder the Bruins. Down the stretch, will freshman Josh Smith be able to handle the pressure as well as junior Nikola Vucevic. The bottom line: USC didn’t play in the Pac-10 tournament last year so they are hungry. They are playing their best basketball of the year, the brand that has led to some marquee wins and a renewed energy at the most important time of the year: March.