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A Pac-12 Primer to the NCAA Tournament

Along with Arizona, a number of the Wildcats’ brethren from the Pac-12 will be competing this weekend. Here’s a bit of a viewing guide and what to watch for in those other games.

#12 Oregon vs. #5 Oklahoma State
San Jose, CA
Thursday, 1:40 pm, TNT
Vegas Open: Oklahoma State -3.5

This game will end around the time that the Arizona game is starting on Thursday, so it’s a nice little lead in to the Cats’ game.

Oregon is one of the most ridiculously seeded teams in the tournament. This is a team who won its conference tournament (and look at the boost that Louisville got from its Big East tournament win) who went 21-4 when its point guard, Dominic Artis, was playing (versus 5-4 without him), and who got good wins at UNLV, at UCLA, and against Arizona.

The Ducks play stout defense and rebound well, but they turn the ball over far too often and do not have a three-point offense. Oregon will look to get the ball inside and draw fouls.

This game should be very good and perhaps a bit of a grinder even though these teams play fast sometimes. Both teams will look to score inside. Oklahoma State is probably the better team; they defend a little better and protect the ball more. But Oregon is far better on snagging rebounds, and the Ducks start three seniors. The Cowboys are the second-youngest team in the entire tournament (behind Michigan), playing only one senior on any regular basis (and even then at only about 10 minutes per game).

Despite the even matchup, I’m fairly confident in an Oregon upset here. Oregon gets the massive benefit of playing on the west coast and should have plenty of fans in San Jose. Assuming Pac-12 fans stick together this weekend, all of the Cal fans should be pulling for the upset here as well. Oregon wins 65-60.

#12 California vs. #5 UNLV
San Jose, CA
Thursday, 7:27 p.m., truTV
Vegas Open: UNLV -2.5

This is the third game of the day in San Jose, but it also will be airing during the Arizona game, so it is unlikely that you will watch most of it.

Like Oregon, the tournament committee hammered one of the teams in this bracket, but this time, it is the favorite, UNLV. For some bizarre reason, the committee gave Cal a virtual home game, playing about an hour’s drive from the Berkeley campus. It isn’t that Vegas is that far from San Jose itself, but the Bears can sleep in their own beds if they want. They can practice at their own arena. They can use their own facilities to watch game tape. Mighty unfair.

This game also features a committee no-no: Cal and UNLV already played this year. UNLV travelled to Berkeley, and Cal nearly pulled the upset, losing 76-75. In that game, Cal had a one-point lead before UNLV’s Quintrell Thomas came off the bench and hit a short shot with 1.2 seconds left in the game. It is worth noting that best rebounder, Mike Moser, only played five minutes in the first game.

Other than the home game and the familiarity with almost knocking off UNLV, Cal has a lot going for it here. Although UNLV is the more athletically-talented team, the best player on the floor will be Pac-12 player of the year Allen Crabbe. UNLV will try to shut down Crabbe with its outstanding defenders Khem Birch and Anthony Marshall. But similar to the Oregon/Oklahoma State matchup, Cal has more experience on the floor. While Crabbe is a junior, UNLV’s best player is Anthony Bennett, a freshman. Cal also has the superior coach in Mike Montgomery, although the biggest knock on Monty is constantly under-achieving in the NCAA tournament.

Cal looked weak midway through the season. They started 13-9 and 5-5 in the Pac-12 before rattling off seven straight wins (starting with its road game at Arizona) to finished tied for second in the conference. But it then lost to Stanford at home and to Utah in the conference tournament. What to make of Cal then? Did Cal lose all its momentum when it lost its last two games of the season? Is it the team that started 13-9? Or can Crabbe and Justin Cobbs pull them to the upset over a very good Las Vegas squad? Let’s not forget that UNLV lost badly to Fresno State twice and to Air Force. Cal takes advantage of the home cooking and wins 65-64.

#10 Colorado vs. #7 Illinois
Austin, TX
Friday, 1:40 p.m., TNT
Vegas Open: Illinois -1

Colorado. Arizona’s nightmare within the first two years of the Pac-12. A team that can kick the crap out of Arizona, Oregon, Colorado State, or Stanford one moment, but then lose to Wyoming, Utah, or Oregon State the next. Illinois has similar issues. They destroyed Gonzaga and won home games over Indiana and Ohio State.

Illinois can’t shoot, can’t rebound, and can’t get to the free-throw line. It takes a ton of three pointers, but it doesn’t shoot them well. Colorado shoots a little better, defends a little better, and gets to the line quite often. The question here for Colorado is going to be whether they can force Illinois to take contested three-point shots. If so, Colorado could run away with this.

As far as matchup issues go, Illinois profile’s is not unlike Arizona’s. Arizona just happens to be better, which is why Arizona was able to control the Pac-12 tournament game. Both the Wildcats and the Fighting Illini shoot too many threes, give up too many threes, commit too many fouls, and completely fall apart on offense too often. But Illinois doesn’t have the talent Arizona has to overcome these shortcomings.

I know I must seem like a Pac-12 homer so far, but things are just breaking the Pac-12’s way in this tournament for the lower-seeded teams. Cal gets a home game, Oregon gets a fairly even matchup as a #12 seed, and Colorado gets a team that it should match up against well. The close Vegas lines on all of these games reflect the nervousness with which anyone should simply advance Oklahoma State, UNLV, or Illinois just because they have the better seed. Colorado wins this one in a bit of a surprising walk, 72-61.

#6 UCLA vs. #11 Minnesota
Austin, TX
Friday, 6:57 p.m., truTV
Vegas Open: Minnesota -2

The line has moved to -3, probably on the strength with which the CBS and ESPN guys were calling an upset on Selection Sunday here. They aren’t wrong though.

Look, Minnesota isn’t some world beater. They fell apart in the Big Ten season and went 8-10, falling to Illinois in the first round of the conference tournament. They lost inexcusable games at Northwestern and Nebraska. They haven’t had a three-game winning streak since January 9.

Minnesota advances though because UCLA cannot win without Jordan Adams. Once Oregon got a 20-18 lead in the Pac-12 tournament championship, it never looked back. It never had to. UCLA never was able to get over the hump, and it never got closer than 54-52 with just over 12 minutes left in the game. Oregon powered up and never looked back. With Adams, however, he would have been a game changer.

That, and the fact that UCLA has only played one game without Adams. The rotation and sets and practices and games that all involved Adams this year cannot give UCLA any clue as to how to play on Friday against an athletic team like Minnesota.

There will be a lot of upsets on Thursday and Friday, but there are only two games, this one and Missouri/Colorado State, where the team seeded worse is favored in Vegas. Shabazz may get his, and Larry Drew will do what he can to keep it close, but Minnesota will prevail 70-66.

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