By Andrew Kahn
The Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament begins Wednesday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. UCLA is the defending champ in a tournament that has had a different winner the past four years. Top seed Arizona has lost in the finals three of the past four years and hasn’t won since 2002. Is this the year the Wildcats break through? Will the league’s bubble teams do enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid? In the final games before the Big Dance, there’s a lot at stake in Sin City.
The top four seeds have a bye into Thursday’s quarterfinals. Utah’s stunning loss to Washington on Saturday—the Utes’ third loss in their last five games—dropped them to the third seed. It will be very interesting to see how they perform in this neutral environment against either Washington or a desperate Stanford team in the quarterfinals. A win there would put them against two seed Oregon, should the Ducks get past the Oregon State-Colorado winner. On the other side of the bracket, No. 4 seed UCLA is fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. A victory against the Arizona State-USC winner wouldn’t do much for its résumé, but taking down Arizona in the semis would. The Wildcats will first play the winner of Cal and Washington State.
The Pac-12 coaches named Oregon’s Joseph Young, the league leader in scoring at 19.8 per game, the conference Player of the Year. His coach, Dana Altman, is the Coach is the Year, having guided a shorthanded roster to a 13-5 league mark. Arizona’s Stanley Johnson is the Freshman of the Year and Oregon State’s Gary Payton II, who leads the Pac-12 in steals and is an impressive shot blocker for a guard, is the Defensive Player of the Year. His father won the award in 1987. Washington State sophomore Josh Hawkinson was the league’s Most Improved Player.
Joining Young, Johnson, and Payton on the All-Pac-12 Team are Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell, DaVonté Lacy (Washington State), Norman Powell (UCLA), Chasson Randle (Stanford), Tyrone Wallace (Cal), and Delon Wright (Utah). Oregon’s Dillon Brooks and UCLA’s Kevon Looney were among the All-Freshman Team members.
The Basketball Hall of Fame narrowed the finalists for its awards to five players and the Pac-12 is well represented. McConnell and Wright are finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard, while Johnson is in the running for the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.
We’ll know for sure on Sunday, but currently only three Pac-12 teams are safely in the NCAA Tournament field: Arizona is looking at a two seed, Utah a four, and Oregon an eight. UCLA and Stanford need a strong showing in Vegas. Last year the conference received six bids, and the teams combined for eight Tournament wins, as Arizona UCLA, and Stanford all advanced past the first weekend.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn