LAS VEGAS – Welcome to America’s bad idea capital, to the point that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is equal parts marketing gimmick and city motto.
There are two kinds that Sin City specializes in: one where logic goes out the window (usually because of liquor, adrenaline, or something else along those lines), and the other where you know beyond all doubt is a mistake and still do it anyway.
Trying to handicap this year’s Pac-12 Tournament falls squarely into the latter category, an exercise not only in stupidity but one that is guaranteed to look even worse upon further review.
Why make predictions on a conference where the top three teams lost four games in the final week, where two of the three worst teams arrive on a two-game winning streak, where potential trendy upset special USC is dealing with fallout from an alleged altercation with two of its big men suspended? Because it is such an obviously bad idea.
And isn’t that what Las Vegas is really all about?
The Favorite: California
When the Golden Bears are at their best – engaged on defense, attacking on offense, getting offensive contributions from its forwards, and point guard Justin Cobbs is equally effective as a scorer and distributor – there isn’t anyone in the conference in their league. Such complete performances have been few and far between, but UCLA, which eventually emerged from the muck as Pac-12 regular season champions, saw it in the first half in Berkeley. So too did Arizona.
Everyone else has been bits and pieces from Cal, usually threaded together by some key play by Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe. USC saw his transcendent shooting. Oregon saw tenacious defense create turnovers and eventually easy points. Colorado saw forward David Kravish control the paint and limit second-chance scoring with one of the best individual defensive showing all season.
They went 4-1 against the other recipients of first-round byes, and still haven’t put together complete games. Pardon the cliché, but Cal just finds ways to win. That has to count for something, which is why they get a nominal edge.
And if they can finally string together 120 minutes of quality basketball, they will roll to a Pac-12 title.
The Dark Horse: Colorado
Four games in four days? No problem for the Buffaloes, who did just that last year in Los Angeles to win the Pac-12 Tournament in their first year in the conference, buoyed by a raucous fan base.
Armed with that experience and momentum, having won six of eight before an out-of-nowhere home loss to Oregon State to end the regular season, coach Tad Boyle’s team could do it again. Colorado turned up its defense late, anchored by forward Andre Roberson, who leads the nation in rebounding at 11.5 per game.
Roberson’s status will be worth monitoring, as he missed the final weekend with what the school termed a “viral illness.” But even without him, Colorado had no problems putting the clamps on Oregon, holding them to 53 points on 37.5 percent shooting from the field.
The Long Shot: Utah
Larry Krystkowiak’s young club has been frisky all season and put it together with decisive wins over the Oregon schools to close out the campaign. If the Utes can continue that progression, led by freshman guard Brandon Taylor and forward Jordan Loveridge, they are more than capable of knocking off USC and giving Cal fits in the quarterfinals.
Needs To Win It All: Arizona State
The Sun Devils limped to the finish line after a surprising start, losing three of their last four games and five of their last eight to put them squarely on the wrong side of the bubble. An offensive slowdown has been a big reason for that falloff, averaging just 61.6 points per game in that stretch, not ideal for a team with only one conference win scoring fewer than 60 points this season (a 55-54 overtime win against Utah in the Pac-12 opener).
A run to Saturday night’s championship game with wins over UCLA and Arizona might be enough to put them back in the conversation, but realistically Arizona State’s only path to the NCAA Tournament will be securing the automatic bid by winning the conference.
Player To Watch: Oregon guard Dominic Artis
With Artis in the lineup, the Ducks started the season 17-2 and 6-0 in the Pac-12, climbing to No. 10 in the country. Without the freshman guard, they went 5-4, struggling with turnovers and unable to score against defensive stalwarts Cal and Colorado.
And when Artis finally returned from a stress fracture in his left foot two weeks ago, he had only a minimal impact playing limited minutes. The Ducks need him to recapture that fine early form or else an early exit looms in both the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournament.
My Pick: California
Don’t take it to the sports book with any sort of authority, but Cal gets a slight edge in a truly wide-open field. An indefensible no-show against Stanford with at least a share of the Pac-12 title on the line was a lousy way to end the regular season, but the Bears’ strong play and lockdown defense preceding that result cannot be dismissed.
With their length and underutilized talent, the Cardinal is simply a bad matchup for Cal, but they are on the other side of the bracket, along with UCLA, Arizona and Colorado. Such a favorable draw and Crabbe’s ability to take over any game with his scoring prowess seem like good enough reasons to give Cal the nod.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.