Pac-10 basketball roundtable: Conference tournament, March Madness predictions
Recently, five writers from around the Pac-10 basketball conference gathered for a roundtable, answering five pertinent Pac-10 questions before the start of the conference tournament Thursday. The writers: Ben Bolch (Los Angeles Times), Percy Allen (Seattle Times), Bob Clark (Eugene Register Guard), Jeff Faraudo (Contra Costa Times) and Doug Haller (Arizona Republic).
Who will win the Pac-10 Tournament?
Percy Allen, Seattle Times: "It depends on the status of UCLA guard Malcolm Lee. If he's healthy and able to play, then the Bruins will be a tough out. If not, I think Arizona takes the title. The Wildcats are the best team in the conference. It would be interesting to see an Arizona-USC rematch in the semifinals."
Ben Bolch, The Los Angeles Times: "UCLA has played its best games under the brightest lights (i.e., Kansas, BYU, St. John's, Arizona), so here's predicting the up-and-down Bruins will pull together for three days in an NBA arena and benefit from USC's semifinal upset of Arizona to win the tournament. UCLA will have some shaky moments in the first round but ultimately prevail against overmatched Arizona State. Then the Bruins will avenge their recent loss to Washington, which needed an otherworldly performance from C.J. Wilcox to prevail when the teams met in Seattle. In the championship game, UCLA will simply overwhelm a fatigued USC."
Bob Clark, Eugene Register-Guard: "I like UCLA. Home team, they have enough depth and their big guys will still be big even when everyone else tires out. Best game of the tournament might be the Bruins and Huskies in the semifinals, if Washington can beat the Cougars this time."
Jeff Faraudo, Oakland Tribune: "UCLA. The Bruins will enjoy being back in LA, and will resume playing the kind of defense that fueled their recent surge."
Doug Haller, Arizona Republic: "Since the Pac-10 started up this tournament again in 2002, the top seed has won only three times. But I think Arizona gets it done this week. The Wildcats can do three things that will help them in Staples: They can shoot the three, they can get to the foul line and they can feed Derrick Williams."
Which team could make a surprise run?
Allen: "Again, injuries must be considered. If Washington State guard Reggie Moore (foot) returns and the Cougars reinstate Klay Thompson, who was suspended last Saturday, then the Cougars have enough firepower to win a handful of games. They swept Washington and they nearly knocked off UCLA last week without their two best players."
Bolch: "USC. The Trojans have the talent to beat anyone, but depth is obviously a concern with a seven-man rotation. USC will eke out a victory over Cal and then upset Arizona the following day before running out of gas against the Bruins. That should be enough to put the Trojans squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble."
Clark: "I like the other team from Los Angeles, USC. They play defense, which could get them through when the shots aren't falling. They're big so they can rebound all those misses, and they might have the best player in the league in Nikola Vucevic. Plus, they're playing at home."
Faraudo: "USC. Must get past Cal, but Nikola Vucevic, Mr. Double-Double, can carry them."
Haller: "Both USC and California are hot, but I'm concerned about their depth. Washington State showed me something in Saturday's loss to UCLA, and Klay Thompson's going to feel like he has something to prove. If Reggie Moore can return, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them in the tournament final."
How many Pac-10 teams deserve an NCAA Tournament bid?
Allen: "Three. Maybe four if a team other than Arizona, UCLA and UW wins the conference tournament."
Bolch: "Three or four. Arizona, UCLA and Washington deserve bids, provided the Huskies avoid their third consecutive defeat to their instate rivals and advance to a semifinal. USC or Cal could be deserving with a run to the championship game, though it's bit of a stretch. Washington State and others need a tournament title, which isn't happening."
Clark: "Arizona and UCLA for sure. I'm not sure anymore about Washington. If they lose a third game to the Cougars, shouldn't that knock them out of contention, or at least put them behind Washington State? And you have to think USC's win in Seattle is worth something. I wonder if an appearance in the tournament title game would be enough to boost WSU or USC into a Dayton game. Well, if one of the Cougars doesn't set his room on fire toking up another joint."
Faraudo: "Three. Washington will get a bid in spite of itself."
Haller: "In its last six games, USC has won at California, against Arizona and at Washington. The Trojans have non-conference wins over Texas and at Tennessee. If they win just one game in LA, they deserve to be the Pac-10's fourth team, along with Arizona, UCLA and Washington."
Biggest surprise of the season?
Allen: "USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic. I knew he was talented, but he might be the best NBA prospect in the Pac-10. He can do it all."
Bolch: "USC. The Trojans have a great frontcourt, and that's about it. Finishing fourth is a huge accomplishment for a team with a collection of smallish, interchangeable guards and zero depth."
Clark: "Cal. I just didn't think the Bears had enough offense, or depth, to do what they did. First division? That's a heck of a job for the Bears."
Faraudo: "Cal. Bears play smart and tough, overcoming severe lack of depth."
Haller: "I have two: One, California. Shortly after the Pac-10 preseason media poll came out, a radio analyst stopped me and asked: "Based on what they have coming back, how can Cal not be 10th?" The Golden Bears were seventh, but he had a point. I don't think anyone expected them to win 10 Pac-10 games. Two: Vucevic. He deserved to be in the Player of the Year discussion, but was overlooked for much of the season. I blame USC coach Kevin O'Neill for some of this. Back in December, he kept telling us that Jio Fontan was his best player."
Allen: "Washington. The Huskies were the runaway choice to win the league and they lost five games to teams that finished in the bottom half of the conference."
Bolch: "Washington. Even with the loss of Abdul Gaddy to injury, the Huskies had enough talent to win the conference. But any team playing worse in March than in December isn't going to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament."
Clark: "Had to think about this, but Washington finally wins my vote. How did that team lose seven games in this league? And twice at home? They opened 4-0 which means they went 7-7 in the last two months. That's not .500 talent, but that's what it played like."
Faraudo: "Washington. Everyone expected UW to win the title, but by March it was clear the Huskies didn't have the consistent resolve to get it done."
Haller: "After Washington swept the LA schools on the road to start the Pac-10 season, I was convinced the Huskies would finish no worse than 16-2. Their struggles are baffling."
Your choice for Pac-10 Player of the Year?
Allen: "Derrick Williams. Not only is he the best player on the best team, he's dominated when it mattered."
Bolch: "Williams. He's the most dynamic, above-the-rim player in a largely plodding league. And it's not even close."
Clark: "Williams. He's the best player on the league's best team. Yeah, there were games he wasn't overwhelming, but his presence opens up so much for his teammates. I did strongly consider Nikola Vucevic of USC. The guy is a double-double machine. If USC had contended for the title, he'd have gotten my vote."
Faraudo: "Williams. Most consistently unstoppable player in the league and he plays for the team that won the Pac-10 title."
Haller: "Williams. So good inside, so great at getting to the foul line, and then he steps out and starts draining 3s on you. Unfair."
Your choice for Coach of the Year?
Allen: "Cal's Mike Montgomery. This is a tight race. I nearly voted for Arizona's Sean Miller, who has returned the Wildcats to prominence in just his second season. Oregon's Dana Altman was my second choice. He's done an amazing job considering the program's defections before the season. But Montgomery is the guy. Cal lost four starters. The Bears have just one senior. And they won 10 games in the conference. That team doesn't quit."
Bolch: "Montgomery. He guided the Bears back to respectability faster than anyone could have expected after losing four starters from the conference championship team of 2009-10. Plus his Bears have played with passion and often with precision, beating teams with markedly better talent."
Clark: "Montgomery. He did more with less than any of the coaches who finished ahead of him. Cal could've gone first to about eighth with the loss of talent from last season, and instead they tied for fourth. Without much depth. With limits on the inside. And they lost what was supposed to be their best freshman in the opening week of the season. What doesn't change is that guy on the end of the bench."
Faraudo: "Sean Miller. The Arizona program was (by its standards) in shambles when he arrived. Yes, he has the league's best player, but UCLA and Washington otherwise both have more high-level players."
Haller: "Montgomery. Leading returning scorer Jorge Gutierrez averaged all of 5.5 points last year. Markuri Sanders-Frison was next at 3.3. Harper Kamp didn't play at all. This is a team that scored five points in the first half of a November game against Notre Dame. Five! And yet they won 10 conference games. Pretty remarkable."
Your choice for Freshman of the Year?
Allen: "Cal's Allen Crabbe with UCLA's Joshua Smith a close second. Smith has been a force and he's one of the reasons the Bruins finished second in the conference. But it's hard to give the award to someone who doesn't start. The Bears needed Crabbe to take over some of the scoring responsibilities and he didn't flinch. He's the sixth-leading scorer in Pac-10 games at 16.4 points per game."
Bolch: "Joshua Smith, UCLA. Crabbe scored more points, but no freshman impacted the game on offense or defense more than the Bruins big man. He was a game-planning nightmare for opposing coaches and gave UCLA a presence unmatched in the Pac-10 with his 6-foot-10, 305-pound-plus body. He blocked shots, took charges and dunked with unstoppable force."
Clark: "Crabbe. He really developed for the Bears, from not much of a factor in December to a big scorer. He was more of a consistent producer than Josh Smith, the only other player I considered."
Faraudo: "Crabbe. His emergence changed Cal's offense. He has been consistently productive since the conference schedule began. And he is, possibly discounting Washington State's Klay Thompson, the best pure shooter in the league."
Haller: "Crabbe's Pac-10 scoring average was more than three points higher than his overall average. He also averaged more rebounds and shot a Pac-10 best 48 percent from 3-point range. UCLA's Smith was good when he was on the floor. Problem was, he was only on it 22.4 minutes a night in conference action. That's not enough."