What makes conference tournaments so special is that they raise the level of regional rivalries and provide a winner-take-all forum for such intense battles. And if you want a perfect example look no further than the schedule of the Pac-10 Tournament on Thursday.
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The Pac-10 Tournament actually starts today with a pair of play-in games. But when the quarterfinals tip off on Thursday at the Staples Center we'll see Arizona face Arizona State and Cal matchup with USC. Both games feature longstanding rivals and each could have long-reaching NCAA Tournament implications.
Here is Doc's Sports 2009 Pac-10 Tournament Preview:
No. 1 Washington - The Huskies were somewhat of a surprise winner of the Pac-10 regular season crown but now need to head into UCLA's backyard and try to unseat the Bruins as the conference champions. This team has a solid veteran core that is led by senior forward Jon Brockman. The Huskies are a solid 6-3 against the spread on the road in conference play so they can handle themselves away from home.
No. 2 UCLA - I haven't been a big fan of this Bruins team this season but there is no doubting their heart, desire and their ability to function together as a team. It's also been interesting to see their metamorphosis from a grind-it-out defensive club to one that's winning games with offense. The Bruins are the No. 1 shooting team in the country at 50.6 percent but they are just No. 259 in field goal defense and No. 282 in 3-point defense. If things hold form they would likely get Wazzou in the quarterfinals. UCLA is just 1-1 straight up and 0-2 ATS against the Cougars this year.
No. 3 California - The Golden Bears have been one of my favorite teams in the country to bet on this year and they have rewarded me handsomely. They are the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the country and before a 1-4 ATS slide to end the regular season this team was 15-8 ATS. This team is still relatively young - they don't start a single senior - but they have one of the best point guards in the country in Jerome Randle and they have three guys that could be playing in the NBA someday.
No. 4 Arizona State - Will the real Arizona State please stand up? At one point this season the Sun Devils looked and played like a Top 12 team. Now they are clinging to the Top 25 and enter Staples on a 1-3 SU slide. Granted, two of their losses were in overtime. But they also have a weird OT win over IUPUI, a loss to Baylor, and they were swept by Washington State. Forward James Harden is one of the four or five best players in the country and Jeff Pendergraph gives them a solid, veteran inside scoring option. This team is in the Top 30 in the country in both shooting and scoring defense. But for some reason they haven't put it together yet.
No. 5 Arizona - The conventional (i.e. bogus) opinion is that the Wildcats need to beat Arizona State in their opening game in order to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. They have three of the most talented players in the conference in Nic Wise, Chase Buddinger and Jordan Hill and these guys should be playing with a chip on their shoulder. However, Arizona is a perennial letdown come March.
No. 6 USC - The Trojans have a long road to hoe if they want t a trip to The Big Dance. Basically, they have to win this tournament. It's not going to happen. They have some experience in Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett and some young talent in Dwight Lewis and DeMar DeRozan. But this team has zero depth. And before a home sweep of the Oregon teams the Trojans were in a 1-6 SU tailspin.
No. 7 Washington State - The Cougars have really had a remarkable season considering everything they lost to graduation. They enter the tournament with as much momentum as anyone, winning three of four over UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State. Washington State wants to grind. And if they can get teams to play their game they are like a boa constrictor. But I don't think they have the talent or experience to do much in this venue.
No 8 Oregon State vs. No. 9 Stanford
This is a nice contrast in styles here and Stanford has really had trouble with Oregon State's deliberate attack. The Beavers have lost three straight entering the tourney but, shockingly, they actually swept the Cardinal this year. And, frankly, neither game was close (66-54 at home, 77-62 at Stanford). If the Cardinal can get out and run a bit they will be OK. But this is rookie coach Johnnie Dawkins' first conference tournament and that's a nice edge for Oregon State.
No. 7 Washington State vs. No. 10 Oregon
This is a terrible matchup for the Ducks. Oregon is undermanned and not disciplined at all on offense or defense. These are the types of teams that the Cougars feast on. Wazzou swept the season series and their most recent win over the Ducks was by 29 points. Washington State should be a big favorite in this one, but they are just 6-9 ATS as a favorite this season. However, Oregon is a pathetic 3-13 ATS as an underdog of 8.5 or more.
No. 4 Arizona State vs. No. 5 Arizona
Arizona State has won four straight in this series and James Harden is yet to lose to his in-state rivals. As I mentioned, be wary of the Wildcats. They have more to play for in this game, but can that overcome an obvious matchup problem that they have. It's very difficult to beat a rival three times in one season. But Arizona will likely be laying points here and it's tough to give up anything to a team that's taken you four straight times.
No. 3 Cal vs. No. 6 USC
Cal split with USC during the regular season and they failed to cover either game. The Trojans want to try to D-up and keep this one in the 60's while Cal is more comfortable playing in the high 70's or 80's. Tournament games are generally lower scoring, so that favors USC and the points. But the bottom line is that the Trojans have been a terrible bet all year and are playing a potential Sweet 16 team. Can they really hang?
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I actually think that the Pac-10 is going to be one of the chalkier tournaments out there. Granted, someone like Arizona will make a run. But if they beat Arizona State and Washington would the really be so stunning? I mean, it wouldn't be like Providence beating Louisville and Villanova or anything. Or if USC took out rivals Cal and UCLA; would that be stunning? I don't think so.
I will say that Washington won't win this conference tournament and I don't even think they'll make the finals. Seven of their 10 games this year against seeds No. 2 through No. 6 the Huskies either lost or won by five points or less. Also, if they play Stanford in the quarters then they will be trying to beat the Cardinal for the third time this year, and seven points and one point decided the first two games. I like UCLA to come out of the bottom - although I do love Cal - and I like them to face the winner of the Arizona-Arizona State game in the opener.
For more information on Ferringo's college basketball picks, check out his Insider Page here.