The Pac-10 Conference, probably the strongest men’s basketball conference in the country, got six teams into the NCAA Tournament, but only UCLA is likely to get very far. The Bruins, though, could salvage the tournament’s honor by winning the whole thing.
UCLA, Stanford, Southern Cal and Washington State were assured of spots. The question was the bubble teams. Oregon and Arizona made it, Arizona State didnot. The Sun Devils suffered because of a pre-conference schedule that would have made Cal coach Ben Braun envious. But they also had a better conference record than Arizona, beat the Wildcats twice and beat two teams in the top 11, while the Wildcats had no wins over a top-20 team. Any system that does not factor in those facts is seriously out of balance.
Arizona State’s consolation prize was a top seeding in the Losers Tournament, otherwise known as the NIT. Cal also got a berth, with a first-round game against New Mexico on Wednesday. Be still, my heart. If tournament officials are hoping for a good payday from the Bears, they haven’t been paying attention to the attendance figures at Haas this season.
UCLA has the conference Player of the Year in Kevin Love, who reminds me of Larry Bird. Like Bird, he’s a good scorer and he’s developed a nice 3-point stroke. He’s a strong rebounder and a great passer because of his court awareness. He’ll probably turn pro after this season and go on to have a great NBA career.
Yet, the Bruins beat Stanford in the Pac-10 tournament final with minimal help from Love, who injured his back early and had back spasms throughout. Guard Darren Collison repeatedly slashed through Stanford defenders to get to the basket, forcing the Cardinal into a zone defense often. Even then, Collison was able to penetrate, and he finished with 28 points.
That game demonstrated why the Bruins will go far in the tournament and the Cardinal will not.
UCLA has great balance with Love inside and great guards, Collison and Russell Westbrook, along with wing Josh Shipp. The Bruins play a tenacious defense, but they can also rattle off transition points in a hurry, as they showed with an early 15-2 run in destroying Cal in the Pac-10 tournament.
Stanford has the Lopez twins (Brook, a first-team All-Pac-10 choice, and Robin, who made the all-defensive team). The Cardinal’s guards are mediocre. They keep hoping for production from Anthony Goods, but he shot 38 percent from the field this season and averaged just 10.4 points a game. They have little team speed. Trent Johnson fully deserved his selection as conference Coach of the Year for steering this limited team to second place in the conference. I doubt they’ll get beyond the second round in the NCAA Tournament.
Much the same can be said for Washington State, an even more-limited team with another superb coach, Tony Bennett.
The one wild card for the Pac-10 is USC, which has good overall talent and has played better as the season progressed. The Trojans could make some noise.
Otherwise, it’s up to UCLA to uphold the conference banner. It goes against my nature to root for an L.A. school, but I also like to see the conference do well, to show the Eastern media that there is life beyond the Mississippi.
So, gulp, Go Bruins!