The Pac-12 tournament is here. For USC and a handful of other teams, it represents a last-ditch effort at a Cinderella run to March Madness. For the five squads currently in position to make the NCAA tournament — the Arizona Wildcats, UCLA Bruins, Cal Golden Bears, Colorado Buffaloes and Oregon Ducks — it’s basically bracket posturing and bragging rights.
In other words, the Trojans have significantly more to play for than their higher-seeded counterparts. USC has shown an ability to compete with anyone in the conference, beating the Bruins and Wildcats and falling to the Ducks in overtime. Technically speaking, they have a shot at pulling off a major upset and running the table against the rest of the Pac-12. Only the Utah Utes, Oregon State Beavers and Washington State Cougars are essentially dead on arrival in terms of making that improbable feat a reality.
But in the real world? It’s not going to happen for the Trojans.
In fact, not even USC’s opening-round game against 10th-seeded Utah is a gimme. That has nothing to do with the indefinite suspensions of redshirt junior forward Dewayne Dedmon and senior center James Blasczyk. No, it has more to do with the fact that the Trojans really haven’t played very well of late.
They pulled off the massive upset over Arizona, no doubt an impressive win. But, they’ve lost four of six after a four-game winning streak, and the blowout loss to last-place Washington State to end the regular season was far from an encouraging sign.
Realistically, the Trojans’ Pac-12 tournament path features a solid win over the Utes followed by a double-digit loss to the second-seeded Golden Bears. USC doesn’t need Dedmon to beat Utah, despite the fact that he turned in a 13-point, 13-rebound, five-block performance in their last matchup. Utah just isn’t a very good basketball team and Dedmon isn’t consistent enough to be counted on for a repeat of that statline, anyway.
But, assuming senior point guard Jio Fontan keeps his turnovers to a minimum and junior J.T. Terrell provides his usual scoring punch, USC should be able to take down Utah. It might be a nail-biter, but I expect the Trojans to take care of business because they’re simply more talented.
After that, things don’t look so hot. Cal defeated USC in both meetings this season, including a 76-68 come-from-behind victory that ended the Trojans’ winning streak. The Golden Bears have the Pac-12 player of the year in junior guard Allen Crabbe, who averaged 18.6 points and six rebounds per game this season.
The closest sort of player USC can counter with is Terrell, who is playing much better lately but still lacks Crabbe’s level of consistency. Cal is also coming into the tournament on a hot streak, winning seven of its last eight games.
In the NFL, it’s tough to beat the same team three times in one year. The same can’t be said in college athletics. Either you’re capable of pulling off an upset or you’re not. USC is capable, but the numbers are stacked against them.
Second-tier Pac-12 squads, such as Arizona State, Stanford and Washington, are in the same boat. And though the Pac-12 as a whole really isn’t too top-heavy, I still don’t foresee many upsets in the mix. Top-seeded UCLA will beat the winner of No. 8-seed Stanford vs. No. 9-seed Arizona State. Arizona won’t have much trouble on its side of the bracket.
Cal and Oregon would most certainly be vulnerable against Colorado, Arizona State or Stanford, but they’ve got easier matchups against the winner of USC/Utah and Washington/Washington State, respectively.
It’s the easy thing to say, but I expect the Pac-12 tournament to be decided among its top-four seeds — UCLA against Arizona, Cal against Oregon. From there, I’d look for the Wildcats to upend an inexperienced Bruins squad and for Cal to take down the slumping Ducks, who ended the regular season with back-to-back losses.
The Pac-12 championship game will then come down to Arizona’s ability to slow down Crabbe: He exploded for 31 points in a 77-69 road victory over the Wildcats on Feb. 10. I expect Arizona will do a significantly better job in that department (and that Crabbe won’t shoot 12-of-15 again), and the Wildcats will take the conference title in pretty comfortable fashion.
If Arizona is able to take down UCLA and Cal, it could do wonders for the team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently lists the Wildcats as a five-seed, but if they win the Pac-12, look for them to be in contention for a third or fourth seed.
As for USC, nothing short of a miraculous run would put the team in contention for even an NIT appearance. The Trojans can take solace in their significant strides from last season, though, as well as the fact that Pac-12 teams like Arizona have a very real chance at making some March Madness noise.
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