Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Pac-10 Conference Tournament Preview

*** 2006 Pac-10 Conference Tournament Preview ***

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: Staples Center (18,997) — Los Angeles, California.
Dates: March 8-11. Television: Fox Sports Net, CBS (Championship Game).
Annual: 9th. Defending Champion: Washington.

OUTLOOK: With four of the previous eight Pac-10 Conference Tournament titles
going to Arizona, the rest of the league might be happy to know that this
season the Wildcats are not one of the favorites to pick up the automatic bid
to the NCAA Tournament in the ninth annual event from the Staples Center in
Los Angeles.

Last season, Washington, which is this year’s second-seed, captured an 81-72
win over those same Wildcats in the championship game, which means four
different teams have won the four titles since the conference began playing
the tournament once again in 2002. Between 1991 and 2001 the Pac-10 didn’t
hold a conference tournament, but now the member schools realize, especially
over the last four years, that any team can win on any given day, and that’s
what makes conference tournaments so special and exciting.

Picking up the regular-season title this year for the Pac-10 was UCLA, which
finished with a 14-4 league mark and was 24-6 overall. The team closed out the
season with four straight wins, with all but one coming by at least 17 points.
The Bruins, led by Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar with scoring averages of
17.1 and 14.0 ppg, respectively, will have to wait to get into action until
Thursday, after opening round action between eighth-seeded Arizona State and
ninth-seeded Oregon State supplies an opponent on Wednesday night.

The Sun Devils (11-16, 5-13) opened the season with four straight wins, albeit
over the likes of Southern Utah, Alcorn State, UCSB and North Texas, but from
then on the program won back-to-back games just twice the rest of the way and
fell in four of the last six games of the regular season. Led by Kevin Kruger
(14.7 ppg) and Bryson Krueger (12.1 ppg), the squad did manage to defeat OSU
in both regular-season meetings.

As for the Beavers (12-17, 5-13), they were led by youngster Sasa Cuic who,
even though he paced the group with 13.9 ppg and was clearing more than four
and a half rebounds per game, has come off the bench in almost half the team’s
games. Oregon State closed out the year with a narrow 65-62 win over in-state
rival Oregon on Saturday, snapping a three-game slide, but it was just the
second win for the program since the third week of January.

Battling it out in the other opening-round game on Wednesday night will be
10th-seeded Washington State and seven-seeded Oregon, for the right to play
second-seeded and nationally-ranked Washington in the quarterfinals on
Thursday.

The Cougars (11-16, 4-14) who have the worst conference tournament record of
any school in the Pac-10 at 2-6, have never reached the championship round.
Washington State closed out the year with a six-game losing skid, but there
were a couple of highlights during league play in 2005-06, namely wins over
the Huskies both at home (77-64) and on the road (78-71), which is just
another example of why anything can happen in these upcoming games. WSU might
not have much of a prayer though again this postseason, what with only one
player averaging double figures on the year (Josh Akognon, 10.4 ppg).

As for the Ducks (13-17, 7-11), they are paced by Malik Hairston (14.4 ppg)
and Aaron Brooks (11.3 ppg, 4.5 apg). They too began the season with four
straight wins, but with victories coming against Savannah State, Bowie State,
Pacific and Rice no one should have gotten the wrong impression and assume
Oregon is better than it really was.

The Washington Huskies (24-5, 13-5) ran out to an 11-0 record to begin the
campaign and finished with just five setbacks overall, but even in the
beginning there was a question as to just how tough this group really was.
Crushing wins over Morgan State and Loyola Marymount, both of which were in
excess of 45 points, were a bit misleading, but still Washington is a quality
program. However, don’t forget that when playing on emotion, the squad was
topped by Washington State twice. A starter in all 29 games for the team,
Brandon Roy is regarded as one of the top players in the conference after
averaging 19.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game this year.

Also getting byes into the quarterfinals are fifth-seeded Stanford and fourth-
seeded Arizona, the latter in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the
first time in a couple of decades. The Wildcats (18-11, 11-7) had one of the
most dominating players in the league in Hassan Adams (17.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), but
on Monday it was announced that because of violating team rules he would not
join the team on the trip to Los Angeles. Olson has left the door open for
Adams to make a return to the team this year, but only if the squad gets
invited to the NCAA Tournament, which now looks like a long shot without him
in the lineup for the conference tournament. Marcus Williams may be just a
freshman, but he’s still a cool competitor under pressure with his 12.4 ppg
and 47.9 percent shooting from the floor. Of Arizona’s losses this season,
five have come against nationally-ranked programs, so that should work in the
team’s favor on Selection Sunday no matter what the outcome of this
tournament.

The Cardinal (15-12, 11-7) are more than just slightly removed from a couple
years ago when the team was ranked first in the nation and was unbeaten for
much of the campaign. This season opened with a 16-point loss to Cal-Irvine
and then it only got worse with setbacks to Montana and UC-Davis. Having
missed time with injury, Stanford is hoping that Matt Haryasz (16.6 ppg, 8.9
rpg) is up to the task of the tourney, not to mention Chris Hernandez and Dan
Grunfeld, who were averaging 13.9 and 12.5 ppg, respectively.

Third-seeded California and sixth-seeded USC complete the lineup for games
played through the quarterfinals on Thursday. If nothing else, the Golden
Bears (18-9, 12-6) should have a lock on the Comeback Player of the Year in
the Pac-10 with Leon Powe having bounced back from a knee injury that kept him
out all of 2004-05. Powe is putting up incredible numbers, considering what
he’s gone through to get back to competition, with 20.0 points and 9.9
rebounds per game. Losses to both Washington and UCLA over the final weeks of
the season might have people wondering if Cal is ready for this run, but Powe
and company are probably more than prepared.

The Trojans (17-12, 8-10) were shocked right out of the box this season with
back-to-back defeats at the hands of Cal State Northridge and Oral Roberts.
While any loss is tough to swallow, these two were particularly difficult
because they were blowout setbacks by 15 and 20 points, respectively. The team
bounced back with nine straight wins after that. USC has some talented scoring
options for sure in Nick Young (17.2 ppg) and Gabriel Pruitt ( 16.7 ppg), but
the latter has not been at full strength for some time.

The mystique of the Huskies might be over with by now and not everyone is
afraid of UCLA either, which means a handful of programs could be making the
jump to the NCAA Tournament if the cards fall the right way. Expect to see the
energy and excitement of Powe and the Golden Bears lift the spirits and the
team and take them to the Promised Land.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: California