The 2019 winner is, technically, the defending champion. Five teams, not four, have opening-round byes. Only 11 teams are participating, and each tipoff will be in doubt until the ball gets tossed.
The Pac-12 tournament starts Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas against the backdrop of a persistent pandemic, nervous head coaches and empty seats (save for the players’ families).
One thing remains as it was in the times before COVID: The majority of participants must win the championship to advance to the NCAA tournament.
Oregon, USC, Colorado and UCLA have at-large bids locked up, and Arizona is ineligible.
The other teams are playing for their March Madness lives, in need of the automatic bid that accompanies the Pac-12 trophy.
Washington, Washington State, Stanford, Cal, Arizona State and Utah must win four games in four days.
Oregon State must win three in three.
History is not on their bench.
Since the event moved to Las Vegas in 2013, only one team outside the top three seeds has won the championship: Oregon in 2019, the last time there was a championship.
We have seen nothing over the past month to suggest any member of the Desperate Seven will be the last team standing.
Our projections are below:
Note I: Tipoff times are Pacific.
Note II: All games on Pac-12 Networks except the fourth quarterfinal, the second semifinal and the championship, which are all on ESPN.
Opening round (Wednesday)
No. 8 Arizona State vs. 9 Washington State (1 p.m.): The teams had two games canceled but squared off once, 10 days ago in Tempe. Both lineups were depleted. The Sun Devils survived in overtime, and there’s no reason to think the rematch will be lopsided in either direction. But ASU hasn’t won a game beyond the Tempe city limits in three months. The Devils are either the team nobody wants to play or the team everyone wants to play. We’re convinced it’s the latter. Winner: Washington State.
No. 7 Utah vs. No. 10 Washington (4 p.m.): The teams split the season series, with each winning at home. Generally speaking, UW is bad with stretches of awful, and the Utes are subpar with flashes of good. Key difference: The Huskies have two ways to score, Quade Green and Marcus Tsohonis, while the Utes are far more fluid and resourceful on the offensive end. First team to 50 wins, and that should be the higher seed. Winner: Utah.
No. 6 Stanford vs. No. 11 Cal (7 p.m.): Stanford swept the season series, but recall your pre-pandemic history: Hours before the shutdown last March, the Cardinal pulled a no-show in an opening-round loss to the Bears. Cal’s best shot this time around is a big game from Matt Bradley and a strong contribution from one member of the supporting cast. Or: Stanford could implode with one of those 2-of-17 performances behind the line that we see every so often from the Cardinal. Winner: Cal.
No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 9 Washington State (11:30 a.m.): WSU won the only meeting, in Eugene, in Oregon’s first game back from a COVID pause. The Ducks had their core intact, but Cougars guard Isaac Bonton was the best player on the court. He needs to assume that role again in order for WSU to stay in range of victory down the stretch. The Ducks are light years better offensively than they were in early February. Winner: Oregon.
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 5 Oregon State (2:30 p.m.): Neither team reached 60 in the only meeting, a 57-52 UCLA victory in Pauley Pavilion. Not only that, only two players even reached double figures (Ethan Thompson and Cody Riley). We expect more of the same in a quarterfinal that could have all the rhythm and flow of a preseason scrimmage. And that would be just fine with the Bruins, by the way. Pick: UCLA
No. 2 USC vs. No. 7 Utah (5:30 p.m.): First time on the court for the Trojans since the euphoria of their last-second win at UCLA, but they shouldn’t have trouble focusing on the Utes, who beat them soundly two weeks ago. Utah is the most erratic team in the field — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Krystkowiak. If the Utes shoot well, this will be tight throughout. If not, it will look more like the first meeting, an 18-point USC victory. Winner: USC
No. 3 Colorado vs. No. 11 Cal (8:30 p.m.): The tournament becomes a success for the Bears the moment they dispatch Stanford, but Colorado has a trophy in its sights and just the right balance (inside/outside, offense/defense) to win the thing. The Buffaloes might need a half to locate their rhythm, but the final 20 minutes should be a clinic — and a sign of what’s to come. Winner: Colorado
No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 4 UCLA (5:30 p.m.): We saw this game last week — an eight-point Oregon win — and nothing has changed: The Bruins don’t have the size to exploit Oregon’s weakness up front; nor do they have the playmakers to counteract Oregon’s set defense. It’s a bad matchup for UCLA all around, and a good one for the Ducks. Winner: Oregon.
No. 2 USC vs. No. 3 Colorado (8:30 p.m.): His name is Dallas Walton. He’s a 7-foot senior who averages a few baskets per game and rarely plays more than 15 minutes. But against the Mobley brothers, Evan and Isaiah, Walton will make an immense impact. Together with star point guard McKinley Wright and CU’s veteran cast, the Buffaloes eliminate the second seed. Winner: Colorado.
No. 3 Colorado vs. No. 1 Oregon (7:30 p.m.): The top seed enters the title game as a substantial favorite, but public sentiment underestimates CU’s resourcefulness and the lessons from Oregon’s head-to-head victory three weeks ago in Eugene. The Buffaloes possess the size to attack the Ducks up front. (Oregon’s core rotation has many attributes, but height is not one of them.) Both teams are superbly coached; both teams have elite guards; and both teams run fluid offense. But this will be won down low, one punishing possession after another. Winner: Colorado.