Over at the MGM, the league had the perfect setup. Their fans, boosters, officials, bands, teams, and media could all stuff into the same facility, sleeping, partying, eating, and playing under the same roof. If I didn't want to, I never had to leave the MGM property during tournament week, having all my needs attended to while staying within walking distance of where the action was taking place. That made it so that I felt a part of the action in a way that I hadn't in previous Pac-12 and Big XII tournaments -- as intimate and personal a feel as you can get. While I'm sure the new arena is beautiful and well-equipped, it is, by definition, separate from any other hotel on the Strip. As a result, no matter what the league does, the new venue won't be able to replace this beloved aspect of the old, and I fear the league will have scrapped what made the annual Pac-12 fest special for little relative gain.
That said, I still anticipate a wonderful week of hoops. While the action won't really get going until Thursday, when the three heavies hit town, any time you attend a conference tournament, something weird is bound to happen. Throw in some Vegas love, and a short ride to a craps table, and you'd be at a stretch to keep a frown on your face.
For Day 1, the best games are the first of each session. With Washington and Oregon State being decidedly a step behind the rest of the league, I wouldn't expect much from either. But, the 8/9 and 7/10 affairs could be electric. Early season meetings between Stanford/Arizona State and Colorado /Washington State each produced high-scoring showcases, with the prospect of a repeat in the desert a tantalizing proposition. Usually, 1st days ca be a little staid, but, if either of these games gets going, it should be worth the cost of tuning in.
Hype Music for the Week: "Party Hard" by Andrew W.K.
Making it through a tournament week in Vegas is not for the weak of spirit. To fuel you through those long hours spent straining to see through the cigarette smoke at the craps table, get yourself a drop-shot and some Andrew W.K. Enjoy!
- #9 Stanford vs #8 Arizona State - 1pm MT - Pac-12 Networks - STAN -3
This is, by far, the hardest to project of the four games today. It's a matchup of a pair of losing teams with more success in conference play than they probably 'should've' enjoyed; both chaotic and unpredictable. Stanford, especially, escapes my ability to understand. They have some good talent, especially on the wings and in the paint, but their guard play is scatter-shot at best. Conversely, the Sun Devils have a strong backcourt, but relatively nothing up front (all apologies to Obinna Oleka) and a short bench. It's a good example of two opponents with alternate strengths, the kind of thing that usually makes for a fun game.
The Cardinal actually lost both tilts this season to ASU; the first a high-scoring affair in Maples, the most-recent a more demure result in the desert. Usually, I would be saying here that it's hard to beat a team three times, and that you should expect Stanford to claim the revenge game in LV, but that's not the case today. This time of year, I generally defer to the better guard play, and State gets that checkmark here. As such, give me the Sun Devils and the points. Regardless, should be a high scoring affair.
- #12 Oregon State vs #5 Cal - 3:30pm MT - Pac-12 Networks - CAL -14
As interesting and entertaining as that first game might be, this meeting of the Beavers and Bears should be an absolute dog. With two painfully slow teams, one of whom, Cal, loves to close the distance and go for the body, this with be an ugly, grainy battle. Expect a number of missed baskets, slothful possessions, and the overall pace of grass growing. Essentially: unwatchable.
Cal should win easily, but that may not mean the 14 points necessary to win you some money. In a low-scoring affair, getting out to that big of a lead may be difficult.
- #10 Washington State vs #7 Colorado - 7pm MT - Pac-12 Networks - CU -10
OK, so here goes. Colorado has never lost an opening-round conference tournament game under Tad Boyle, 6-0. While it is also true that they have always had to play an opening round game under Coach, at least the program enjoys a tradition of winning them. The joke has always been that, should CU ever drop one of these, I'd wake up early the next day and take a trip of shame to the Hoover Dam, basically just to get out of town. I don't want to have to make that trek this year. *knocks on wood, furiously*
Problem is, Washington State is no pushover. Coach Boyle this week was calling them 'sneaky good,' which makes a lot of sense. They have a lot of good role players, the kind of guys who excel at one or two areas, making theirs a delicate puzzle of balance. Generally, better than the sum of their parts. When the pieces lay on the table well, as they did when the Buffs went up to Pullman this season, it looks pretty good, and they can boat-race you. When they don't fit, however, like in the return game in Boulder, the Cougs can get blown out. I would certainly expect something more akin to the road visit to Eastern Washington than what we saw on the Front Range, but exactly how much closer remains to be seen.
Off the top, all those cheeky back cuts the Buffs employed in the home fixture will probably be cut-off by a better-prepared WSU defense. In the same way that Colorado was able to calm the Charles Callison worries given a game's worth of tape to prepare, the Cougars will be much more attentive off the ball. From there, it'll all be about rebounding margins and who is making shots. Ike Iroegbu is due for an explosion, but I expect Derrick White to counter. Xavier Johnson vs Josh Hawkinson, then, could be the difference. In the end, this rematch of last year's tournament opener will probably be closer than the 10 points afforded by Vegas, but CU should claim a scary one to survive and advance.
- #11 Washington vs #6 USC - 9:30pm MT - Pac-12 Networks - USC -11
The nightcap could've been a showcase for the absurd if Markelle Fultz was going to play, but I highly doubt that he'll step out of the phone booth this late in the season. He's got the upcoming NBA Draft to think about, after all. As a result, the Huskies will walk into the gym severely under-manned, and will probably end up getting party-wiped by the Trojans. No wooden horse needed.
GO BUFFS! PROVE ME RIGHT, AND BEAT THE COUGARS!