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Pac-12 Tournament: Preview, implications and today’s slate

What happens in Vegas will stick with these teams for a long time

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This Pac-12 season has been among the most intriguing seasons in recent memory.

The conference has had national attention for much of the year thanks to fabulous Freshman and not one, not two, but three programs at the top of their game, forcing their way into National Championship consideration.

Now, the entire conference will gather in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament. Those three powerhouses are jockeying for NCAA Tournament position. Three more are fighting until the very last second to get into the tournament at all.

Here's a primer for what should be a wild few days in Sin City.

The big three

The Oregon Ducks entered this season as the Pac-12 favorite after running roughshod on the league a year ago. They were led by Dillon Brooks, Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell, all returning from that Elite Eight team from last season. They responded to lofty expectations with a 16-2 record in Pac-12 play, the number one seed in the conference tournament and the Pac-12’s best chance at a one seed on Selection Sunday.

They won the Pac-12 regular season title but they didn't win it alone.

The Arizona Wildcats, led by what's being called Sean Miller’s best job at Arizona, also finished 16-2, earning their share of the regular season championship. It’s been a roller coaster season for Arizona — through injuries, suspensions, returns, huge victories and two tough conference losses — it certainly hasn’t been boring.

It’s not often that Arizona is, perhaps, the most surprising team in the Pac-12. But, this year, considering everything being dealt with off the court, no one could have predicted that the Wildcats would be in this position.

And last in this trio are the UCLA Bruins, the most high octane offense college basketball has seen in quite some time.

These three teams have separated themselves as, not just the three best in the conference, but three of the best teams in the nation and three legitimate contenders for the National Championship. It’s also become clear that the difference between these three teams is razor thin.

Arizona and UCLA met twice and each was a thrilling contest, with each road team getting a big win. UCLA and Oregon also played twice, splitting their season series in close game, with each home team defending their floor. Arizona and Oregon only met once — okay, that wasn’t such a close one.

There are NCAA Tournament seeding implications riding largely on how these three perform in this week’s Pac-12 Tournament.

Gonzaga appears to have locked up the West region’s 1-seed with their victory last night but the 2-seed in that region is up for grabs.

Oregon may have the easiest route, as they can only face one of the other two powerhouses, in a potential Final.

Arizona and UCLA, meanwhile, as the 2 and 3 seed in the conference, would need to go through each other just to get to the Final.

This entire tournament will be something to watch. But, barring a massive upset, those last two days will have the real main event. Seeing how these three teams compete with one another, just one more time before March Madness begins, would be something that would have the entire college basketball world on the edge of their seat.

The team nobody is talking about

The Utah Utes are the 4-seed in this year’s Pac-12 Tournament. Which, considering those top three, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

And yet, the Utes are barely, if at all, on the NCAA Tournament radar.

An 0-4 combined record against the Pac-12’s top three may have something to do with that.

The Utes biggest victories this season are a pair of blowout home wins over the USC Trojans and the California Golden Bears. Which appears to have just knocked those two bubble teams down a peg, instead of lifting Utah.

They also hold the distinction as the only team to lose to Oregon State in the Pac-12 this season, which certainly doesn’t help their case.

But the Utes should not be ignored when it comes to this week in Vegas. Larry Krystkowiak always has his team prepared and with All Pac-12 First Teamer, Kyle Kuzma leading the way, this Ute team is capable of hanging with anyone.

The bubbles

The California Golden Bears and USC Trojans have each taken turns looking like legit NCAA Tournament teams this season.

USC entered Pac-12 play unbeaten, but after a 10-8 record in conference play, the Trojans are firmly on the bubble. They hold a win over UCLA to hang their hat on but went 0-5 against UCLA, Arizona and Oregon other than that. But it was a stunning last second loss to Arizona State that really hurt the Trojans.

As the 6-seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, USC can’t afford to slip up. They need to get one more chance at their hated crosstown rival UCLA Bruins to make a statement for the selection committee.

And then there’s Cal.

Led by the bruising force of Ivan Rabb (14.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg), the Golden Bears looked like a team on the rise just a few weeks ago. And a near tournament lock.

Now, they’ve dropped five of six including an especially rough Rocky Mountain trip last week that saw Cal lose by 30 in Utah and drop a very winnable game against the Colorado Buffaloes.

California will need to win two games to get the Oregon Ducks one last time. Oregon beat Cal on a last second Dillon Brooks three pointer just two weeks ago.

If these teams slip up early in this tournament, the Pac-12 will have three teams right at the top of the NCAA Tournament field. But those could be the only three that even make it.

Today’s action

(9) Stanford Cardinal vs. (8) Arizona State Sun Devils — 1:00 pm MST — Pac-12 Network

What you need to know: The Devils swept Stanford in the regular season, winning by 5 and 6. Arizona State loves shooting the three and will look to put Stanford away with that. But Stanford forward, Reid Travis, could be the most underrated player in the conference, scoring over 17 points per game on 57% from the floor.

Winner plays (1) Oregon Ducks tomorrow.

(5) California Golden Bears vs. (12) Oregon State Beavers — 3:30 pm MST — Pac-12 Network

What you need to know: Oregon State went just 1-17 in Pac-12 play this season, a far cry from their NCAA Tournament appearance from a year ago. Cal, like most teams, swept the Beavers this year. As mentioned earlier, the Golden Bears can not afford to lose this one.

Winner plays (4) Utah Utes tomorrow.

(7) Colorado Buffaloes vs. (10) Washington State Cougars — 7:00 pm MST — Pac-12 Network

What you need to know: Though it’s been an unusual down year for Tad Boyle’s Buffs, they’re still an excellent rebounding team and led by big-time scoring guard, Derrick White. They split the season series, a 2 point win for the Cougs and a 32 point win for the Buffs. Washington State will need their senior leader and two time first team All-Pac 12 forward, Josh Hawkinson, to steal the show.

Winner plays (2) Arizona Wildcats tomorrow.

(6) USC Trojans vs. (11) Washington Huskies — 9:30 pm MST — Pac-12 Network

What you need to know: USC swept the season series and is happy to see a 2-16 Pac-12 team on their schedule one more time. Especially when they need all the wins they can get. But on that 2-16 Pac-12 team is the potential number one pick of this year’s NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz, who’s averaging a ho-hum 23 points and six assists per game. Fultz doesn’t have much to be happy about in his lone year of college but spoiling USC’s season could be a highlight and something he’s certainly capable of.

Winner plays (3) UCLA Bruins tomorrow.