The team to beat: All season, California looked like the most nationally ready team. End-of-the-year losses have tempered that. Washington enters the tournament with the No. 1 seed, but will potentially face in the second round the UCLA team that upset the Huskies on Saturday. That leaves Oregon, winners of four of their last five, as the team playing the best going into this week’s games.
The darkhorse: UCLA. The Bruins closed out the season strong, and the No. 5 seed is much more favorable than some of the other paths they might have taken. Coach Ben Howland could use a strong push to help repair the image of his program after a damning article in Sports Illustrated. The Bruins were picked No. 1 in the preseason for a reason: They’re good enough to win.
Team with the most to gain: This could go to about 11 teams, but the top four seeds — Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Cal — could all earn NCAA Tournament bids with deep runs at the Staples Center. Even Washington, the regular season champion, isn’t guaranteed a ticket to March Madness.
Team with the most to lose: Any of the top teams could take themselves out of contention with an early loss, but Cal seems to be in the worst position after losing to Colorado and Stanford in its final two games.
Team on the slide: In the last week, Colorado played itself out of a first-round bye and suddenly seems bound for an early exit. Assuming the Buffaloes get past Utah on Wednesday, they will be matched up against Oregon on Thursday, and the Ducks are the hottest team in the league.
Players to watch: Cal’s Jorge Gutierrez, the Pac-12 MVP and defensive player of the year, is the grittiest guard in the league and can single-handedly determine the outcome of a game. ... Oregon State’s Jared Cunningham leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 18.2 points per game and is astonishingly athletic. ... Devoe Joseph completely changed the Ducks when he became eligible after his transfer from Minnesota. He made his first six shots against the Utes on Saturday en route to 20 points. Also, everyone should keep an eye on the Ducks’ Olu Ashaolu after he jumped over Utah’s Javon Dawson for a highlight-reel dunk last weekend.
Coach who could use the help: It seems unlikely that any Pac-12 coach is at risk of getting fired this year, but Oregon State’s Craig Robinson might appreciate a strong run after following up a 10-2 preseason with a 7-11 run through the conference.
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