Can four thrilling days in Las Vegas redeem four tepid months of Pac-12 basketball?
That’s the bet being made as the men’s basketball teams convene this week at T-Mobile Arena. No team, not even regular-season champion Washington, can feel secure about its NCAA Tournament credentials. For the vast majority, an automatic bid is the only hope of sniffing the seedings on Selection Sunday.
To use the week’s first gambling metaphor, it’s like spending the whole night losing your shirt at a blackjack table, then making one giant bet in hopes of winning it all back. And well, you know how that usually turns out.
Eleven teams will go home this week wishing they hadn’t put everything on the Pac-12 tournament. That includes Oregon, assuming the Ducks don’t pull off the improbable and win four games in four days.
No team has done it since Colorado in 2012, which coincidentally was the last time the Pac-12 produced such a weak field of NCAA contenders. So maybe this is the year for another No. 6 seed to blow up the bracket and bust into the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m not really intimidated by any of the teams,” Oregon forward Kenny Wooten said. “I’m just hoping we can do our thing. If we do our thing, I think we can beat anyone.”
Why should anyone feel differently? Oregon just held first-place Washington to 47 points in a road win, 10 days after the Huskies lost to last-place Cal.
While that 15-3 Pac-12 record looks nice, Washington was hardly a dominant team. The Huskies won 12 games this year by single digits, and the advanced metrics rank them only a few spots higher than Oregon.
Until the past two weeks, the Ducks had yet to put together four solid games in a row, let alone four in the span of four days. After watching them blow out the Arizona schools and sweep the Washington schools on the road, I’m coming around to the idea that the Ducks could be a threat.
Watching Oregon play so well has been both encouraging and frustrating — encouraging because the Ducks seem to be figuring things out, frustrating because it took them until now to do it.
In a league as down as the Pac-12, everyone can play the what-if game. Still, the Ducks have to look at their 10-8 finish and wonder where they’d be right now if they hadn’t blown late leads at home to UCLA, Washington and Oregon State.
They’d probably be in the bubble conversation, if not safely in the NCAA Tournament field. As it is, the Ducks can’t count on any love from the selection committee unless they win the conference tournament.
“It’s life or death,” point guard Payton Pritchard said. “We want to make the tournament, so we know we can’t lose. This is the tournament for us right now.”
The Pac-12’s worst fear is that rather than a nutty, unpredictable thrill ride, this tournament turns into an extension of what we saw during the regular season: sloppy basketball, apathetic fans, too many games where one team or the other appears totally checked out.
Will fewer fans be roaming the Vegas Strip this year? That seems like a logical bet, especially with Arizona – the team that perennially brings the biggest and rowdiest crowd — buried in the seedings.
I can’t overstate how badly the Pac-12 needs this tournament to be a success. It’s been a dismal year for the conference, and it only got worse Tuesday with the revelation that coaches in certain non-revenue sports have been lining their pockets by allowing rich kids to pose as scholarship athletes.
No basketball coaches have been implicated in the scheme, though frankly, that would explain a lot. It’s just one more black mark for a conference that desperately needs a makeover in leadership, messaging and overall direction.
Can one great week in Las Vegas fix all that ails the Pac-12? Not a chance. But at least it could be a pleasant distraction, and for one lucky team, a reprieve for whatever shortcomings were revealed during the regular season.
Maybe Oregon could be that team. The Ducks are on a hot streak, but because it took them four months to get there, they’ve staked their whole season on what happens in Las Vegas.
“It’s a little bit too late,” coach Dana Altman said. “I wish we’d figured this out a while ago.”
Join the crowd.