Paradoxically, the fact that the Pac-12 is having its worst season in years actually makes its conference tournament one of the country’s most intriguing. After all, the intensity will be dialed up to 11 as teams accustomed to power-conference status scramble for position in what could easily be just a two-bid league this year.
In that pressure cooker, one player who could stand tall is Cal senior Jorge Gutierrez. His Golden Bears are likely to be the No. 2 seed in the conference tourney, and his combination of scoring punch, defensive acumen and experience could be just the formula his team needs to claim the conference’s automatic bid.
Herein, a closer look at Gutierrez’s place among the dozen players who will have the most impact on the results of next week’s Pac-12 tournament.
The Cougars, currently projected as the eight-seed, will be heavy underdogs to get anywhere in the Pac-12 tournament, but thanks to Brock Motum, they could be dangerous.
The 6’10” junior has more than doubled his previous career highs, averaging 17.8 points and 6.6 rebounds a game this season.
Considering the severe lack of impact forwards in the conference, Motum could carry Washington State to more than one upset if he can get his team past seven-footer Aziz N’Diaye of arch-rival Washington.
His downfall may be on defense, where his utter lack of shot-blocking prowess (0.4 a game) belies his enviable length.
One of the biggest reasons for Cal’s six-win improvement from last season has been the play of Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs.
The sophomore point guard is dishing out a team-high five assists per game, helping the Golden Bears offense rank 20th in the country in field-goal percentage.
Cobbs’ arrival has helped take ball-handling responsibilities off the shoulders of senior Jorge Gutierrez, but if Cobbs falters in these high-pressure games, Gutierrez will have to step back in.
Look for the sophomore to stand tall as the Golden Bears make a run to the conference title game and, likely, the Pac-12 championship.
Aziz N’Diaye has managed to evade attention about as well as a 7'0", 260-lb center can at the college level.
While he’s just the fourth-leading scorer on his own team (8.2 points a game), N’Diaye’s physical presence inside has been an ace in the hole for the conference-leading Huskies.
N’Diaye’s average of 7.7 rebounds a game has been invaluable in this undersized conference, even if he’s not the shot-blocker one might hope (1.2 per contest).
The Huskies have no bigger edge than N’Diaye in their head-to-head matchup with likely conference-final foe Cal, whose biggest player (sophomore Richard Solomon) gives up two inches and 40 lbs to the Washington junior.
There’s no shortage of disappointing teams in the Pac-12 (arguably the league has a dozen of them), but the long shot with the best chance to surprise in the conference tournament is Oregon State.
As bad as the Beavers have been—15-13 overall, 5-11 in conference play—they still boast the nation’s ninth-best scoring offense, so they’re always a threat to surprise an otherwise superior team.
The key to that effort will be guard Jared Cunningham, the Pac-12’s leading scorer at 18.4 points a game.
Even more important than his offensive contributions will be his role as the Beavers’ only competent defender. He’s also the conference leader with 2.6 steals per contest, a figure that ranks him eighth in the nation.
He’s no Derrick Williams, but Solomon Hill has done his best to fill the very large hole the Timberwolves rookie left in the Arizona front court. The 6’6” Hill is scoring 12.4 points a game and leading the Wildcats with 7.9 boards per contest.
Hill’s biggest contribution to the Wildcats postseason hopes, though, will be his point-forward duties - the junior is leading the team with 2.7 assists a night.
If he can’t keep the sometimes stagnant half-court offense flowing, Arizona could be in for an early exit.
There are bigger players, and higher-scoring players, but there might not be a tougher match-up in the Pac-12 than Washington guard Terrence Ross.
The conference’s best pure athlete - and best NBA prospect - is 6’6” with outstanding strength and leaping ability.
Ross is second on the Huskies’ roster with 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game, but each of those totals would be team highs for several other Pac-12 squads. For highlight-reel moments, there’s not a better go-to option in the conference—and just a few in the nation.
Despite a dismal finish to their season - 4-7 since mid-January - the Cardinal will get their share of chances to play spoiler against arch-rival Cal, both in the regular-season finale and a probable second-round tournament showdown.
In either case, Stanford’s upset hopes will hinge on the performance of forward Josh Owens.
The team’s second-leading scorer at 12.4 points per game and leading rebounder at six boards a game, Owens is most valuable for his experience.
If the young back court of Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle starts to crack under postseason pressure, senior Owens must be ready to keep the team on track.
Oregon isn’t exactly at the top of the list of Pac-12 title contenders, but the Ducks have beaten both Washington and Arizona this year.
Add in a probable first-round bye in the conference tourney, and Oregon could be a dangerous dark horse.
Any hopes of a postseason run for the Ducks will depend on senior guard Devoe Joseph, the team leader in both points (16.3) and steals (1.4).
If Joseph can turn in more monster efforts like the 33 points he scored in a near-upset in Berkeley two weeks ago, Oregon isn’t going to bow out quietly.
Arizona has clawed back into the conference title hunt on the strength of a 7-1 record in February. The player who’s had the most to say about that hot streak is shooting guard Kyle Fogg.
Fogg, the team’s leading scorer with 13.2 points per game, raised that output to 16.5 points during the last 29 days. If he stays hot, Arizona will be a very tough out in postseason play.
Of the teams who won’t earn a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament, none is more dangerous than the Buffaloes.
Not only have they beaten Arizona and Cal, but they boast one of the single most dominant players in the league in forward Andre Roberson.
At just 6’7”, Roberson is blocking an impressive 1.9 shots per game and leads the Pac-12 with 11.4 rebounds per game (third-best in the nation).
With a balanced offense featuring four players in double figures, and Roberson locking down the middle on defense, Colorado is a legitimate prospect to steal the conference title in its first year as a Pac-12 team.
Cal has spent most of the season tied with Washington for the Pac-12 lead, and they’ll be favorites to meet the Huskies in the conference title game.
No player has meant more to the Golden Bears’ success than senior guard Jorge Gutierrez.
Gutierrez’s leadership has been vital in an inexperienced back court, and his 13 points a game have been big as well, but his most valuable contribution is on the other end of the floor.
The Pac-12’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year will be Cal’s best weapon in containing the perimeter-focused Washington offense.
The battle for the Pac-12’s best recruiting class last fall looked to be a two-horse race between Arizona and Washington, but the Huskies have run away with the prize where freshman-year performance is concerned.
Tony Wroten is head-and-shoulders above every other first-year player in the conference, leading the first-place Huskies with 16.7 points a game.
The sensational guard is far from flawless—he’s shooting an execrable .184 from three-point range—and freshmen are always a threat to fold under postseason pressure.
For better or worse, though, as the offensive leader of the best team in the Pac-12, Wroten's performance will be the biggest individual factor in deciding who takes home the conference’s automatic bid to March Madness.