UCLA and Arizona have been the flag-bearers for Pac-12 basketball excellence for decades, and if the conference is going to shed the image of mediocrity created by last season's embarrassing performance, one of those two will have to win some games in the NCAA Tournament.
Each is capable of winning a few games in the postseason, but the Pac-12's best hopes rest with the Bruins—because the chief ingredient for postseason success is the most obvious: talent. Defense, point-guard play, versatility, depth, momentum heading into the postseason and experience are all part of the equation, but ultimately, the teams with the most NBA-caliber talent are the ones that do the best. And UCLA has talent.
UCLA and Arizona won't be the only Pac-12 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with at least three Pac-12 teams and as many as six are expected to get bids.
That in itself would be an improvement over last season when the conference suffered the disgrace of not getting its regular-season champion, Washington, into the field. Then Cal got clobbered in a play-in game by South Florida, while Colorado—the hottest Pac-12 team at season's end—beat UNLV in its first-round game and was competitive against Baylor before losing, giving the conference an iota of respect.
At the moment, seven Pac-12 teams seem capable of getting into the NCAA Tournament, with UCLA, Arizona and Oregon nearly locks and Colorado, Cal, Stanford and Arizona State within reach of a berth.
Here's a ranking of the postseason potential of those seven teams, starting with the least likely to do well in the NCAA Tournament and building toward the conference's best hope.
The Bears have work to do just to get into the NCAA Tournament, but their road victory over Arizona shows that they are capable. The Bears' backcourt of Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs provide Cal with the type of individual stars needed in the pressure atmosphere of the tournament.
But the Bears have so little talent elsewhere, it's hard to imagine them getting past a team that focuses its defense on Crabbe and Cobbs—which teams will do in the tournament. Last season's blowout loss to South Florida suggests this is simply not a postseason team.
6. Arizona State
Arizona State has Jahii Carson, the type of multifaceted point guard needed for postseason success. But the simple fact is, the Sun Devils are not that good and have no postseason experience. There is little reason to believe they will do much in the postseason given the poor seed they're likely to receive.
The Ducks' recent problems have demonstrated their shortcomings, particularly turnovers and the lack of a go-to player. If freshman point guard Dominic Artis returns from his foot injury and regains his early-season form, the Ducks have a shot to win a game or two. But this team is trending the wrong way and does not have the consistent perimeter play needed for postseason success.
Colorado has the outside shooting capabilities and perimeter talent to do well in the postseason, as evidenced by last year's late-season surge. Small forward Andre Roberson is the kind of player who shines in the postseason, and coach Tad Boyle seems adept at preparing his team for postseason play. The Buffaloes are limited by their talent level, which can take them only so far.
Because of its individual talent level, the Stanford Cardinals can be a factor if they can get into the tournament, although that is a big if. The Cardinals showed during its run to the 2012 NIT championship that they have a roster built for postseason success. Guard Chasson Randle has the talent and personality to excel in the postseason, and the athleticism of big men Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell will serve the Cardinal well against talented teams.
If the Cardinals shoot well from the perimeter—and they have been as hot as the sun in recent games after early-season shooting woes—Stanford is capable of pulling off a tournament upset.
As the nation's No. 9-ranked team, Arizona is presumed to be the Pac-12's best postseason hope. And since the Wildcats are likely to have a favorable seed, they may win a game or two. But they also seem vulnerable to an early exit.
Guard Mark Lyons gives Arizona the kind of clutch player a team needs to win games that come down to the last few possessions—as so many NCAA Tournament games do—and Solomon Hill provides a solid presence up front.
However, the Wildcats have no true point guard, and, quite honestly, they are not that good. Despite their record and some impressive wins, the Wildcats don't seem to have enough talent to dominate anyone, and the teams that rack up big margins of victory during the regular season are often the successful teams in the postseason.
That bring us to UCLA, and while the Bruins' inconsistency is cause for concern, they have by far the greatest potential for postseason success.
During the grind of a conference schedule, the Bruins sometimes lose their focus, and that is costly for teams that depend on a free-flowing game and individual talent like UCLA does.
This Bruins team is completely different from Ben Howland's three Final Four teams, which depended on suffocating defense and a grinding half-court offense to win low-scoring games. This team lacks that kind of discipline, which can lead to poor performances at times.
In the postseason, however, there should be no letdowns, and the Bruins' focus should be laser sharp for every game. With the excellent point-guard play of Larry Drew II and the individual talent of future first-round NBA draft pick Shabazz Muhammad to go along with the skills provided at every other position, the Bruins are capable of beating any team in the country if they get on a roll.
They are much like the talented, but inconsistent, UCLA teams coached by Steve Lavin and Jim Harrick. Occasionally, they stumbled in the postseason, but more often, they found their focus during the NCAA Tournament and let their individual talent carry them through several rounds.
In the postseason, expect the kind of UCLA team that easily handled Arizona in Tucson.