Originally Published: March 7, 2017 11 p.m.
LAS VEGAS — The Pac-12 Tournament starts Wednesday with four first-round games. The four games on Thursday kick off the conference’s bid for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 3 UCLA, No. 5 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona each get a bye into the quarterfinals along The Strip, kicking off a stretch of three games in three days for an eventual champion that will have a strong case for the top seed in the West Regional.
“I think whoever wins the tournament will be a 1 or a 2 in the West depending on how Gonzaga does,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “It’s a big advantage to stay in your region. Your fans are able to get to the site easier and you don’t want to have to travel far.”
The Wildcats (27-4) shared the Pac-12 regular-season title with Oregon (27-4) at 16-2, with the Bruins (28-3) a game behind at 15-3.
The Pac-12’s power trio dominated the league, finishing well ahead of fourth-place Utah.
All three have rosters built for deep NCAA Tournament runs and are expected to light up T-Mobile Arena with high-level basketball.
“We have the best conference in America right now — UCLA, Oregon are Final Four contenders and us — so winning the Pac-12 Conference Tournament is a huge deal with the competition we have,” Arizona freshman guard Rawle Alkins said.
UCLA, Arizona and Oregon have all beaten each other. The Ducks and Wildcats each split games with UCLA and Oregon clobbered Arizona 85-58 in Eugene in their lone meeting.
Top-seeded Oregon will play the winner of Wednesday’s game between Stanford and Arizona State, while Arizona opens against the Colorado-Washington State winner.
UCLA, which is on the same side of the bracket as the Wildcats, gets the winner between Washington and Southern California.
A few more things to look for from the Pac-12 Tournament:
California, Utah and USC all could use good runs in the Pac-12 Tournament to bolster NCAA Tournament hopes. The Utes (20-10) appeared to be on the outside looking in just a few weeks ago, but closed the regular season with three straight wins. The Bears (19-11) had an opposite ending to the regular season, losing their final two, including one to Utah.
USC (23-8) has the best record among the trio, but had a late-season four-game losing streak that included a loss to Arizona State.
The Pac-12 Tournament was expected to be the final go-around for Washington freshman point guard Markelle Fultz. The Huskies will not make the postseason beyond the conference tournament and Fultz is expected to leave for the NBA, where he’s been predicted to be the No. 1-overall draft pick in some mock drafts. But Fultz’s season may already be over. The talented guard has missed five of the past seven games and his status for Wednesday’s game is uncertain.
ONE AND DONE
Several players could be playing in their one and only Pac-12 Tournament. UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball is expected to leave for the NBA and has also been pegged as the No. 1 overall pick in some mock drafts. Ball’s teammate and fellow freshman TJ Leaf could possibly join him in leaving for the NBA after a season that skyrocketed his draft stock. Arizona 7-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen is another player who could leave early, pegged as a possible lottery pick if he comes out.