Marching to Vegas: Picking a Dark Horse

Posted by Adam Butler (@pachoops) on February 28th, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops again will be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference, as we begin the March to Las Vegas.

‘Tis the time of year when we really dive into favorites. It makes sense as those usually come first. We pick our favorite candy, friend, player, etc., first whenever organizing. And with the NCAA Tournament fast approaching (you guys realize tomorrow is March, right?) our immediate dialogue turns to picking the favorites to win the thing. Well let’s take a step back from the NCAAs and away from favorites for a second and get ahead of ourselves and talk about who might be a dark horse winner of the Pac-12 Tournament. Semantics would suggest that I’m just citing the favorite rally through a few upsets in Vegas, but I’d disagree. The favorites to win the tournament are foregone. As Tad Boyle recently said, ““There are 11 other teams in the Pac-12 and then there’s Arizona.” There ya have it folks, the favorites debate is settled. Which isn’t to say that anyone not named “Wildcats” is a dark horse champion candidate. Quite the contrary. I like UCLA’s odds and think a senior-laden Stanford crew could most certainly make noise. Arizona State has one of the most dynamic players in the country in Jahii Carson with a red hot support staff in Jermaine Marshall and the conference’s all-time leading shot blocker in Jordan Bachynski making the Sun Devils another viable title option.

Yeah, Arizona Is The Favorite, We Know That Already. Give Us An Underdog (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Yeah, Arizona Is The Favorite, We Know That Already. Give Us An Underdog. (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

But whoopdie doo, Adam! These guys are all in the top half of the conference. That’s why it’s not too exciting, right now in this column, to discuss the favorites. We know them. So what about those dark horses, the un-favorites. I’d say that the criteria to fit this bill is slim. You have had to show the propensity to: A) beat top teams, B) do something elite, and/or C) get wildly hot with top talent. Let’s get something out of the way: USC and Washington State fit none of these bills. The Trojans have demonstrated that not only can they not beat elite teams, but they can’t beat anyone. They will not win the Pac-12 Tournament. Likewise, the Cougars won’t either. Did you know that they put up 0.46 points per possession in a game this season? They couldn’t even bust the 1.0 PPP mark against Oregon State. At this point we have covered the favorites and the least favorites. Leaving us right where we want to be, looking at my favorite dark horse candidates to win the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada (it’s two weeks away, by the way).

We’ll start in Salt Lake where earlier this week Larry Krystkowiak said his team was gonna win this thing; a bold statement considering the Utes have won just twice outside the state of Utah this season. But as an optimist I’ll note that Nevada and Utah share a whole lot of border and osmosis could be in play here. I’m just putting it out there as an option. But if we’re stepping out of the realm of science and back into our three factors, in order for a team to have a shot to run the table, they’ll need some special characteristics (big wins, elite play, hot). First and foremost, the Utes have played just about everyone tight. No one utterly and soundly owns the series and they’ve had a fighter’s chance – if not a victory – against every team they’ve played. This suggests they’re both unlucky and talented. They’re a phenomenal home team and an evolving road team. And by ‘evolving’ I mean they have one win. Alas, Vegas is neither home nor road for anyone. If memory serves, the Utes traveled well a season ago, so maybe that will serve them well. But marching further down our list, the Utes can do something on an elite level. They score the ball at a highly effective rate. They do this by getting all of the buckets at the rim. I effused about it with regards to Delon Wright who simply makes the world better. Or at least shooting percentages. The Utes have the fourth-highest field goal percentage at the rim and the ninth-best two-point field goal percentage. Their eFG is 27th in the nation. Basically, the Utes are flirting with being a highly functioning offense with a highly capable defense. In both regards they’re close, but not quite there. Kinda like a road game.

Behind Emerging Superstar Delon Wright, Utah Could Make Big Noise In Vegas (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

Behind Emerging Superstar Delon Wright (55), Utah Could Make Big Noise In Vegas. (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)

My second dark horse candidate won last night and I first want to comment on that. I don’t care who UCLA ran out on to the court last night or how the game transpired. We are one day away from March, and if I’m not mistaken, I once heard something about surviving and advancing. Oregon won a critical game last night and they are who we think they are: an offensively capable, defensively inept cluster-mess of talent. Oh, to be green. If we examine this team through the lens of what it takes to be an un-favorite, they just beat UCLA, as noted (I told you I don’t care where JA and KA were), and they hung mighty close with Arizona. Their next best win (beyond UCLA) is over the aforementioned Utes. From the perspective of elite, the Ducks can score. They do it phenomenally well (11th-best offensive rating in the nation and second-best in conference) and they do it from distance. They take just the 248th highest percentage of shots from the rim while hitting threes at the 32nd best clip in America (38.9%). Shooting your way out of defense deficiencies and size problems may seem mid-major, but it’s what the Ducks are resigned to do. Between Joseph Young and Jason Calliste, Oregon has the former mid-major power and three-point shooting to assert themselves into Cinderella’s slipper.

But ultimately this is a tournament being held during a month we coin “madness.” Simply because I know Utah has Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge and has looked good at times during the year doesn’t mean much. Conversely, just because we’ve seen Arizona dominate doesn’t mean they’re going to bulldoze through the MGM Grand. USC and WSU will not win. Vegas, we’ve spent the last 12 months marching here. Let’s enjoy it.

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