Talented players like Shabazz Muhammad and a solid road track record make UCLA a threat. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
March 12-16 MGM Grand Garden Arena (Las Vegas, Nev.) | Bracket
The nation's most closely balanced league hits the road for its first conference tournament in Las Vegas. This is one of the rare major-conference cases where almost any winner of the auto bid wouldn't be a surprise. There are a lot of lower-level seeding and bubble team implications with how this tournament goes, too, so while the top-end level of play may not measure up to the Big Ten (or even the Mountain West tournament being held concurrently in Vegas), it should feature unpredictability and close games. The bracket also feels unbalanced, so perhaps a mystery winner will emerge from the bottom half.
Key Matchup: No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 8 Stanford (possible quarterfinal)
The Cardinal are in the discussion for an at-large, but currently are on the outside looking in. This draw sets up nicely for them to get the wins they need. If they can beat Arizona State (solid team), they get a shot at league champ UCLA, with a likely game against Colorado or Arizona in a semifinal. It's a great draw for a bubble run that probably wouldn't require them to win the auto bid to make it. A trip to the final may very well be enough, with three more top-100 wins being added to the ledger.
Team to Watch: "Mystery team from the bottom half of the bracket"
For all their accomplishments this season, California remains eminently beatable and Oregon has not rediscovered its mojo from before Dominic Artis was injured. Those are your two top seeds in the bottom half of the bracket, which means there's opportunity there for someone to make a Colorado 2012-style run to the title game. The counter question: Is anyone else capable of winning three in a row? I liked USC as a darkhorse pick, but they're struggling with the latest drama. Washington away from home? I'll never say never, but ... what about Utah? I know, I know, but they're playing better ball, just swept the Oregon schools at home and, well, why not? OK, maybe Cal will just make the final.
Hottest Storyline: Who will be the selection committee's flavor of the month?
Someone is going to rack up a few wins in this event and get overseeded in the NCAAs as a result. Will UCLA do the double and land a top-4 seed? Will Arizona wake up from its mediocre slumber? Will Colorado ever be able to put three good games in a row together? The finalist from the top half of the bracket will have some good wins, and if they win the auto bid, a seeding pop could occur.
The Pick: UCLA
You can tab anyone from the top eight or nine teams in this league and have a legitimate reason to believe. Along with Arizona, I think UCLA, at its best, is the best team in the conference, and the Bruins
have played more at that best level than anyone else in the league during conference play. Top talents and the ability to win away from home make the Bruins the pick.