By Marc Lawrence
PROJECTED FINAL FOUR:
California, Arizona State, Washington and USC
THE WAY WE SEE IT:
In the eight-year history of this tournament, there have been six different winners. CALIFORNIA isn't one of them. Could this be the Bears' turn? Cal was one-and-done last year but led by guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher, the only returnees from last year's All Pac-10 first team, this year's regular season champs are in good hands. Naysayers will remind us of Cal's 6-8 SUATS mark away from campus. While it's true the Berkeley Bears did most of their damage at home this season (15-1 SU and 11-4 ATS), we'll point to their 5-1 SU and 4-1-1 ATS mark as tourney favs - a role they'll be in from the opening tip. ARIZONA STATE has won just two of nine tourney games but those wins came last season before an eventual title loss to USC. The Sun Devils have grabbed the cash in three of their last four tourney affairs but their 0-5 ATS record as dogs this season could spell trouble. They will also need to improve on their 4-12 ATS mark against a foe off a SU win this season if they hope to go deep. WASHINGTON last appeared in the title game in 2005 and their 4-7 SU and ATS record away or on a neutral court this season, including 0-4 ATS as dogs, suggests a longer wait. Yes, the $$$-burning Huskies have certainly played like dogs when taking points this season. Picked to finish last in the preseason polls, USC has once again proved the scribes wrong. The Trojans were an airtight 9-2 ATS as a dog but a soft 5-12-1 ATS as a favorite. Defensive grit makes them dangerous.
THE SLEEPER: UCLA
Like most teams in this loop, it was a lean year for the Bruins. With only one starter back from last year's 26-win team, Ben Howland's youngsters simply could not sustain success, going 3-6 SU and 2-7 ATS in conference when playing off a win. A full season of experience, along with Howland's glittering 34-15 SU mark in post-season play, makes for a solid double-dose of anticipation. Don't forget this: UCLA was 5-0 ATS against conference foes off back-to-back wins this season.
KEY TOURNAMENT BEST BET: Play On USC as a dog
No team in this history of this league has won more conference tournament games (10) than the Trojans. Half of those wins were in underdog roles, including twice last year en route to winning this event. Only Princeton and Wisconsin allowed fewer points per game in Division 1 than the Trojans (57.2). All good reasons for USC to add to its sparkling 7-2 ATS mark as a puppy in this tourney.