LOS ANGELES -- It wouldn't be a surprise if Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott let out a loud sigh of relief late Friday night, as Colorado's victory against California in the second Pac-12 semifinal allowed his conference to avoid the Armageddon scenario of being the first one-bid major conference since the NCAA tournament expanded from 48 to 64 teams in 1985. With the Golden Bears assured of a bid barring some crazy circumstances, Saturday's Pac-12 title game between Colorado and Arizona will give the conference a second bid. And Washington has a decent shot at getting a third bid for the Pac-12. So take that critics!
No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 4 Arizona, 6 p.m. ET
Neither the Buffaloes (22-11) or Wildcats (23-10) were considered an at-large selection when the Pac-12 tournament started, and the loser is almost assuredly relegated to the NIT, as both teams were in the "Next Four Out" category of Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. So the atmosphere for this conference championship game will have more of a mid-major feel, where the combatants are scrapping and fighting for their shot at glory, than a BCS conference title game vibe, where the teams are playing simply for seeding. That should make for some fun at Staples Center.
Both teams have gotten to this point via defense, as they are the top two field goal percentage defenses in the conference. Colorado has given up only 54 points per game in its three victories (43 against Utah, 62 against Oregon, and 59 Friday night against Cal), holding opponents to 39.5 percent shooting in those victories. Colorado clamped down at crucial times twice against the Golden Bears, getting out to a 15-4 start early, and holding Cal scoreless for 4:28 in the late going, allowing a three-point lead to swell to a comfortable 59-46 advantage.
Arizona is no slouch on the defensive end either, as it actually led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense. The Wildcats held Oregon State more than 18 points below its season average in Friday's 72-61 semifinal victory, shutting off Jared Cunningham in the second half. After limping into the halftime down 34-27 after Oregon State ripped off a 20-4 run, the Wildcats flipped the script in the second half with their defense, holding the Beavers without a field goal for 6:16 as part of a 20-3 surge.
Keys to victory: Hitting the three and the boards. Along with stifling defense, Arizona turned the tables on Oregon State on Friday by tearing it up from long distance, as the Wildcats drained nine of 18 3-pointers. Brendon Lavender's trey to tie the game at 36-36 was considered the turning point of the game by Arizona coach Sean Miller. Kyle Fogg also nailed three triples, seemingly all late in the shot clock. Arizona leads the conference in 3-pointers per game, so look for Fogg, Lavender, Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson behind the arc.
Colorado sophomore forward Andre Roberson, the leading rebounder in the Pac-12, has been a double-double machine this season, compiling 18 thus far. He narrowly missed a 19th against Cal, with 17 points and nine rebounds. But Colorado, one of the best rebounding teams in the conference, was actually outboarded 31-25 by Cal, which is something it can't afford to do against Arizona. The Wildcats' Jesse Perry, the second-leading rebounder in the conference, had 16 points and 11 rebounds against Oregon State, while Hill can also crash the boards. So the Buffaloes will need the likes of Austin Dufault and Carlon Brown to help Roberson on the glass.
Previous meetings: The teams split their regular-season encounters. Colorado pulled out a 64-63 nail-biter in Boulder on Jan. 21., and Arizona notched a 71-57 victory in Tucson on Feb. 9. Brown was the hero for the Buffs in the first game, draining the game-winning 3-pointer with 1:19 left. Arizona crashed the boards in its victory, as Perry (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Hill (16 points, 14 boards) each compiled double-doubles.