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March 12, 2008
UCLA: The well-balanced Bruins are the clear favorite. Fifth-year coach Ben Howland has taken the Bruins to the past two Final Fours, and neither of those squads had this much offensive firepower - nor anything close to this strong of an inside game. Freshman phenom Kevin Love (6 feet 10, 270 pounds) is a rebounding machine who is a massive presence in the paint, and ultra-quick guards Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook create matchup problems on the perimeter. The Bruins have looked vulnerable recently, needing the aid of some questionable calls to pull off an overtime win over Stanford and a one-point win over Cal last week. The Bruins locked up an NCAA Tournament bid long ago and are challenging for a No. 1 overall seed.
AT A GLANCE
Bryce Taylor had a huge title game for Oregon last year, but the Ducks will need some breaks to get there again this season.
WHEN: March 12-15
WHERE: Staples Center, Los Angeles.
EXPECTED NCAA BIDS: 4-7. UCLA, Stanford, USC and Washington State are NCAA locks. Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon are on the bubble, and each would like to win at least once to alleviate some of the stress on Selection Sunday. One thing to consider: Arizona State and Oregon swept Arizona this season.
USC: The youth-laden Trojans would have been a trendy sleeper pick until a couple of weeks ago. But after winning five of their last six regular-season games, including an impressive 77-64 win over Stanford on Saturday, they have the look of a team peaking at exactly the right time. Led by star freshman guard O.J. Mayo, the Trojans lack experience but have plenty of talent. They're capable of beating just about anyone when big man Taj Gibson plays at his best. Coach Tim Floyd also has a reputation for adding some effective wrinkles on defense. The Trojans are playing for NCAA seeding at this point. They were a No. 5 last season; can they get seeded that well again?
Washington State: The Cougars haven't been quite as impressive as last season, yet no one – at least not around the league – would be surprised to see them reach the title game. The Cougars remain an excellent defensive team and will have the edge in experience against almost every opponent. Three starters are seniors and the other two are juniors. The Cougars also are balanced, with four players averaging between 10 and 13 points. The Cougars look like a No. 6 seed at this point.
Oregon: The veteran-laden Ducks are particularly dangerous because of their many scorers, including 6-9 big man Maarty Leunen (53 percent from 3-point range). Shooting guard Tajuan Porter helped carry the Ducks into the Elite Eight last season. A win over Washington State (which beat the Ducks twice in the regular season) in the quarterfinals would secure a spot in the Big Dance. Otherwise, it will be a nerve-wracking Selection Sunday in Eugene.
Arizona State: Freshman swingman James Harden is the kind of go-to scorer who can take over games by himself. But the ultra-talented Harden and the surprising Sun Devils may have to stop the league's hottest team to sneak into the field of 65. With an RPI in the mid-70s, the Sun Devils - who face USC in the quarterfinals - are desperate for another quality win.
Arizona: The Wildcats are the No. 7 seed, but they remain one of the league's more talented teams and boast two of the league's top players in dynamic guard Jerryd Bayless and athletic swingman Chase Budinger. The Wildcats are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and beating lowly Oregon State in the first round will do nothing to help their cause. Bayless and company must upset Stanford in the quarterfinals to feel safe about extending the nation's longest streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to 24 in a row. Arizona comes in having lost five of its past seven and seven of its past 10.
FILLING OUT THE FIELD
Washington: If the Huskies and bruising big man Jon Brockman can get past Cal in the 8-9 game, the game with UCLA would hold some interest. The Huskies won their last meeting with the Bruins, a 71-61 upset in Seattle on Feb. 10.
California: If the Bears get past Washington, they pose a legit threat to UCLA. The Bears upset the top-seeded Bruins in the quarterfinals last season and almost won at Pauley Pavilion this past Saturday.
Oregon State: None of the teams in the high-major tournaments is a bigger long shot. The Beavers, who went 0-18 in league play, have lost their past six games by a combined 174 points.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.