Admit it: it's kind of like living in some sort of bizarre alternate reality to see a Pac-10 final with no trace of UCLA, USC or Arizona involved. Yet that's exactly what the field's come to at the Staples Center after a late night (EST) slate of games.
The Pac-10 has been derided much of this season as being wholly underwhelming, its trademark juggernauts all but non-existent in regular season play. When Cal's the blow-'em-away favorite by a mile, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. And the Pac-10 Tourney was never hyped to be anyone's show but the Golden Bears', a prophecy fulfilled as we head into tonight's showdown against the Washington.
Cal 85, UCLA 72
"In the second half we threw the first punch," said Cal guard Jerome Randle of a game which saw his team threatened by the Bruins at halftime. Mike Montgomery's crew looked rushed and frazzled as UCLA's Michael Roll hit a career high 27 points in an effort to poach the Bears and throw off supposed destiny, but between Cal's stellar free-throw shooting (13-14) and Jerome Randle's teaming with comrade Theo Robertson for a combined 39 points, UCLA couldn't contain the regular season champs in the second half.
Washington 79, Stanford 64
You know Stanford was worried about this game; after all, Washington had beaten them by a combined fifty points in the pairing's two regular season matchups. And so it was that a Stanford Cardinal team led by Landry Fields (which sounds like the name of a pee-wee football complex in a Dallas suburb) couldn't fend off the increasingly crushing weight of a third-seeded Washington last night, with Quincy Pondexter and Justin Holiday both nearing twenty points apiece to propel the Huskies into the finals. The basketball gods even tried to cut the Cardinal a break, with Andrew Zimmerman called for a fifth foul that was never officially reported to the scorer's table and handing him the ball back even as he waited to leave the court. By the end of the second half, the Huskies were clearly doing what all dogs do to trees.
Tonight's Final Preview
The Rightful Heir
Cal, far and away the regular-season Pac-10 champs, have never won a conference championship -- this is clearly their year for the taking, unless Washington's strong defense can keep Randle and Robertson in check. Though the entire conference has seen a weak year (imagine how Ben Howland feels watching the finals -- and the NCAA tourney -- from his couch), the numbers would suggest that Cal is the strong fave.
The Dogs Have the Scent
While the recent bracketology would have Cal making the tournament no matter what happens, Washington remains a bubble team who needs this win to find their berth. And the Huskies did beat the Bears once in regular season play. Washington's defense may be the best in the Pac-10, and it could slow -- if not shut down altogether -- Cal's big guns.
Watch This Guy: Washington's Matthew Bryan-Amaning
Dude's a monster. Against Stanford, he rejected Jeremy Green and almost took out a whole row of bystanders with the meteor he batted into the crowd. He almost killed a guy in press row rejecting Jarrett Mann. And he posterized Andrew Zimmerman in what may have been the greatest slam of NCAA play yesterday. He's a huge force for Washington.
Cal's Mike Montgomery Looks Like the Dad from Teen Wolf.
And we all know what happened when Scott Howard's pop let him in on the family secret: he embraced his power and became a basketball machine. If Montgomery can impart the same destiny to his boys tonight, they're going to van-surf all the way into the arms of a Pac-10 Championship.
California and Washington tip-off tonight from the Staples Center at 6:00 (EST).