The good news is that this year's Pac-12 has no elite teams and only one team on pace for a Sweet 16 seed. Arizona is No. 16 to KenPom, and then there's a big gap to five teams ranked between 39th and 56th, including No. 53 Stanford.
The relevance is that, historically, leagues without dominant teams at the top have had some wacky conference tournament results.
As contrast, let's examine the Big Ten and the ACC, the two best basketball conferences in the land, annually replete with elite squads and Final Four contenders. In the Big Ten, a one seed has won the tournament three years in a row, and six of the last eight seasons. More incredibly, a one or two seed has won the conference tournament 12 of the last 14 seasons. Meanwhile, the two elite ACC programs, Duke and UNC, have won that league's tournament all but twice in a streak dating back to 1997! Imagine this year's Stanford going up against current No. 1 Indiana or Tyler Hansborough's UNC squad, and we can vividly see why it's hard to knock off a heavyweight in your fourth game in as many days.
Now, let's shift to the Pac-12, which has taken a decisive step or three back in the college basketball world ever since the end of the 2008 season. (That's the season that saw O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love go 3-4-5 in the draft. Add in the Lopez twins, Jerryd Bayless and Ryan Anderson, all top 21 picks, and one can see why the league suffered a serious drop-off from which it's just beginning to recover.)
In 2009, the first post-Mayo/Westbrook/Love/Lopez et al season, No. 6 seed USC won the 10-team tournament, and earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, an underwhelming No. 3 seed Washington won the tournament and wound up with an 11 seed in the national tournament. The Huskies repeated from the three line in 2011, earning a No. 7 seed in the Big Dance for their run. Last year, the first 12-team tournament was a most vivid example of Pac-12 mediocrity, as No. 6 seed Colorado somehow took the crown at the Staples Center and earned an 11 seed.
All told then, in three of the four years since this league was atop the basketball heap, the NCAA Tournament selection committee has awarded the Pac-12 Tournament champion a double-digit seed. That means three mediocre teams which might (2010 Washington) or definitely would not (2009 USC, 2012 Colorado) have earned a Big Dance invite otherwise punched their ticket at the conference tournament. So there's definitely precedent for this Stanford squad.
If All Else Fails, Root for Tornadoes
For the craziest conference tournament run in recent history, however, you'll have to look east, southeast to be specific. Georgia was 4-12 in the SEC in 2008, and earned their lowest possible seed heading into the SEC Tournament, sixth out of six in the East Division. The "Dream Dawgs" then won four games in as many days, two of them in overtime, to advance to the NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed. The craziest part of the story, however, is that tornadoes tore up the Georgia Dome, host to the league tournament, postponing play such that the Bulldogs had to play three games in 30 hours. The tournament was relocated to Georgia's archrival Georgia Tech, and attendance was limited to players, family, credentialed media and 400 fans per team, as the Georgia Dome was a far larger venue. So, barring all else: Stanford fans, root for tornadoes.
If you're still skeptical of Stanford's postseason odds, or don't think the historical precedents apply, just use your eyeballs and some common sense. We're arguing first that there is only one team in this year's league anywhere close to elite, namely Arizona, and second, that you're more likely to see surprise winners come out of conference tournaments without a ton of elite teams. Makes sense.
Sure enough, TeamRankings.com has Arizona with a 38 percent chance to win the Pac-12 Tournament, but with no other team at greater than UCLA's 18 percent odds. Stanford has a 6.2 percent chance of winning the thing outright, which doesn't sound great, but knock out Arizona's 38 percent win share, divide the remaining 62 percent by 11 teams, and hey, Stanford has better than average odds of taking it all down for a field team.
Arizona, UCLA and Oregon each currently sit atop the league with four losses. If the Wildcats, easily the best team in the league, win out, they'll either finish first or, if Oregon wins out as well, second in the league. If UCLA can hold Pauley against Arizona, the Wildcats will probably finish third.
The Cardinal are currently ninth in the Pac-12, and it's hard to come up with a scenario that doesn't have them finishing in the dreaded 7/8/9/10 seeding group that would have to play a one- or two-seed in the quarterfinals.
In particular, it's most likely that the Cardinal finish eighth or ninth in the league, so Stanford fans should root for Oregon to win out so that the Ducks, by far the least scary of the trio atop the standings, loom in the quarterfinals.
A potential Pac-12 Tournament path would then be: No. 8/9 Washington in the first round, No. 1 Oregon in the quarters, No. 4/5 Cal/Colorado in the semis, and No. 2/3 Arizona/UCLA in the finals. Hope someone knocks off Arizona along the way, and as far as turning a lackluster season into an NCAA berth from, that is not too treacherous of a road. Of course, Stanford hasn't won four straight games all season, but they will have the memory of last year's NIT run, and the knowledge that, especially in this league, the smart money is on a middle-of-the-pack team.
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