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Loaded Pac-12 gathers in Seattle for tournament
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SEATTLE (AP) — There may not have been a more top-heavy conference in the country this season than the Pac-12.

That may best be illustrated by Stanford, which is the No. 4 seed for this week’s conference tournament and yet is still ranked No. 11 in the AP Top 25.

For the second straight year, No. 8 Oregon State and No. 10 Arizona State are the top two seeds for the Pac-12 tournament, which begins Thursday. The Beavers and Sun Devils both finished the regular season at 16-2 and shared the conference title. No. 12 UCLA knocked off Arizona State on Sunday to drop the Sun Devils into a tie with Oregon State for the regular-season title and give the Beavers the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

“For us to be in such a dogfight with ASU, with Stanford and UCLA right on our heels it created the most dramatic finish you could imagine. Sunday was pretty surreal,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. “We’re excited about the weekend ahead and the challenges ahead, and proud of what this team accomplished during the season.”

The Beavers will face the winner of the first-round matchup between USC and Washington State in Friday’s quarterfinals. Arizona State will face the winner of Utah-California; UCLA will take on the winner of Oregon-Arizona; and Stanford awaits either Washington or Colorado in the last of the four quarterfinals.

Unlike previous seasons, it’s unlikely a Pac-12 team can play its way into the NCAA Tournament with its performance in Seattle, short of winning the tourney title. The top four teams are all likely to be top-four seeds when the NCAA Tournament field is announced on March 14 and will end up hosting first- and second-round games. Washington is firmly in the field as well with its 20-9 record and could improve its seed with a deep run.

USC and Oregon could be the teams that could get themselves back into the NCAA conversation by pulling an upset or two in Seattle. But the Ducks (20-9) are short-handed after losing star forward Jillian Alleyne to a season-ending knee injury a week ago in practice, and USC (18-12) will be hard-pressed to explain a 6-12 conference mark and losing six of seven to close the regular season.

Still, the Pac-12 has a chance to get five teams into the NCAA tourney for a second straight season, the most since seven teams were selected in 2006.

“I don’t think confidence can be given, it has to be earned and our conference gives us a chance to earn that as the season goes on,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.

Oregon State and Arizona State were the class of the league for most of the season, but Stanford or UCLA could just as easily be the team to make the deepest run in the NCAAs. The Beavers withstood guard Sydney Wiese being sidelined for eight games due to injury and were buoyed by Pac-12 player of the year Jamie Weisner, but their two losses — at UCLA and at Stanford last week — were both blowouts.

Led by their defense, the Sun Devils had won 22 of 23 and had not given up more than 70 points in a Pac-12 game before losing a shot at the outright conference title in the 74-61 loss at UCLA on Sunday.

“Definitely coming off a game where we were very disappointed in ourselves and our effort. It’s not always a horrible thing going into March, just a little kick in the pants to refocus ourselves and get back to doing the things that we do best,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “I’m very proud of our team and what we accomplished.”

Barring a tournament title, this will also be the final weekend with Niya Butts in charge at Arizona. The Wildcats announced on Tuesday that Butts was being let go after never making an NCAA Tournament during eight seasons in Tucson.