College football writer
It hasn’t been the best of years for Pac-12 basketball, but since the calendar says March, the recent past doesn’t matter much as we’ve entered the win-or-go-home phase. the season
In fact, the up-and-down nature of hoops in the West has probably only enhanced the drama of what should be a fascinating conference tournament in Las Vegas this week. Stories abound from the top end of the league to the bottom seeds. As we’ve seen over the past few months, almost everyone is capable of pulling an upset or two out of nowhere.
However, it all starts with top-seeded UCLA heading to T-Mobile Arena playing for its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were on the prowl by Pauley Pavilion in 2008. The Bruins went to the regular court. the Pac-12 title this season and proved to be a significant cut above the rest of the league — being No. 2 in the AP Top 25 this week and looking like a Final Four contender.
[UCLA surges to No. 2 in AP Top 25]
All eyes will be on Mick Cronin’s team not for their senior leadership or talented playmakers, however, but to see how they might perform if junior guard Jaylen Clark is unable to play. He’s the Pac-12’s leading defender (2.6 steals per game) and a key part of the team’s balanced game, but left Saturday’s win over Arizona with a lower leg injury. The school keeps his status a secret for both the conference and NCAA tournaments, but he was seen walking on crutches after returning from the locker room.
It seems like a decent bet that Clark will be rested for the next few days in hopes that he can make another run at the national title later this month, but UCLA still has plenty of firepower to rely on in his absence. Jaime Jaquez Jr. he has a strong case for the Pac-12 Player of the Year (top five in the league in points and rebounds) and fellow senior Tyger Campbell gets the show going with his ability to get to the basket if not it does. out for one assist (4.7 per game). David Singleton got a little more run in Clark’s absence last week and could have been in line for more shots anyway after really coming from 3-point range during the stretch run of the team
The biggest threat to the Bruins taking home their first Pac-12 Tournament title since 2014 will naturally be the only two programs that can be reasonably comfortable on Selection Sunday: Arizona and USC. Those teams handed the Bruins two of their four losses on the season.
The Wildcats are KenPom’s No. 11 team and feature one of the best offenses in the country. Guard Kerr Kriisa led the Pac-12 in assists in back-to-back seasons, and Azuolas Tubelis is one of the most exciting players on the West Coast after finishing atop the league in both points (19.9) and rebounds (9.2). Arizona won the event last year and certainly has the talent to make it two straight if the Wildcats can return to the kind of consistency they showed during a seven-game winning streak earlier this season in which they exceed 80 points five times.
As for the Trojans, they used a blowout from Arizona State to solidify their grip on the No. 3 seed thanks to true shooting veterans like Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson (who has a lingering back problem). They’ve proven as capable of beating anyone (see wins over Auburn and UCLA) as they are of losing to anyone (namely Oregon State) and look like the wild card for a tournament in a city that produces a ton of them infinite
A lower-conference roster has hampered the Pac-12 in terms of NCAA Tournament bids, but this week in Las Vegas could prove pivotal for several bubble teams that still have a chance to reach the big dance .
ASU is 20-11 overall and defines the bubble with a No. 65 NET ranking and a 4-5 record against Quad 1 teams. They must handle Oregon State convincingly in the opening round of on Wednesday and will seriously benefit from an upset of USC on Thursday. The Sun Devils have a chance to make the field if they can play in the semifinals, but they’d feel pretty good about their chances if they make it all the way to Saturday.
Oregon, meanwhile, has been all over the map in 2023, but has begun to make a case that they’re in the mix for a First Four spot. They’ll likely have a tough opener if fifth-seeded Washington State makes it to the quarterfinals (the Ducks lost by three in Pullman a few weeks ago) and would likely have to face UCLA in the semifinals. But don’t put anything past head coach Dana Altman, who has cut down the nets in the Pac-12 tournament three times and has a very low presence on double-double machine N’Faly Dante.
N’Faly Dante throws a monster slam
Oregon’s N’Faly Dante rattled the rim with a monster two-handed layup against California.
The trip to Las Vegas is huge for some programs, as it could be the difference between making a run and keeping their head coach for another season or forcing a decision by school administrators to go a new direction.
In Washington, Mike Hopkins is hitting over .500 overall and has seen the luster wear off from a pair of 20+ win campaigns to open his Montlake tenure. The Huskies swept their first-round opponent Colorado (who will be without point guard KJ Simpson), but still need to make some noise and avoid an early exit. AD Jennifer Cohen has earned plenty of praise for helping turn the UW soccer program around, but there are tough decisions to make with men’s basketball after this week.
Barring an unforeseen run at T-Mobile Arena, Cal faces a less nebulous decision with Mark Fox. He’s 38-86 at Berkeley over four years and just came off the Bears’ worst season in school history. Most in the industry believe it will only be a matter of time before the job opens up after the team’s first-round game against Washington State.
In the Bay Area, Stanford coach Jerrod Haase is entering his seventh Pac-12 tournament and must win it all if he wants the Cardinal to make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. The team has underperformed significantly throughout the 2022-23 season, but has some momentum on its side, having won eight of its last 14 (including an upset of Arizona). The Cardinal led conference play in 3-point shooting (37.9 percent), so anything is possible, but expect a tough matchup Wednesday against a Utah team that seems destined for the NIT after a inopportune slip – losing seven of their last nine -. at the end of the season.
The dark horses
The stalwarts UCLA and Arizona are rightfully the betting favorites to win the Pac-12 tournament, but the nature of the out-of-conference performances suggests we could be in for an unpredictable set of results not too dissimilar to what we saw a while ago a few years when Oregon State went. in a Cinderella run that ended in the Elite Eight.
While few would label the Beavers as capable of doing it again, the winner of Thursday’s potential Wazzu-Oregon quarterfinals could be the best the Pac-12 will have for a true dark horse to win it all this week.
Not only are the Ducks fighting for their spot on the right side of the bubble, but they always seem to find that extra gear when playing back-to-back days under a veteran coach like Altman.
On the other hand, the Cougars head to Las Vegas riding a six-game winning streak that is their longest in Pac-12 play since Kelvin Sampson was sidelined in 1993. They are averaging 8.9 3-pointers made (eighth nationally) and have an incredibly tough combination of guard TJ Bamba and forward Mouhamed Gueye to rely on. Head coach Kyle Smith could be one to watch on the coaching merry-go-round this offseason given the job he’s done in Pullman and will certainly use the Washington State that won the Pac- 12 last week (as a No. 7 seed) as motivation for his boys.
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