2022 Pac-12 Tournament Roundtable: Players to watch, darkhorse threats, and Coach of the Year picks
The 2022 Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament begins on Wednesday. Postseason basketball is upon us. We set the stage with a little roundtable discussion on the field with our basketball guru—Saturday Down South news editor and Blue Chip Grit newsletter editor Adam Spencer.
Who is your favorite to win the league tournament?
Adam Spencer: Going chalk is never fun when it comes to brackets, but it’s about being right. Therefore, Arizona is the obvious pick here. Tommy Lloyd’s squad is so deep and versatile. Four different guys average more than 10 points per game (Bennedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis, Christian Koloko, and Kerr Kriisa). That’s not always a good thing come March when you have to have a go-to guy when things get tough. But, Mathurin seems primed to step into that role and become a household name over the next month. The Wildcats only lost two Pac-12 games all year, which was an incredible turnaround from a year ago. They’re the feel-good story in the nation and should be considered the clear favorite to cut down the nets on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Derek Peterson: Let’s be honest here. It’s Arizona for all the reasons just stated. KenPom gave the Cats a 52% chance to win the conference tourney; only Houston in the American and Norfolk State in the MEAC were tabbed as bigger favorites to win their respective conference tournaments. This is an Arizona team absent of any glaring weakness. The rest of the conference has a “well, if XYZ happens…” component to their game. Arizona can win in a number of ways playing a number of styles. That’s a tough team to take down in a tournament setting, and unless UA shoots itself in the foot, I don’t see anyone cracking them.
Is there a darkhorse team that can seriously challenge the Wildcats?
Adam Spencer: Don’t sleep on the Colorado Buffaloes. The Buffs handed Arizona its most-surprising defeat of the season, 79-63, back on Feb. 26. That game was in Boulder, a notoriously tough place to play, especially on the back half of the mountain road trip (following a game at Utah). But, the Buffaloes’ frontcourt held its own against Koloko and Tubelis. Koloko was in foul trouble all game long and only managed four points and five rebounds in 22 minutes of action. Meanwhile, Colorado’s frontcourt trio of Jabari Walker, Tristan da Silva, and Evan Battey combined for 45 points and 21 rebounds. That’s the recipe for success against Arizona. Will Arizona get caught taking Colorado lightly while looking ahead to a potential Pac-12 title game berth? Crazy things happen in March.
Derek Peterson: Colorado is a good team to roll with for the reasons Adam laid out. They have the quality/size combination in the frontcourt to not get bullied by the Cats like some other teams in the league. I think I’m going to go with Washington, though. The Huskies are on the side of the bracket you want to be on. The zone element of their defense gets them into an up-and-down game where they have the horses to stick with anyone. They don’t turn the ball over (third in turnover percentage in league play, per KenPom), they get to the free throw line at a really high rate, they turn their opponents over (best steal percentage in the conference; read: live-ball chances to run) and don’t give up a ton of free throws on the defensive end. Terrell Brown Jr., Washington’s lead guard which we’ll get to in a bit, has that X factor in his game that does well in a tournament setting, so it likely comes down to whether he can drag them to wins over the top three teams. If he gets hot, he totally can.
Which team would you categorize as overrated?
Adam Spencer: I want to believe in Oregon because I know how good the Ducks can be. Dana Altman is a great coach. Oregon swept UCLA this year. The Ducks also have wins over Colorado and USC on their résumé. But, they lost to Cal. They were swept by Arizona State. They enter the Pac-12 Tournament on a three-game losing streak (vs. USC, at Washington, at Washington State). I expect the Ducks to take down rival Oregon State in the first round on Wednesday night, but beyond that, I wouldn’t bet a dime on Oregon. This year’s squad, while talented, has been way too inconsistent.
Derek Peterson: I will begrudgingly say USC. And I say begrudgingly because I love some of the pieces on this team, love what head coach Andy Enfield has done this season, and generally love a team that plays hard defensively. You just typically expect a top-three seed in a major conference tournament to be a team you feel good about winning the whole thing. I just can’t really find it in myself to think that about the Trojans. I think Drew Peterson is excellent—probably a first-team all-conference guy—but around him things have been shaky of late. USC beat Washington State by two at home, let Oregon State’s Dashawn Davis cook for way too long before doing anything to slow him down in a three-point, double-OT win over the Beavers, beat Oregon by a point because of Peterson’s clutch shot-making, and then got walloped by Arizona and out-muscled by UCLA to close out the season. If teams throw the book at Peterson, can the other guys on the roster do enough to get them to a tournament title? Because that’s what they’re gunning for. If they lose in the semis to UCLA will it feel like a disappointment? Probably? Such is the nature of expectations. In that regard, kudos to Enfield for getting the program to this point.
Who is the one player you’re most excited to watch during the conference tournament?
Adam Spencer: I’ve talked plenty about Arizona already, so let’s go a little bit away from the top seeds for this one. Now, Derek, stick with me here, because I’m about to blow your mind… You need to score points to win basketball games. Fun fact: No one has ever won a basketball game while scoring 0 points. Thus, why not keep an eye on the conference’s leading scorer this week? That would be Terrell Brown Jr. of Washington. He’s averaging 21.7 points per game this year, more than four points better than the Pac-12’s second-leading scorer, Bennedict Mathurin (17.3). Brown is, to put it simply, a bucket. After coming over from Arizona this past offseason, he’s really blossomed into an elite player. He averages a Pac-12 best 2.1 steals per game and also dishes out 4.2 assists and grabs 4.1 boards per night. Washington is the 6-seed in the tournament, but wouldn’t have to face Arizona until the final should it keep advancing. Scorers can take over in March, so keep an eye on Brown!
Derek Peterson: Mind officially blown. Brown is an excellent and deserving choice. A couple of other names that immediately jump to mind: Jaime Jaquez Jr. at UCLA, who is a wonderfully entertaining player to watch with the ball in his hands, and then Jabari Walker at Colorado, whose energy on the floor is just infectious and has been a key driving force behind CU’s run to the fourth spot in the field. I’ll stick with my guy, though: Christian Koloko at Arizona. I’ve been pounding the drum for months that Koloko should be getting more conference Player of the Year attenion. I know it’s Benn Mathurin’s award at this point and can’t argue against him winning it, but Koloko is just a night-and-day better basketball player this year than he was last year and statistically one of the most impactful players in the conference. His shooting efficiency jumped 10 percentage points while his per-40 scoring average jumped from 12 to 20. Fouls are down. Free throw percentage is up. Body was reshaped. When Arizona works through him on the block it’s an old-school delight; that side of the court is still raw, but Koloko has had some big games this season working as a pick-and-roll partner. He knows exactly when to slip screens and dive for lobs—a play Arizona gets a sneaky amount of points from. Defensively he’s just excellent. Runaway Defensive Player of the Year in the conference. Moves his feet in space, stays in front of guys on the perimeter, great shot-blocking instincts, super long but really fluid. I find myself just watching No. 35 when Arizona is on.
With Arizona earning the top spot in the conference tournament, should Tommy Lloyd be considered the favorite to win National Coach of the Year?
Adam Spencer: This is the easiest question we’ve had yet! Absolutely, 100% Tommy Lloyd should be the favorite to win the National Coach of the Year. Ed Cooley of Providence, Bruce Pearl of Auburn, Scott Drew of Baylor, and some other coaches deserve consideration, but Lloyd deserves the hardware. Koloko, Tubelis, Kriisa, Mathurin, Dalen Terry–all of Arizona’s key contributors this year were part of last year’s 17-9 squad. To lose leading scorer James Akinjo and improve from 17-9 to 28-3 is unbelievable. Perhaps Lloyd should have been hired as a head coach long before this past offseason?
Derek Peterson: I’m glad Adam went with the right answer! Now we can bring him back for other roundtable discussions. Yes, Lloyd should win Coach of the Year. He should sweep that award. It’s not just about the record because, like Adam points out, there are guys like Pearl and Drew who engineered fantastic seasons elsewhere as well. It’s that Lloyd, in his first season as a head coach, took over a roster that had some raw, inexperienced talent and made every single player better. That’s a credit to Lloyd, to the staff around him, to the culture they’ve instilled, and to his ability to inspire belief in his team. Maybe this Arizona team feels different from Wildcat teams of the past in that it seems like a legit national title contender. And maybe a lot of that has to do with Lloyd.