Gold: It's UCLA or bust for Pac-12 heading into the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament
We’re down to 1.
With Arizona State and USC both suffering brutal 1st-round losses on Friday, the Pac-12 is hanging on by a thread in the NCAA Tournament, with only UCLA left in the 2nd round.
Here are my Pac-12 takeaways from Day 2, plus a preview and prediction for Round 32 of the NCAA Tournament …
Bruins relying on experience against Northwestern
Now 8-2 in the NCAA Tournament in his 4 years at UCLA and with a Final Four run under his belt, Jaime Jaquez Jr. knows that level of seasoning pays off in March.
“We’ve got a lot of experience here,” Jaquez said on Friday at an off-day press conference, as his Bruins were set to prepare for their 2nd round matchup with Northwestern. “So when it gets down to the crunch time of the game, I think we just developed a trust over the years, a trust in one another, a trust that we can take care of the ball and get a great shot or get a defensive stop as well. A lot of that experience is going to be crucial in times like tomorrow where we’re expecting a really good fight.”
The Wildcats rank 12th in the Big Ten in scoring, but they also rank 2nd in the league in defense, allowing just 62.6 points per game.
Saturday’s matchup will come down to which team forces the issue.
“The Big Ten is known for how physical they play,” Jaquez said. “Northwestern is no exception to that. They’re a very physical team. But I think we’re also a very physical team. It’s just going to be a big matchup down low, the rebounding battles are going to be intense. That’s something we’re going to have to prepare for and I think we’re looking forward to.”
Northwestern’s fine defense was on display in a 75-67 win over Boise State on Thursday, when the Wildcats shot 49.1% overall and 83.3% from the foul line. Senior guard Boo Buie went off for 22 points while adding 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 turnover while backcourt mate Chase Audige had 20 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals.
“We know he’s a great player,” said UCLA senior point guard Tyger Campbell, who’ll be tasked with guarding Buie. “But we’re mainly just focused on UCLA versus Northwestern because it’s going to be a team game. We’re going to have to have our freshmen come through for us. We’re going to have to have good bench minutes from our bigs and all those things.”
That was perhaps the Bruins’ biggest surprise Thursday in their resounding opening-round win over UNC Asheville. Little-used veteran forward Kenneth Nwuba had a career-high 10 points, as did freshman forward Mac Etienne, while UCLA also got 14 combined points from Dylan Andrews, Will McClendon and Abramo Canka.
“They were big for us,” Campbell said. “Shout-out to Kenny. He had his career high. I think he had his career high within, like, the first 10 minutes of the game or something. When a player does something like that, it’s amazing. All the rebounds and the blocks that he had, I think it just shows that we’re a little deeper than people might think. Of course, not having Adem out there, it’s a little different for us right now. But if Kenny can play like that all the time, it will be really good for us. Hopefully help us on this run that we want to have, for sure.”
Adem Bona’s status remains the biggest question mark for the Bruins.
With UCLA set to practice after their media session, Cronin said he was preparing to evaluate Bona’s availability.
“I’m going to have him do some stuff today to give me a comfort level of where he’s at,” Cronin said. “Some things I hadn’t asked him to do up until (Thursday). I’m getting ready to test him out more than I have.”
Sun Devils can’t win the turnover battle in TCU loss
In addition to letting what appeared to be a sure victory slip away on Friday night, Arizona State had trouble holding onto the ball in general.
The Sun Devils committed 13 turnovers in the come-from-ahead loss while forcing just 5 from the Horned Frogs. As a result, a 48.1-35.5 shooting percentage advantage was nullified.
“What we’ve been able to do most of the year is use our defense to create some offense, so points off turnovers, their guard play is really good, and they have guys that can handle it and are good with the ball,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “So we couldn’t turn them over like we have a lot of teams this year. So the points off turnovers was something you looked at.”
A down Boogie means Trojans can’t boogie down
I’m still a bit shocked at what I saw out of USC’s Boogie Ellis on Friday. One of the hottest players in the conference, if not the country, down the stretch, Ellis had just 6 points on 3-of-12 shooting while turning the ball over 3 times.
With a win or 2, Ellis was poised to be a March Madness breakout player. Instead, he goes home early after USC’s 72-62 loss to Michigan State.
“Halfway through the season to the end of the season he was playing great basketball from a scoring perspective, but also decision-making,” Trojans coach Andy Enfield said. “That’s why his assist-to-turnover ratio was probably 2 1/2, 3-to-1 the last 10, 12 games. Unfortunately it caught up to us in the second half where it just wasn’t the case.”
So with four days to prepare, Tom Izzo figured out a way to limit Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson. Stunning.
— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) March 17, 2023
Cronin finding his home
One last amazing quote from Mick Cronin about his time in Los Angeles.
“You ever see that one of Tupac’s videos, he’s got the top down, driving through the flats of Beverly Hills doing this? That’s how I feel every day. California love. It feels great,” he said. Although we’ve had more rain. Rod Palmer told me we’ve had more rain this year than we’ve had in 50 years. Worst winter in 50 years. Exponentially better than winter in Cincinnati.
“Been great. Got a lot of friends where I’m at. I’ve always loved Southern California. Fertile recruiting ground. Best tradition in college basketball. It’s been refreshing for my career. This stuff can be a grind. Thirteen years at my alma mater was a great run for me. It was an honor of my lifetime to be able to coach at a school I rooted for growing up.
“But getting a chance to be the coach at UCLA, sit in Coach Wooden’s seat, has been awesome. I cherish it. Been a great, great time.”