Gold: Pac-12 takeaways, looks ahead and predictions after Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament
Well, it was a topsy-turvy opening Thursday for the Pac-12 in the NCAA Tournament. From the remarkable low of 2-seed Arizona’s upset loss to 15-seed Princeton to UCLA’s rejuvenating performance in a beat-down of 15-seed UNC Asheville, the league took the good with the bad.
Here are my Pac-12 takeaways from Day 1, plus a preview and prediction for Day 2 of the NCAA Tournament …
Wildcats must fix backcourt issues
With the moniker Point Guard U., the Arizona men’s basketball team clearly has a lofty lineage in the backcourt, which has been adorned with awards, praise and many, many NBA contracts.
From Steve Kerr to Damon Stoudamire to Jason Terry and Mike Bibby, Jason Gardner to Salim Stoudamire to Mustafa Shakur and Jerryd Bayless and TJ McConnell to Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Arizona has almost annually been manned by future pros.
That makes their current predicament stand out that much more.
Arizona hasn’t had a truly transcendent point guard in years. James Akinjo was great for 1 year in 2020-21, and Nico Mannion wasn’t half bad the year before, but they weren’t world-beaters.
Here’s the thing: This Arizona squad would’ve killed for either of them.
Kerr Kriisa proved on Thursday that he just may not be up to the task.
His performance in a 59-55 loss to the 15-seed Princeton Tigers was below replacement level. His play was not befitting of a Pac-12 champion point guard, shooting 1-for-7 from the field, all 3-pointers, with 4 turnovers and 2 assists. Backcourt mates CJ Henderson and Courtney Ramey weren’t much better, but Kriisa is the one who drives the car for the Cats, and on Thursday, he careened it off the road.
If Tommy Lloyd is going to find elusive postseason success with Arizona, he’ll need to find a steady if spectacular lead guard to guide the way.
Bruins bully their way into 2nd round
UCLA’s 33-point rout of a good UNC Asheville squad was perhaps the Bruins’ most complete win of the season. And that is saying something, considering the Bruins entered the NCAA Tournament with more wins than any other Power 5 squad.
The numbers themselves were startling.
UCLA shot 54% while holding the Bulldogs to 37.3%. The Bruins out-rebounded UNC Asheville 40-25, including a 12-2 bench advantage on the boards. They also had 8 turnovers, compared to 16 for the Bulldogs.
Perhaps the biggest sign of utter domination: UCLA outscored UNCA 46-21 in the 1st half and 40-28 in the 2nd.
It doesn’t get much more dominant than that.
Cronin updates Adem Bona’s status
Maybe even bigger news for UCLA fans than the beating they delivered is the status of Adem Bona going forward.
And they got some good news on that front from head coach Mick Cronin.
“I think Adem could have played tonight. He didn’t get enough practice for me. We don’t practice live a lot right now. But just even with our 5-0 stuff, I want to see him — there’s things I want to see him do comfortably. But I knew what was going to happen. As soon as he warmed up, he comes running in the locker room, ‘I’m playing, I’m playing.’
“Easy, big fella. That’s just who he is.”
Trojans have Spartan challenge
One of the most consistent programs in college basketball over the past 4 years, no recent USC teams have looked alike. There was the front-court dominated Elite 8 squad of 2021 and a more balanced unit this year. Now the Trojans tilt offensively toward the backcourt, where Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson share the lion’s share of USC’s scoring load.
The Trojans are going to need some major production from big men Joshua Morgan and Vincent Iwuchukwu, in addition to their stalwart defense, against Michigan State.
“This year’s team is different for us,” Enfield said. “We’re not really concerned about what other perceived styles are in other conferences. We’re just concerned about USC and what we have to win games. Players change every year, so your style of play (does, too). At least we try to adjust to our strengths. This year our style is different than it was last year. The previous years with some really good big men. Our big men are capable this year. They’re better defensively. Josh Morgan was first-team all-defense in the league, leading shot blocker. Vincent Iwuchukwu, our 7-1 5-star had some issues this summer, hasn’t playing a lot due to back injury.
“We’re a different team than we were last year, which was different than the previous 2 years, but still very successful.”
Friday’s matchup, though, presents its challenges.
The 7th-seeded Spartans, who are similarly guard-heavy, boast one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the Tournament. They average more than 7 makes per game on 39.52% shooting. If they get hot early, the Trojans are in trouble.
Prediction: Michigan State by 6
Sun Devils can’t afford to sleepwalk through TCU
After one of the most lopsided play-in games in the brief history of the First Four, Arizona State had a brutally quick turnaround, arriving in Denver around 4 a.m. on Thursday morning.
Sun Devils head coach Bobby Hurley admitted to being a bit tired but added that the plane ride from Dayton, Ohio — where the Sun Devils throttled Nevada on Wednesday — afforded him the opportunity to focus on Friday’s opponent, 6-seed TCU.
“I got a few hours (of sleep) in the morning,” Hurley said. “I was able, because of the plane ride, to watch a couple of TCU games. I wasn’t super familiar with them. We’ve strictly focused on Nevada, so I was able to do that and sleep a few hours, work out, meet with the team, start just laying out what the rest of the day looks like for them, and we’ll just hit the floor here and get to watching some film and talking more about TCU when we get back to the hotel, and then from there just get the guys fed and get the rest we need, get ready for (Friday).”
The NCAA Tournament leaves little time for jet lag, though, and the Sun Devils better be on top of their game against a Horned Frogs squad that went 21-12 and finished 5th in a tough Big 12 conference.
After shutting down Nevada’s Jarod Lucas, ASU will be tasked with shutting down TCU’s top scorer, Mike Miles Jr. who averages over 17 points per game.
“He’s better than Lucas,” the Sun Devils’ Jamiya Neal told reporters. “Let’s just say that. He’s better than Lucas. It’s going to be a different approach because Lucas is a guy that just does it mostly off the catch. Miles is a guy that can get to the basket, he can score at all three levels. He’s just a different type of player. He’s one of the best players in the country. Those type of guys, you’ve just got to lace them up and just be ready to play.”
After ASU showed so much moxie in their play-in game, I don’t see them slowing down now.
Prediction: ASU by 8