Gold: Pac-12 Tournament title game primer
There have been some truly strange Pac-12 title game scenarios, sure, but for the 12th time and 2nd straight year, the No. 1 seed and No. 2 seed will meet in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game.
This time, the question is can Mick Cronin take home his 1st tourney title and UCLA’s 1st since 2014? Or will the Arizona Wildcats run it back, as they did in 2016-17 and 2017-18, though those titles have since been vacated?
Here’s a look at what to expect in the rubber match of the league’s most thrilling rivalry …
How UCLA got here
After posting a 27-4 overall record that included the league’s 2nd straight record 18-2 conference campaign, the Bruins entered the week at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Yet, all was not right in Westwood as UCLA ended the regular season with a mixed bag — a win over Arizona in the season finale that cost it the services of Jaylen Clark, who will miss the rest of the season with an Achilles injury. Nonetheless, the Bruins knocked off No. 9-seeded Colorado and No. 4 seed Oregon on Thursday and Friday, respectively, to advance to Saturday’s title game. They’ll be playing with a chance to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
How Arizona got here
After cruising through conference play with an 18-2 mark in Tommy Lloyd’s first year at the helm last season, Arizona did not have quite such a breezy time running it back this season. After finishing undefeated in non-conference play and rising as high as 4th in the polls, the Cats had 6 losses in conference play, including 3 losses in the last 6 games. The low point is a toss-up: a 9-point loss at Stanford on Feb. 11 or a buzzer-beater 1-point home loss to rival Arizona State on Feb. 25.
But after a 9-point loss at UCLA in the season finale, the Cats have won 2 straight, beating No. 10 seed Stanford and the 6th-seeded Sun Devils to advance to their 13th Pac-12 Tournament title game.
What’s at stake?
Arizona pretty much is locked into a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament, and even a big win over the Bruins probably would not lift the Cats to the top line. A UCLA win, though, might tip the scale for the Bruins to beat out Purdue for a No. 1 seed.
Key matchup No. 1: Jaime Jaquez Jr. vs. Azuolas Tubelis
They most likely won’t go head-to-head very often — if they do, something has gone terribly wrong for the Bruins — but the game pits the top 2 candidates for Pac-12 Player of the Year against each other. On the strength of UCLA’s terrific conference record, Jaquez took home the trophy, beating out Tubelis, who became the 1st player to lead the league in scoring and rebounding since Cal’s Leon Powe in 2006.
Big number: 31.3
Arizona dealt UCLA 1 of its 2 league losses this season in surprising fashion, as what was expected to be a high-scoring game devolved into a 58-52 slugfest. How did the Cats win? They held UCLA to just 31.3% shooting from the field.
Key matchup No. 2: Tyger Campbell vs. Kerr Kriisa
Two impactful veteran point guards square off as UCLA’s Campbell and Arizona’s Kriisa have a chance to trade treys and dimes. Kriisa had 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists combined in their 2 matchups this season, while Campbell had 34 points, 7 rebounds and 11 assists. Campbell is also coming off perhaps the best game of his career, as he put up 28 points in UCLA’s semifinal win over Oregon on Friday night.
Battle of the benches
With UCLA suffering a brutal loss with Clark’s season-ending injury, the Bruins bench is in a state of flux. Team leader and outside threat David Singleton has been thrust into the starting lineup, leaving the Bruins barren on the bench, with a host of untested freshmen and longtime reserve Kenneth Nwuba. Arizona, meanwhile, can turn to junior Pelle Larsson when times get tough, not to mention freshman guard Kylan Boswell.
Tommy Lloyd on the matchup:
“I mean, it’s awesome. Arizona, UCLA. I mean, it’s really cool. Obviously, there’s an amazing rivalry there. I think there’s a mutual respect between both programs. Mick’s a great coach. Somebody told me some deal he’s been to like, I don’t know, 12 or 13 NCAA Tournaments in a row. I’m only at this in my second year and that’s hard for me to fathom. So, no, it’s going to be great. It’s going to be great, I’m sure it’s going to be two teams that are probably a little bit worn down, probably both facing some injuries, but that’s kind of how tournament basketball is in the postseason. So, we’re coming out and we know it’s going to be a great challenge, and we look forward to the opportunity to play on the big stage.”
Mick Cronin on last year’s title game loss:
“When you play great teams it’s a test of two wills. As hard as it is for me to swallow — because I made a career out of never losing because of that — if my teams have gone down it’s because the other teams just got better players. They may, but I like my team. I wouldn’t trade them. But they were the tougher team. It’s hard for me to say but that’s the truth. I told our guys in the locker room, the only way we’re going to learn from this is if we can look in the mirror and admit what happened, from that run, whatever the time was from that run. We’ve got to admit it.”
UCLA will win a close one.
Despite the loss of Clark and the unknown status of freshman forward Adem Bona, I’m still riding with the Bruins. UCLA sprinted past a good Oregon squad when Bona went down and barely broke a sweat. The Cats are a great team but not on the Bruins’ level.