Gold: Predicting how far every Pac-12 team goes in the NCAA Tournament
Chasing its 1st NCAA Tournament title in more than a quarter-century, the Pac-12 has a pair of tourney teams with Final Four potential — UCLA and Arizona — and 2 squads whose fatal flaws just might be too limiting in Arizona State and USC.
Of course, the same could have been said about the conference’s 2021 March Madness entrants, and we know how that went: 11th-seeded UCLA went from the play-in game to within a desperation 3-pointer of the championship game; Oregon State parlayed a surprise Pac-12 Tournament title into a shocking Elite Eight run, its best since 1982; and USC made it to the Elite Eight for the 1st time in 2 decades.
It’s hard to imagine this Sun Devils squad or Trojans team putting on Cinderella’s slippers, but it was just as hard to project the league’s success 2 years ago.
Sometimes it’s just about blind faith, it turns out.
Here’s a look at my predictions for every tourney-bound Pac-12 squad:
UCLA: Sweet 16
When the 2nd-seeded Bruins went on their remarkable run 2 years ago, they lucked out when 14th-seeded Abilene Christian knocked out 3rd-seeded Texas in the 1st round. But then the Bruins had to navigate past 2nd-seeded Alabama and top seed Michigan.
This time around, the glass slipper is on the other foot, and UCLA has a top-2 seed for the 1st time since 2008 — the last of its 3 straight Final Four runs. Now the bullseye is on its back after cruising through the regular season before suffering a devastating injury in a season-finale win over Arizona.
Will opposing teams sense an opportunity with Jaylen Clark, 1 of the best defenders in college hoops, sidelined for the season?
In the 1st 2 rounds, it shouldn’t matter much — UNC Asheville and both Boise State and Northwestern should be easy outs. But then it gets tough. Really, really tough.
The UCLA-Gonzaga rivalry has been 1 of the West’s best, dating to the flowing tears of Adam Morrison back in 2006, but the Zags struck the latest and most damaging blow with 1 accurate dagger from Jalen Suggs back in 2021. The Bulldogs’ 93-90 overtime win over the Bruins was 1 of the great Final Four games in history, with Suggs’ half-court heave lifting the Zags into the title game. People forget now, though: Gonzaga’s best player in that game was Drew Timme.
And he’s still around.
Much of the rest of Gonzaga’s supporting cast has changed over, but they’re still as dangerous as ever, with Julian Strawther, Anton Watson and Rasir Bolton each also averaging in double figures, plus 2 more players averaging more than 8.0 points. As a team, Gonzaga averages nearly 88 points per game, which is scary enough.
But nothing is scarier than losing your top defender on the eve of the postseason, which UCLA did. With Clark, I might have picked the Bruins to win it all. Without him, their season will end in heartbreaking fashion.
Arizona: Elite Eight
Arizona’s path to the Final Four is perilous, with the 2nd-seeded Wildcats thrust into the same region as mighty Alabama, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, as Arizona has plenty of work to do 1st.
While an opening-round matchup with Princeton should be a cakewalk, we’ve seen the Ivy League’s best bust out their calculators for a win or 2 in recent memory. This Arizona team is far too imposing to seriously sweat it, though, and the Wildcats should cruise to an easy win.
The Round of 32 won’t be quite the cakewalk, though. Utah State boasts 1 of the best scorers in the game in Steven Ashworth, the kind of guy that March Madness makes famous. Ashworth ranks 5th nationally with a 44.3 3-point percentage, and he’s just as effective at the free-throw line, where he shoots 87.8%. If he gets hot, we could be looking at another Harold “The Show” Arceneaux, who went off for 36 points in Weber State’s upset of North Carolina back in 1999.
Yes, that’s pulling 1 from way deep — but that’s exactly what Ashworth can do.
If the Cats survive his rainmaking, they should be looking at a sizeable roadblock in the Sweet 16 in Baylor or Creighton, who each present a different hurdle. In the Bears’ case, it’s LJ Cryer, the Big 12’s best 3-point shooter and 1 of the best in the country.
The Bluejays, meanwhile, are led by 7-1 star big man Ryan Kalkbrenner, who is 1 of the most efficient low-post scorers in recent memory. He’s shooting 71.4% from the field this season, an absolutely silly number. The matchup that would ensue between Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo vs. Kalkbrenner would be appointment viewing.
Once Arizona advances past either 1 of those squads — and that should not be taken for granted — the top-ranked team in the country and the bracket’s No. 1 overall seed could await them. While Alabama is in a bit of a state of flux because of its off-court issues, the Crimson Tide really are the best team in the country and are considered a favorite to win the whole thing. The Crimson Tide rank among the nation’s leaders in several categories, including leading the country in rebounding, but they are absolute savages on defense, allowing an opposing field-goal percentage of just 37.72.
It’s hard for me to imagine the Cats, with their streaky shooting, toppling the Tide.
USC: 1st round
This game is going to come down to which team capitalizes on its strength at the expense of the opponent. Seems obvious, right? Well, it just so happens that 10th-seeded USC’s biggest strength, its terrific inside defense, plays right into Michigan State’s hands.
The 7th-seeded Spartans have a trio of sharpshooters in Tyson Walker, Joey Hauser and Jaden Akins, who would rank in the top 15 nationally in 3-point percentage if they had enough attempts to qualify. It’s no small surprise that the Spartans rank 3rd nationally in 3-point shooting percentage at 40.11.
That’s the scary part for the Trojans: Even if their strategy works, it might not work. What good does it do to force teams outside when that’s where they want to be in the 1st place?
Here’s the good part: Michigan State does not have very many truly threatening big men, and the Spartans shoot just 45% from the field per game. It’s not like USC has a post player in particular who does damage, but the Trojans are getting good minutes out of Vincent Iwuchukwu and Joshua Morgan, who has 25 rebounds in his past 3 games.
If this game turns into a shootout from deep, USC will need Boogie Ellis to play the game of his life. Put it this way: While the Spartans’ Big 3 each shoot from 42-45% from deep, USC’s trio of Ellis, Drew Peterson and Kobe Johnson have combined to hit 37.5%.
Arizona State: 1st round
TCU got off to a spectacular 12-1 start with wins over Iowa and Baylor before hitting the skids late in Big 12 play. A 1-5 stretch against the likes of Kansas State, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas is hard to judge too harshly — there aren’t too many teams that could emerge from that gauntlet unscathed — but it did send TCU tumbling in the polls.
Now the 6th-seeded Horned Frogs will be well-rested for the 11th-seeded Sun Devils, who 1st have to get past their fellow play-in foe, Nevada, which went 22-10 and finished 4th in the competitive Mountain West. If the Sun Devils play their typical defense on Wednesday night and don’t let the Wolfpack force the issue physically and at the line — where Nevada ranks 4th in the country at 79.1% free-throw shooting — ASU will advance to face TCU.
Unfortunately for Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils, that’s where the fun ends.
The Horned Frogs are deep and talented, with 9 players averaging at least 13.0 minutes per game, and while they don’t have size that should overwhelm the Sun Devils — especially with reserve center Eddie Lampkin Jr. leaving the program recently — TCU does have springy and active guard/forwards who won’t make Hurley’s life easy.
Arizona State is really going to rely on its top scorers, Desmond Cambridge Jr. and DJ Horne, and if either of them is even a little off, that spells trouble for the Sun Devils.