Gold: USC's early exit puts the Pac-12 on the brink in NCAA Tournament
So, it’s down to UCLA and Arizona State … as everyone predicted?
The Pac-12’s up-and-down NCAA Tournament took another turn for the worse early Friday as 10th-seeded USC struggled down the stretch in a tough 1st-round matchup against Michigan State, which put the clamps on the Trojans and Boogie Ellis in particular, in a 72-62 win.
This was never going to be one of the league’s breezy March Madness matchups, but the thorough whipping the Spartans dealt the Trojans certainly takes the winds out of the Pac-12 sails after UCLA regained a sense of normalcy following Arizona’s epic collapse.
When your top 2 seeds go 1-1 in the 1st round, that’s never a good sign.
And when your 3rd-best team goes down flailing against the Big Ten’s 5th-best (and 7th-best on some nights), that really says something.
Unless Arizona State pulls out a miracle or UCLA somehow toughs out the loss of one of the nation’s best defenders, the conference is on the verge of yet another middling March.
In the past 10 years, the conference has produced just 3 Marches that gave cause to celebrate: 2021-21, when UCLA advanced to the Final Four, and Oregon State and USC went on surprising Elite 8 runs; 2016-17, when Oregon’s Final Four foray helped the conference to a 10-4 postseason slate; and 2014-15, when the Pac-12 finished 8-4 in tourney play.
That is not going to cut it for a conference that hasn’t cut down the nets since 1997. For a league that brands itself a basketball conference — it most certainly can’t lay claim to any football status whatsoever — the Pac-12 certainly doesn’t have much to show for a quarter-century of near-futility.
And USC’s performance Friday didn’t help.
The Trojans fell behind by 11 midway through the 1st half then battled back to tie the game at the half, 34-34.
The wheels came off for USC early in the 2nd half as a Joey Hauser 3-pointer spurred an 11-2 run. Just when the Trojans cut it to 4 on a Reese Dixon-Waters 3-pointer with 12:02 left in the game, the Spartans went on a 7-0 run over the next 5-plus minutes to go back ahead by double-figures.
From there, USC would get no closer than 9.
“I thought in the second half, a couple possessions we went 1-on-1 too much and instead of playing basketball the way we were capable of,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “And then missed some wide-open, timely shots. To win a game like this — they hit a couple of big 3s on the perimeter and we missed some. … It’s hard to not make timely shots and turn the ball over. Some of the turnovers as I said were self-inflicted. It was our guys losing the ball. The scoring droughts are usually either you miss open shots or guys try to do too much on their own, 1-on-1, instead of just moving the ball and spacing and cutting.”
It wasn’t quite a stunning conclusion, but it was a surprise to see the Spartans defend Ellis — the Pac-12’s 2nd-leading scorer — so effortlessly. Ellis, whom Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo called the best guard the Spartans have faced this season, finished with 6 points on 3-of-12 shooting.
“I played too fast today,” Ellis said after the game. “I didn’t change my pace all year. I play with a great pace. But today I played a little bit too fast. So that’s on me.”
Boogie Ellis hasn’t scored for the first 11 minutes of this game. He’s been averaging better than 22 points per game over USC’s past dozen. They need him to come alive.
— Ryan Kartje (@Ryan_Kartje) March 17, 2023
So now it’s down to 2.
Arizona, gone, in embarrassing fashion, a sobering conclusion to another fine season for Tommy Lloyd.
USC, bounced, in predictable fashion, maybe not quite as disappointing, but still leaving Pac-12 fans wanting.
Only UCLA and Arizona State remain.
UCLA, hobbled yet hungry.
Arizona State, feisty but flawed.
Coming off a brilliant showing in a 98-73 First Four win over Nevada, the Sun Devils might just be peaking at the right time. But is their peak high enough? Arizona State had a near-perfect set of circumstances come to fruition Wednesday, with 5 players scoring in double-figures and 6 shooting better than 50% from the field. The Sun Devils even shot 52.4% from behind the arc against the Wolf Pack and committed just 7 turnovers.
They looked just about as good as they’ve looked all year, and this is a team that won at Arizona and beat Michigan, USC and Oregon.
But do they look like a title team?
I’m not so sure.
Now UCLA? UCLA looked like a title team in its 1st-round flourish over UNC Asheville, but the competition gets drastically stiffer on Saturday against Northwestern and potentially even stiffer the following Thursday, when a potential matchup with Gonzaga awaits. And it only gets harder from there.
Unfortunately for Pac-12 fans who are dying of thirst after a 26-year drought, it’s hard to imagine the rivers flowing this year, either.