Gold: What does the Pac-12 need to do to get 4 teams into the NCAA Tournament?
Three weeks into the Pac-12 men’s basketball conference season, the league finds itself in a familiar place.
And not a very fun one.
After a weekend in which Arizona lost for the second time in 3 games, the league is currently projected for just 3 NCAA Tournament bids by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi — and that’s with Arizona State just sneaking in.
USC, despite a 12-5 record and a big win over then-No. 19 Auburn, is out. Utah, despite a 12-7 record and a big win over the then-No. 4 Arizona, is out. The Sun Devils, despite a 15-3 record and a 6-1 clip in the Pac-12, is teetering on the edge.
Once more, the conference shot itself in the foot in nonconference play and has only itself to blame.
Once more, the Pac-12 finds itself in a precarious position in as it relates to postseason play.
Here are 5 burning questions with 2 months to go before March Madness.
Can UCLA stay red hot?
The Bruins have won 13 straight since dropping back-to-back games against No. 19 Illinois and No. 5 Baylor, including a 7-0 start to the Pac-12 campaign. And only a couple of those games have been close, though they’ve been very close: a 1-point win at Washington State and a 2-point escape act against USC.
Aside from that, the Bruins have won 11 games by more than 10 points, 8 of those by more than 16 points.
UCLA is getting production from a variety of sources, including veterans Jaime Jacquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark and David Singleton, as well as newcomers Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. In addition to the Pac-12’s No. 2 scoring offense at 76.72 points per game, the Bruins also boast the league’s stingiest scoring defense at 59.78 points allowed.
If UCLA can keep up that balancing act, it should hold onto its No. 2 seed, if not improve to the top line.
What’s going on with Arizona?
Last year in Tommy Lloyd’s first season at the helm, the Wildcats waltzed through the league with such ruthless efficiency that it appeared the Pac-12 had found its standard-bearer. Arizona lost just 2 league games, and three overall in the regular season.
But now the Wildcats are 1-2 in their past 3 games, and this doesn’t look like the team that was off to the races once again just two weeks ago.
Losing to Washington State on Jan. 7 was bad enough. The Cougars hit 43% from deep, Arizona hit just 4-of-25 from behind the arc, and it was just one of those nights.
Losing to a pedestrian Oregon squad 7 days later, though? And in such brutal fashion? Now you start to worry. Arizona didn’t just lose to the Ducks — Oregon out-rebounded the Wildcats, 42-32, and held its starters to 17-of-47 shooting.
Is Arizona State for real?
After opening the heart of Pac-12 play with a 69-60 home loss to Arizona, the Sun Devils have won 4 straight. But UCLA comes into town on Thursday, followed by USC two days later.
If the Sun Devils pull off a pair of wins, they will no longer find themselves among Lunardi’s last four in, and they’ll likely play themselves out of the play-in game. Even a split will do.
But sooner or later, the Sun Devils need someone to step up. Desmond Cambridge Jr. and DJ Horne lead the team at 12.1 points per game, but Frankie Collins (10.9 ppg), Devan Cambridge (10.9 ppg) and Warren Washington (8.2 ppg) are also threats. One of them needs to put up 20 against a team like UCLA for the Sun Devils to have a chance.
Will USC close out strong?
Kudos to Andy Enfield: He has built USC into one of the preeminent programs in the west, with 86 wins since the beginning of the 2019 season, among the best in college basketball.
But the Trojans won’t get the benefit of the doubt this year unless they do some damage over these next seven weeks. USC probably needs to go at least 10-3 over the remainder of the regular season, then needs a win or two in the NCAA Tournament to feel good about its chances.
The hard part starts this week in Tucson with the first of a tough two-game desert swing. The Trojans catch the Wildcats when they’re down, which could be a mixed bag. Will Arizona be frothing at the mouth after its recent dip. Could that light a fire under them? Does USC have the inside game to match up with the Wildcats?
The Trojans have plenty resting on this weekend in the Grand Canyon State.
What does a Pac-12 Tournament upset mean for the league’s chances?
We’ve seen what Oregon, Washington State and Utah can do when they’re at their best. Or, at least, Arizona has.
The Wildcats’ three surprising losses to so-so conference teams sets the stage for what could be a wild Pac-12 tournament. Sure, UCLA looks mighty imposing, but anyone who watched the second half of its narrow 60-58 win over USC knows the Bruins can get into plenty of trouble if they’re taking bad shots and not moving the ball around.
And Arizona State, while impressive this year, entered league play coming off a 37-point loss to San Francisco. So, certainly, anyone’s beatable.
But what does that mean for the league if an Oregon — or even a Washington State or Utah — somehow reels off a few straight in Las Vegas? The Ducks have done it before, that’s for sure. Do the Sun Devils get in if that’s the case? Seems unlikely.
Given the way things are shaping up now, it’s a stretch to imagine the Pac-12 getting three bids, much less four.