Gold: Pac-12 reactions, overreactions and more from Selection Sunday
As expected, 4 Pac-12 teams are invited to the dance, as 2-seeds UCLA and Arizona, 7-seed USC and 11-seed Arizona State punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. None of the 4 has a particularly favorable draw — though one path is more perilous than the rest — as the league chases its first national championship since the Wildcats in 1997. If only the Cats had Miles Simon, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry this year.
Here’s a look at my key takeaways from Selection Sunday …
Did the NCAA get it right?
Unfortunately for UCLA, yes.
The Bruins were delivered a brutal blow in a regular-season finale win over Arizona, as star defender Jaylen Clark, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year, was lost for the season with an Achilles’ injury. Then they were dealt another blow in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, when Adem Bona was knocked out with a shoulder injury.
Had UCLA braved the storm and conquered Arizona in the tourney title game, that may have been enough ammunition for Mick Cronin and Co. to have an argument for the 4th No. 1 seed, ahead of the Purdue Boilermakers. But the Bruins’ loss to the Wildcats compounded with their injury losses, were too much to ignore. Considering they got the No. 2 seed in the West and the No. 5 overall seed, that’s about as friendly as you can get, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, the Bruins have a brutal draw (see later).
Arizona getting a 2-seed in the South is interesting, as they’ll open Tourney play in Sacramento before potentially heading to Louisville, should the Wildcats end up in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats do get a potential matchup with overall No. 1 seed Alabama, though No. 3 Baylor, No. 4 Virginia and No. 5 San Diego State won’t be easy outs. Arizona did itself no favors with 6 conference losses, including 3-of-6 to end the regular season.
No. 7-seed USC (East) and 11-seed Arizona State (West) had some impressive late-season wins to bump up from the bubble, though ASU will have to earn its way in through a play-in game matchup with Nevada. Can’t really argue with either of those outcomes, either.
Easiest path: Arizona
Is it fair to say no one? I don’t envy UCLA’s draw, which includes a potential 2nd-round matchup with Northwestern’s nasty defense or Boise State, probably the toughest 10 seed, as well as a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga, which would be all-too-fitting. Then they’d have to get past the likes of defending-champion Kansas, UConn and Saint Mary’s.
I also don’t envy ASU potentially drawing Gonzaga in the Round of 32 — not exactly a consolation prize — nor USC’s potential Round of 32 matchup with scorching Marquette.
So, I guess by default, that leaves Arizona. The Bears, Cavaliers and Aztecs all have flaws, and if the Wildcats get some good guard play in the Tournament, they have the ferocious post players to beat anyone in the country. Looking way ahead, we know the Crimson Tide are in a precarious position given everything that’s gone on with them off the court. Could this be the year for the Cats?
— Arizona Basketball (@ArizonaMBB) March 13, 2023
Toughest draw: UCLA
I really can’t overstate how awful it is that the Bruins got cursed just before potentially having to overcome the Zags and the Jayhawks. The NCAA loves to find these little twists, and stacking UCLA and Gonzaga — with memories of Jalen Suggs and Adam Morrison and all the rest — together in the Sweet 16 is a special bit of cruelty. Then having to deal with Kansas’ length and talent? Yikes. Not an easy path.
𝐔𝐏 𝐍𝐄𝐗𝐓: 𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐂𝐇 𝐌𝐀𝐃𝐍𝐄𝐒𝐒
The Bruins (29-5) are back in action against UNC Asheville (27-7) this Thursday night at the Golden 1 Center.
— UCLA Men’s Basketball (@UCLAMBB) March 13, 2023
Best 1st-round matchup: USC vs. Michigan State
As fun as Arizona vs. Princeton looks, the Trojans having to tangle with Mr. March Tom Izzo and the Spartans is a tastier entanglement. Michigan State isn’t the same Spartans squad that had an air of invincibility about them in the past, but this is their 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament, which is absurd.
The Spartans had early-season losses to Gonzaga (by 1) and to Alabama (by 11), and additional defeats against Notre Dame and Northwestern, as they started 5-4. A 7-game winning streak righted the ship for MSU but then the team was inconsistent down the stretch. A loss to Rutgers, in particular, stands out.
USC, though, wasn’t much more consistent, losing a pair of late-season games at the Oregon schools and falling to ASU in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
The head-to-head matchup between Ellis and MSU’s Tyson Walker is enticing.
USC will tip off against Michigan State at 9:15 am PT. Get your coffee brewing early, L.A. https://t.co/AOxZLFVQPJ
— Ryan Kartje (@Ryan_Kartje) March 12, 2023
“The three guys to my left advanced to the Final Four as an 11 seed, so we’re well aware it’s just a number. For our players, the majority of our team is from the west coast, and we’re happy their family can be at the games.” — Mick Cronin, on his reaction to a No. 2 seed and playing in Sacramento
Sweet 16 candidates: UCLA and Arizona
As much as I like the Trojans’ combo of Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, Marquette enters March Madness as arguably the hottest team in college basketball. In just the past 9 games, the Golden Eagles have wins over then-ranked Xavier (twice), UConn and Creighton. Oh, and the Big East Tournament title.
Likewise, the Sun Devils stand much of a chance against the Zags, one of the top preseason picks in the country.
I’m not particularly bullish on the Bruins making it past the Sweet 16, but Arizona’s got a shot to go far … but not far enough.
I’m not optimistic that the Pac-12 will end its title drought. I’m partial to teams with toughness at all levels, had great regular-season finishes and have at last some pedigree.
My Final Four picks:
Houston: The Cougars rally opened my eyes last year in defeating a phenomenal Arizona team in the Sweet 16 and they returned as arguably the most impressive team in the country. Forget their AAC title-game loss to Memphis — they closed the regular season with 11 straight wins. If Marcus Sasser is healthy (enough), I think Houston will win it all.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles got hot when it counted, but lets not also discount their entire season resume. A No. 2 seed a good month does not make. They went 7-2 against Top 25 teams and emerged an always formidable Big East. We’ve also seen what Shaka Smart can do come Tournament time.
Virginia: Tony Bennett is my favorite coach in the country, and even though the Cavaliers aren’t what they were when they won it all in 2019, you know they’re well-coached and athletic. If they can up their game at the free-throw line, which has been a season-long struggle, they can emerge from some tight situations.
Gonzaga: And then there are the Bulldogs. With Drew Timme back for what feels like his 8th or 9th NCAA Tournament run, Gonzaga feels like a bit of a sentimental favorite. At least for those who don’t hate Drew Timme. As opposed to the giant target that has ben on the Zags’ backs in recent years, this feels like the kind of understated, impressive squad that could reel off 6 straight.