Gold: Which Pac-12 teams can win their way into the NCAA Tournament
Leave it to the Pac-12 to let it go down to the wire.
With 2 weeks left in the regular season, the league is in clear danger of securing just 2 bids for the first time since 2012, a dubious distinction that no other Power 5 conference can boast.
But we’re not out of it just yet. Though only UCLA and Arizona have undoubtedly punched their ticket to March Madness, a host of other Pac-12 teams have plenty to play for down the stretch. For some, success in the Pac-12 Tournament is their only path to the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s a look at the conference contenders still in the running for the NCAA Tournament and what they’ll have to do to get there.
Out without a doubt:
Cal (3-24 overall, 2-14 Pac-12, 4 games remaining); Oregon State (10-18, 4-13, 3 games remaining); Stanford (11-16, 5-11, 4 games remaining); Colorado (15-13. 7-10, 3 games remaining); Washington (15-13, 7-10, 3 games remaining)
Needs to pull off a Sin City surprise:
Washington State (13-15, 8-9, 3 games remaining); Oregon (15-13, 9-8, 3 games remaining)
We’re down to 3…
Utah Utes (17-11, 10-7)
Who they play: vs. No. 4 UCLA, vs. USC, at Colorado
The argument: For a team that went 11-20 and 4-16 in conference play a year ago, this season has been an unmitigated success. Craig Smith has gotten terrific buy-in from his players, which include some of the last remnants of the Larry Krystkowiak era. Senior center Brendan Carlson has had a nice progression, improving from 13.6 points and 6.0 rebounds to 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds, while upping his blocks to 2.1 and his assists to 1.9. He’s also shooting more 3s than at any point in his career, and making them at a solid 35.3 percent clip. Guards Gabe Madsen (11.7 ppg), Lazar Stefanovic (10.5 ppg) and Marco Anthony (10.0 ppg) have also been major contributors, though Madsen is out with a high-ankle sprain.
But if the Utes fall short of the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to kick themselves. Losses to Sam Houston State, Stanford and Oregon (twice) loom large. An early season win over Arizona is a major resume-booster, and Utah has another opportunity for one with the Bruins coming to Salt Lake City on Thursday, but the Utes can’t afford to look past the Trojans and Buffaloes, either.
Closing out the regular season with 20 wins, including over the top three Pac-12 teams, might be enough to make up for 11 losses. Any slip-ups down the stretch and they’ll have to rely on a long Pac-12 tourney run, if not a title.
Notable: Smith is no stranger to turnarounds. Before he arrived at South Dakota in 2014, the Coyotes won 12 games the year prior and 10 games in each of the previous 2 seasons before then. In his first year, he guided them to 17 wins and by Year 4, the Coyotes won 26 games.
Quotable: “It’s a great group. We have an attitude that craves improvement. We have a bunch of guys that love the gym. These guys can echo that. They love to be in the gym. They love to compete. They don’t just want to play, they want to compete. I think there’s a difference in that. We don’t have many guys that are sitting on the fence that kind of love to play one day or kind of love to compete one day and then the next day not so much.” — Smith at Pac-12 Media Day
Arizona State Sun Devils (19-9, 10-7)
Who they play: at No. 7 Arizona, at No. 4 UCLA, at USC
The argument: You could argue that Bobby Hurley’s boys have the toughest remaining schedule in the country, much less the conference.
But that means the Sun Devils have 3 chances to prove they belong with the big boys.
Wins over the top 3 teams in the conference in back-to-back-back fashion — coupled with a thrilling 11-1 start — would be enough to overlook a 4-4 stretch late in conference play.
For that to happen, the Sun Devils need someone to step up. It’s great that they have 4 capable scorers averaging above 10 points a game, and a 5th — Warren Washington — who is not too far behind. But no Sun Devil scores more than Desmond Cambridge Jr. and he’s only at 13.7 points per game.
Hurley will need more than that against 3 of college basketball’s best teams over the past few years.
Notable: If Hurley leads the Sun Devils to the NCAA Tournament, he’ll be the first Arizona State coach since Ned Wulk in the 1960s and ’70s to earn 3 March Madness tickets.
Quotable: “We didn’t start the season well last year, and I’m not making that the singular reason that we weren’t prepared enough with the change we had on our roster, but I think we’ve focused on doing more of that and hopefully that’s putting us in a better position to play well early in the season.” — Hurley at Pac-12 Media Day
USC Trojans (19-8, 11-5)
Who they play: at Colorado, at Utah, vs. No. 7 Arizona, vs. Arizona State
The argument: It feels almost like an insult to Andy Enfield and the Pac-12 that the Trojans aren’t getting the benefit of the doubt this season despite one of the best 3-year runs in all of college basketball. USC has won 22, 25 and 26 games the past 3 seasons, and the Trojans will likely finish the regular season with 22 wins and a shot at a couple more in the Pac-12 Tournament.
That should be enough, right? USC has a star in former Memphis guard Boogie Ellis, who is averaging a career-best 17.1 points per game go along with 3.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists and 2.4 3-pointers per game. The Trojans have a great No. 2 in Drew Peterson, another deep threat who is averaging 14.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists. And they’ve got a terrific supporting cast in Reese Dixon-Waters, Tre White, Kobe Johnson and Joshua Morgan. They’ve even got one of the best stories in college basketball in freshman forward Vincent Iwuchukwu.
What they don’t have is enough quality wins. A nonconference finale win over then-No. 19 Auburn helps, and so does their 13-point win over UCLA midway through conference play.
Beating the mountain schools and the Arizona schools would be an exclamation point on the regular season and almost certainly enough to clinch USC’s ticket to the dance.
Notable: The Trojans are vying to make it to the NCAA Tournament for a 3rd straight year for the first time since 2006-09.
Quotable: “That’s a good win for our team. Stanford is playing very good basketball so this was a tough game for us. They just beat Arizona. They’ve been playing very well. Our players knew they had to come out with some energy. It’s nice to be home here on our home court where we’ve won 14 straight. I think our guys after getting down early in the game really turned it around on defense and started making shots. We’re pretty good when we make shots.” — Enfield, after beating Stanford, 85-75, on Saturday