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Pac-12 Tournament preview | How will Arizona respond?

Craig Morgan

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Mar 3, 2018; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Brandon Randolph (5) guard Dylan Smith (3) forward Deandre Ayton (13) and guard Allonzo Trier (35) (left to right) stand together after defeating the California Golden Bears at McKale Center. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

There are dueling theories about the mindset of the University of Arizona men’s basketball team as it heads into the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas this week.

One theory suggests that the recent controversy surrounding star players Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and coach Sean Miller has rocked the team to its very foundation. The other theory is that strife has brought the team closer together, creating a ready-made us-against-the-world battle cry that could be all the more potent if Miller and the school agree to part ways after this season.

Both theories are hyperbole. One will nevertheless be adopted based on the Wildcats’ postseason performance, but Arizona will still enter the conference tournament as the odds-on favorite.

“They have a lot of pieces and they have a great coach and their players expect to win,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “They have an inside game and a perimeter game. They sure look the part of a team that would be a favorite.”

That said, the Wildcats are susceptible to March Madness in a conference whose weekly doings have provided intrigue.

“It’s not only our conference but the nation,” Hurley said. “There’s a lot of parity in college basketball. Even the very top teams are vulnerable in this type of one-game elimination scenario.”

No. 1 seed Arizona will open the tournament on Thursday against the winner of a first-round game Wednesday between No. 8 seed Colorado and No. 9 seed ASU.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the tournament.

THE FAVORITE

No. 1 seed Arizona (24-7): Ayton and Trier made the 10-man (why 10?) 2018 All-Pac-12 First Team. USC was the only other team with two players. The Wildcats lost four conference games all season and are No. 18 in the latest RPI ratings, the only Pac-12 team in the top 30. Even so, the Cats don’t own a win over a currently ranked opponent.

CONTENDERS

No. 2 USC (21-10): Senior guard Jordan McLaughlin and junior forward Chimezie Metu made the 2018 All-Pac-12 First Team. The Trojans won four of their final five Pac-12 games. USC is No. 34 in the RPI rankings.

No. 4 UCLA (20-10): The Bruins own road/neutral-site wins against Kentucky and Arizona plus a sweep of USC. They have also lost three games to Oregon State and Colorado (twice). UCLA (No. 38 RPI) is wildly inconsistent, but on its best days it has shown it can beat anybody.

No. 3 Utah (19-10): The No. 47 team in the RPI rankings closed the season with six wins in its final seven regular season games. Utah swept Washington, beat UCLA and Missouri at home, and won at Arizona State, but the Utes have not beaten a top-25 team. The Utes may need to win the whole enchilada to secure a spot in the dance.

DARK HORSES

No. 5 Stanford (17-14): The Cardinal’s brutal 6-7 non-conference showing, plus a No. 72 RPI ranking, make winning the conference tournament imperative. Stanford posted a home sweep of the L.A. schools. Those are the only impressive bullet points on the resume despite a third-place finish in the conference.

No. 6 Oregon (20-11): The Ducks have either won or reached the title game in this tournament four of the past five years. They are in the weaker half of the bracket. With a No. 67 RPI ranking, they’ll need that kind of run to make the NCAA Tournament for a sixth straight season.

No. 9 Arizona State (20-10): The Sun Devils went 12-0 in non-conference play, including impressive wins against Xavier and Kansas, but have come back to earth in Pac-12 play with an 8-10 record. Those two wins over conference champions are big. So was a sweep of the Los Angeles schools in Tempe, but the Devils will rest a lot easier with a win over Colorado in the first round.

No. 7 Washington (20-11): Washington lost five of its past eight games to teams that probably won’t make the tournament field. Will it matter in the selection committee’s new process? The Huskies have wins at Kansas, at home over Arizona, and at USC, but with a No. 58 RPI rating, they need some wins in Vegas to grab a spot.

FUGETABOUTIT

No. 8 Colorado (16-14); No. 10 Oregon State (15-15); No. 11 Washington State (12-18); No. 12 California (8-23): Win it all, or in the probable case of the Buffaloes and Beavers, hope for an NIT berth.

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Craig Morgan has covered, professional, college and prep sports in Arizona since 1993. He previously served as a sports staff writer with the Arizona Republic and East Valley Tribune, covering high school sports, Arizona State football and basketball, the Arizona Coyotes and the Phoenix Suns. He later served as deputy sports editor and columnist at the East Valley Tribune. After leaving the newspaper business, he covered the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL, Arizona State football and the Pac-12 for CBSSports.com and FOX Sports Arizona. In addition to covering ASU and the Coyotes for FanRagSports.com, Craig currently serves as the football columnist and Arizona Coyotes writer for ArizonaSports.com, and covers ASU athletics for TheSunDevils.com.

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