Pac-12 Tourney Underwhelms on the Way to a Much-Anticipated Arizona/UCLA FinalPosted by AMurawa on March 15th, 2014
Let’s be blunt: through ten of the 11 games in the Pac-12 Tournament, this has not been a particularly thrilling tourney. Just three games have been decided by single figures; the other seven games have had final margins of an average of more than 20 points. Neither Arizona nor UCLA, the two teams that will appear in today’s championship game, have been tested at all, with the Wildcats winning their two games by an average of 26 points and the Bruins relatively sneaking by with an average margin of victory of just 23 points. But none of that matters now. In a season where Arizona and UCLA were scheduled to play just once (at Pauley Pavilion, way back on January 9), the basketball gods have seen fit to correct such an egregious oversight by the conference schedule-makers and arranged for the conference’s two elite programs to get another crack at it. As Adam Butler so eloquently put it, it is the title game we need and deserve.
We need it, because not only has it become clear that these are, in fact, the two best teams in the conference, but also because missing out on a return game of the conference’s best rivalry in the name of progress is certainly an example of progress not being made. And, we deserve it because, after the past handful of years (hitting rock bottom in 2011-12 when the regular season conference champion was shipped to the NIT), Pac-12 basketball diehards have earned a little good karma. Arizona/UCLA in a conference championship game will occur for only the second time in history (the last time was 1990 – the final conference tournament for more than 10 seasons), and it will give us a chance to relive and come to terms with last year’s controversial semifinal game.
Arizona will head into the title game on an absolute roll, playing arguably their best ball of the season at precisely the right time, as somewhere in the neighborhood of a seven-point favorite. In their two Pac-12 Tournament games so far, the ‘Cats have allowed just 0.72 points per possession. Aaron Gordon seems to be on a crusade to highlight the lunacy of his absence from the Pac-12 All-Defensive team, with five blocks and five steals punctuating his versatile and harassing defense. He’s capable of dominating a Wear twin if Sean Miller decides to go that way, or he could make things very uncomfortable for Kyle Anderson if the ‘Cats decide to check the UCLA point guard/power forward with their most versatile defender. Meanwhile, Nick Johnson (who did make the Pac-12 All-Defensive team) has already this season showed his ability to completely lock up Jordan Adams. In fact, in that first match-up, the Wildcats’ held Anderson and Adams to a combined 10-of-30 from the field along with five turnovers. Furthermore, the Wear twins were largely invisible, combining for 10 points and four boards in 40 minutes of action. These are the types of things this Arizona defense is capable of doing, namely shutting off the water for a handful of key cogs on the opposition.
For UCLA, it was their young bench of Bryce Alford, Zach LaVine and Tony Parker that kept them in that first game, combining for 31 points, 14 free throw attempts (the rest of the Bruins combined for 12) and a whole heapful of energy. UCLA fans would love to see that kind of production out of those three again, but consistency has not exactly been the name of the game for that trio. Still, for Steve Alford’s team to be able to pull out this game against a more battle-tested opponent in front of an unwelcoming crowd (and make no mistake, this will be a highly partisan, Arizona-heavy MGM Grand Arena on Saturday afternoon), they’re going to need some unexpected things to happen. Whether that is the Wears doing something like the 23.5 points and 7.5 boards per game on an 88.6% eFG (as they have averaged thus far in the conference tournament), or those bench players duplicating their earlier performance, or even Anderson and Adams rising up against their tormentors and turning in highly effective games against great defenders, the Bruins will need some aberrations to come away with a win. Things like this can happen, especially in the third of three games in three days; especially in March; and especially when two great rivals like this get together. Buckle your seatbelts, folks, this has the capacity to be a classic.