Pac-12 Tournament ProspectusPosted by RJ Abeytia on March 15th, 2017
The Pac-12 ended up with fewer seeds in the NCAA Tournament than the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Big 10. Of course, it was always quality (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and not quantity for the Conference of Champions this season. Outside of the ACC, no conference has three teams being hailed as legitimate Final Four threats. The questions this time of year focus on where you’re trending and your presumptive path. By the time you get to a National Semifinal you are certainly going to be playing a great team, or at the very least a team playing like one. Those games match up as coin tosses in most cases, so let’s focus on which of the four Pac-12 teams who qualified has the best shot of reaching Glendale.
- Trending Up: Jordan McLaughlin is averaging nearly 17 points a game over his last four and has a stellar A/TO rate of 31/6 over those four games. Guard play takes center stage in the NCAA Tournament, and if the Trojans are to make more than a cameo in the round of 68, they’ll need McLaughlin to keep playing at a high level this week.
- Trending Down: Since posting a stellar 156 ORtg against Washington State in March 1, Bennie Boatwright has slumped to games with offensive efficiency ratings of 88, 102, and 83 amidst an 8-28 field goal shooting stretch. USC is not a great offensive team and they struggle in the halfcourt; without Boatwright at max efficiency working to stretch defenses and convert in the paint, USC isn’t long for this week.
- Final Four: The Trojans were on a three-game winning streak before UCLA dispatched them in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. USC didn’t make it easy for the Bruins, however, and in the last four games found an offensive groove, posting efficiency ratings well over national average in its three wins. The loss to UCLA showed they could hang with an elite team despite subpar performances from Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, and De’Anthony Melton. Coming off a loss, it’d be wrong to say the Trojans are streaking, but they are playing good ball.
- Path Prospects: Having to win five when 65 others have to win four is already a tall order, and if USC is able to beat Providence in a Tournament grudge rematch, they get an in-season rematch with an SMU team ranked 11th in the country by KenPom. Despite the fact that USC beat the Mustangs in the teams’ initial match-up, they aren’t likely to survive the week, let alone the next three.
- Trending Up: Tyler Dorsey has long been a hinge player for the Ducks. Dorsey put up 21 points in the second half against Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament Final and in Vegas he averaged 22 points a game on 57% shooting from the field. He’s one of the headiest players in the Pac-12, with a knack for timely steals and put-backs. The margin for the Ducks’ rotation is razor thin, and they’ll be counting on Dorsey more than ever now.
- Trending Down: That Dorsey-dependence is amplified by the absence of Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL and is lost for the rest of the season. Oregon will miss him sorely on both ends. He creates huge mismatches for his teammates by being a stretch four with three-point range, and his interior help defense is invaluable to a Ducks team who likes to extend their defense and mix in some zones as well. Oregon is a mentally tough team, but there is no replacing Boucher’s role on the court.
- Final Four: Oregon rattled off six straight wins before winning their first two in Vegas and dropping a hotly contested final to Arizona. The Ducks can shoot it, defend, and aside from Boucher’s injury, have shown their resourcefulness by being able to score by the bucket load, even despite recent uneven performances from leading scorer Dillon Brooks.
- Path Prospects: The Ducks’ potential second round opponent, Creighton, ended the season splitting its last six games, and Louisville lost three of its final five. Presuming the Ducks get past Iona, their path to Phoenix is eminently reasonable. Louisville is an excellent defensive team, but so are the Ducks, who led the conference in defensive efficiency. Top-seeded Kansas looms as a tough match-up because they are one of the few teams who can match Oregon’s preferred versatility with Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, Lagerald Vick, and Josh Jackson. Kansas also has some size to throw at Oregon, and the fact that this game would be played in Kansas City would make it a tall order for the Ducks. Dana Altman has a tough, disciplined, and talented group, but without Boucher, Oregon’s chances to reach Glendale have dwindled smaller.
- Trending Up: Isaac Hamilton is shooting 50% (19-38) from the field in his last three games. He posted offensive efficiencies of 119 and 123 in the Bruins’ two games in Las Vegas, and he has stood out recently among his teammates, even in the midst of UCLA’s incredible overall season on offense.
- Trending Down: This was a tough call considering the Bruins won ten straight before falling to Arizona last Saturday night. T.J. Leaf’s injury unquestionably limited him, as he posted two games well below his season efficiency of 129. Lonzo Ball shot 3-13 from three in his two games in Vegas, which is not unrelated to Leaf’s relative struggles. Bryce Alford, however, is 5-25 over his last three games, and his O-Rtg’s have trended sharply downward in all three games (94, 85, 42). It’s unlikely he continues shooting that poorly over the next three weeks, but that’s the rub of tournament play. One more game like that and there may not be three weeks left in UCLA’s season.
- Final Four: As noted above, UCLA won 10 of its last 11 and three of its last four, but their last two games against USC and Arizona were decidedly lackluster. Ball and Leaf are the differences between the 15-17 team of last year, as UCLA is not exceptional without their pair of exceptional freshmen. So despite the all the winning of late, they’re not playing their best basketball of the season, despite being not far removed from the stretch in which they truly were.
- Path Prospects: UCLA got sent to a blue-blooded bracket of death in the South Region. Playing in front of a surely partisan crowd in Sacramento (UCLA has a ton of Northern California alumni) should help the Bruins reach Memphis, but their path to Glendale from there will hardly be a walk. Per chalk, UCLA would have to beat Kentucky in a rematch and then North Carolina to make the Final Four. Cincinnati plays the best defense of the three potential Bruin opponents and has a pace (294th in the nation) that sharply contrasts the Bruins’ jet-fueled tempo. Kentucky and North Carolina, conversely, have decent defenses (both rated 4th in their respective conferences) but also love to push tempo like UCLA does. The Bruins may have the biggest upside, but arguably own the most difficult regional path to Glendale of any of the Pac-12 teams. You have to like the talent on the floor in a match-up vs. UNC or Kentucky, but how do Bruin fans feel about Steve Alford vs. John Calipari and/or Roy Williams?
- Trending Up: Allonzo Trier was an offensive machine in leading Arizona to the Pac-12 Tournament Championship. Trier put up 17 points per game on efficient shooting and even more efficient free throw shooting. His ability to get to the line was an invaluable asset in tournament play, as he averaged over nine free throw attempts per game in Las Vegas while shooting 82%.
- Trending Down: Freshman Kobi Simmons is on the milk carton for the Wildcats. While Lauri Markannen and Rawle Alkins have both come through their respective freshman swoons, Simmons has become a virtual afterthought in the Arizona rotation. He hasn’t played more than six minutes in any of Arizona’s last four games.
- Final Four: Nobody did anything more impressive than beating two AP top-7 teams on consecutive nights to win their conference tournament (talk to the hand, Duke fans), and nobody has looked more complete on both ends of the floor than the Wildcats. They are the only team on this list to have won its past four games, and the Cats haven’t had a better stretch this year than the last two weeks.
- Path Prospects: There is no “easy” path to Glendale, but this is doable for Arizona. After a first-round match-up with North Dakota, the Wildcats get the winner of Saint Mary’s vs. VCU. Neither of those teams has a win over a team ranked better than 36th per KenPom. After that, it’s Florida State and then Gonzaga per chalk in a West regional played in San Jose. The Seminoles are the second-highest rated 3-seed according to the Tournament committee, while Gonzaga is the lowest-rated top seed. Two tough teams to be sure, but neither has an exceptional tournament pedigree. This is Sean Miller’s most advantageous path to the Final Four, and it’s also this year’s Pac-12’s.