Pac-12 NCAA Tournament Prospects Looking Slim

Posted by RJ Abeytia on March 13th, 2018

And then there were three. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee took its Excalibur Sharpies and scrawled in the names of Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State onto its 68-team bracket and left an entire conference reeling in its wake. I’ll touch upon USC at another time, but the upshot should not really be that much of a revelation: Conference affiliation is ultimately arbitrary in the case of making the Big Dance. But enough digression. Let’s take a quick look at the three teams who did make it and assess their prospects for this weekend and beyond.

DeAndre Ayton is a Problem for Any Team in His Path (USA Today Images)

Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton gave everybody in Las Vegas a tantalizing glimpse of the dominance he’s capable of inflicting. He became the first player in Pac-10/12 history to ever win Freshman of the Year, Player of the Year, and Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament. Sean Miller said months ago that “we go as DeAndre goes,” and truer words have never been spoken. Unfortunately, there are two things conspiring to thwart Miller’s Quixotic journey to the Final Four. The first is the Wildcats’ lack of consistent defensive play, a very conspicuous attribute in the Miller Era. This year the Wildcats finished 70th in Defensive Rating, per KenPom, and in the previous three seasons that number was 29th, 29th and third. The strange thing is that with Ayton, Rawle Alkins, Keanu Pinder and Dusan Ristic, you’d think the Wildcats would be a good defensive team.

However, college basketball is a guard’s game, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier have slid significantly on defense from last year. Jackson-Cartwright has gone from an exceptional defender (99.0 DRtg in 2016-17) to essentially average at 105.0. Trier has gone from acceptable (101.0) to a turnstile (107.5) With a 131.0 Offensive Rating in tow, Trier is too good to keep off the court, but by far the biggest basketball question mark for Arizona is the ability of its backcourt to get stops. The other issue is the draw. Arizona by chalk would be looking at #5 Kentucky (gulp) in the Second Round and #1 Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen. By chalk, Arizona would then play #2 Cincinnati in the Elite Eight. That’s a tall order and likely even too tall for the seven-foot Ayton. Best case: Ayton continues to be a Basketball Godzilla and simply carries the Wildcats to San Antonio. Worst case: Kentucky gets revenge for its 1997 championship game loss and maybe Miller’s most talented team fails to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA’s modus operandi is pretty clear at this point: The Bruins win games offensively and Aaron Holiday is the compact but powerful motor that drives Steve Alford’s team. UCLA finished 110th in Defensive Rating this season and the big concern surrounding that metric is what UCLA fans saw in microcosm in the Pac-12 semifinals. After holding Arizona to 26 first-half points, the Wildcats scored 52 in the second half plus overtime at an offensive efficiency of 128.1. Even more concerning was that UCLA was completely shut out in overtime (as in, zero points) and generally looked exhausted. Holiday, who had played 40 minutes in the previous game against Stanford, played all 45 minutes against the Wildcats the very next day. He has now played 92 percent of UCLA’s minutes this season, so even though he’ll have a day off between games in the NCAAs, he also has a season’s worth of mileage to overcome. Compound that with the fact that UCLA is a First Four team, and it seems highly unlikely that the Bruins are poised to win three games in five days. By chalk, their opponents would be #11 St. Bonaventure, #6 Florida and #3 Texas Tech. Florida has the offense to keep up with UCLA and considerably more defense. It’s hard to see Alford’s team surviving the first weekend, though, which makes sense considering its overall seed.

Ah, Arizona State. A regression was forecast on this very site earlier in the year, and it certainly came to pass. Guard play rules in college basketball, but leaning on diminutive guys without sufficient depth set the Sun Devils up for their plummet from a top three team in the nation’s polls to one of the last teams invited to the NCAA Tournament. Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II have played over 86 percent of the team’s minutes this season, and while their style of play and personnel make them very dangerous, insiders suggest that the Sun Devils are simply gassed at this point. Expecting them to win three games in five days with multiple players running on fumes seems a bridge too far. At the end of the day, there is a very real possibility that the herculean Ayton may be all that is standing between the Pac-12 being eliminated by the second weekend. Considering how this season has gone, that’s not an entirely inappropriate viewpoint.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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