Posted on March 17, 2022
The Pac-12 began the 2022 NCAA Tournamentyesterday with 4-Seed UCLA narrowly defeating 13-Seed Akron in Portland.
With just three teams in the running this season, the Conference faces longer odds to land multiple programs in the Elite 8, but the Bruins are one step closer.
Their path figures to go through Baylor, while USC likely would need to topple Auburn and then Wisconsin.
Arizona’s path, on the other hand, could require it to beat Illinois or Houston, depending on how the Round of 64 and Round of 32 shake out.
But to eat an elephant, you take it bite-by-bite, and the Round of 64 features some tough opponents that won’t go away easily.
I preview today’s games here, and my picks along with Stephen Vilardo’s appear at the bottom.
No. 7 USC v. No. 10 Miami
Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, SC
Friday, March 18
12:10 pm PT, TruTV
The Hurricanes are among the top ball-handling and decision-making teams in the country, committing just 9.6 turnovers per game (6th in the nation).
But they don’t rebound the ball with any degree of commitment (342nd overall), and are a below-average shot-blocking roster (203rd in the country).
Comparatively, rebounding and shot-blocking are two of USC’s strengths.
Still, Miami has the 17th-best offense according to KenPom, and gets it done with a seven-man rotation. Guards Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong lead the way, averaging 32.8 points between them.
And with wins over Duke and North Carolina under their belt, the Hurricanes won’t be intimidated by SC’s roster.
For the Trojans to advance, Drew Peterson must play up to his potential. Held below his season average three of the last four games, the fourth-year junior must get out of his funk.
But outside of Peterson, defensive rebounding figures to be high on Andy Enfield’s game plan, along with disrupting passing lanes.
Miami likes to share the ball and is efficient from the field, but USC’s length could frustrate their flow and lead to poor shots.
Keeping a hand in the shooter’s face and communicating switches could prove vital, as well as rotating on defense when someone gets beat.
A low-scoring game would likely favor the Trojans, and Enfield should use his roster’s size to make life difficult for Miami’s guard-heavy rotation.
If USC can keep the pace down and make the game ugly, it should walk away with the win.
No. 1 Arizona v. No. 16 Wright State
Viejas Arena, San Diego, CA
Friday, March 18
4:27 pm PT, TruTV
Wright State is a classic example of a team that got hot at the right time, stringing together six-straight wins to get to this matchup.
The Raiders have respectable offensive numbers, but the quality of their opponents have been sub-par. They were blown out by Purdue in November, and their best win arguably came against Bryant on Tuesday night.
KenPom ranks the 16-Seed’s strength of schedule as the fifth-lowest of the teams in the Tournament, with an average opponent defense rating of 337th.
But utilizing an eight-man rotation, the Raiders have three primary scorers in Tanner Holden, Grant Basile, and Trey Calvin.
The trio combined for 72 points against Bryant, and promise to come out swinging with nothing to lose.
Against such scoring threats, Arizona’s defense figures to take center stage.
Generating turnovers and blocking shots could be the main talking points of Lloyd’s game plan, with a focus on fighting through screens, disciplined switching, and hedging along the perimeter.
Christian Koloko should use the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year snub as motivation, protecting the paint and extending his pressure to the perimeter.
Without the size to counteract UA’s height, the Raiders figure to struggle against the 7-foot-1 junior.
On offense, Arizona promises to take advantage of its size in the paint.
Wright State doesn’t have the length to effectively counteract UA’s high-low action, especially with Azuolas Tubelis feeding Koloko or Oumar Ballo from the top of the key.
Add in the dynamic scoring threat of Bennedict Mathurin, and the Wildcats figure to pull away by the end of the first half.
No. 4 UCLA v. No. 13 Akron
Moda Center, Portland, OR
Thursday, March 17
6:50 pm PT, TBS
The Zips have an offensive efficiency rating that is better than 11 of the teams in the tournament, according to KenPom, and have a higher field goal percentage (46.1%) and three-point percentage (35.7%) than UCLA.
But the competition in the Mid-American Conference pales in comparison to the Pac-12, and Akron doesn’t have the size to threaten Mick Cronin’s team.
The tallest starter for the Zips’ is 6-foot-8 Ali Ali, but it’s the lack of bulk that figures to be their undoing.
Akron’s heaviest player is listed as true freshman Sekou Kalle, who has only appeared in six games and checks in at 224-pounds.
Of the rotation players, sophomore Mikal Dawson is the strongest at 6-foot-5, 222-pounds, while Aziz Bandaogo is second at 215-pounds and 7-feet.
That shouldn’t concern Cronin, who has 250-pound Cody Riley, 255-pound Myles Johnson, and 255-pound Kenneth Nwuba at his disposal.
Getting the ball in the paint and bullying the Zips figures to be one of the priorities of Cronin’s offensive game plan, while staying connected to the hip and playing physical on defense figures to round out his strategy.
To counter, fifth-year Akron head coach John Groce could utilize the eight or nine-man rotation that’s been his calling card all season.
The deep bench has kept the Zips from tasting defeat since February 17th, rattling off eight victories in a row, including three in the MAC Tournament.
Elimination games are never easy, but UCLA has the interior size and strength to punish Akron on both sides of the court at the Moda Center.
First-Round NCAA Tournament Game Picks
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