Posted on February 16, 2023
No. 4 UCLA and No. 8 Arizona are in the running for a top seed in the West Bracket, while Oregon, USC, Utah, and Arizona State remain on the Bubble.
The projections change with each result and teams in other conferences can steal bids. But with the potential for up to four Pac-12 programs making the Tournament there is no longer margin for error.
I preview all the Thursday matchups in the Conference here and my picks, along with those of Stephen Vilardo, appear at the bottom.
Colorado at Arizona State
Thursday, February 16
5:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
The Buffs have a weaker frontcourt than the Sun Devils but otherwise share key similarities with ASU. Both teams feature guard-based offenses and are built on strong defense.
Warren Washington is expected to return for Arizona State, giving Bobby Hurley’s group an advantage in the paint.
CU’s Lawson Lovering’s development has effectively stopped in the new calendar year and the sophomore is outmatched by Washington.
Arizona State doesn’t win games based on the play of its bigs, but strong nights from Washington and Duke Brennan are arguably X-Factors in the matchup against Colorado.
Look for Lovering to struggle to contain Hurley’s primary bigs and have trouble scoring when Washington is on the floor.
Yet, as always with ASU, the deciding factor figures to come down to the play of its guards. Frankie Collins is the heart and soul of the group that runs Hurley’s system effectively.
Averaging 4.6 assists per game and 41.0 percent shooting, an off night from Collins might be too much to overcome.
Similarly, Desmond Cambridge Jr. is the Sun Devils’ primary scoring threat who leads the team in points per game. If Cambridge has an inefficient shooting night, Arizona State might not get enough production to topple the Buffs.
DJ Horne rounds out ASU’s trio of guards and is somewhat of a Wildcard. The junior is 21-for-71 (29.5 percent) from the field over his last seven games.
His shot selection and willingness to pass could tip the scales in either direction for the Sun Devils.
In what is expected to be a defensive struggle, Arizona State’s defense on KJ Simpson and Tristan da Silva might decide the outcome.
If the CU duo exceeds their combined average of 32.3 points per game, Tad Boyle’s group might secure the win on the road.
Utah at No. 8 Arizona
Thursday, February 16
7:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
KenPom ranks the Ute “D” as the third-best in the Pac-12 and Craig Smith has the schematic recipe for defending Arizona.
The second-year Utah coach effectively handled Tommy Lloyd’s offense with disciplined switching earlier in the year.
The Ute defenders didn’t fall into the trap that most opponents do when facing Lloyd’s high-low action and easy baskets were limited. The result was UA’s third-lowest point total of the year.
Whether or not the defensive performance in Salt Lake City was more attributable to Arizona’s Maui Invitational hangover, though, remains to be seen.
To beat the Wildcats at home, Utah must limit any runs the Cats attempt to engineer. Effective use of timeouts is one way to do it, but responding with timely threes is arguably more important.
At the same time, if the Utes can force UA into turnovers and convert those mistakes into points, they could go on runs of their own that change the game.
The deciding factor, however, figures to come down to the play of Arizona’s guards. Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey, Kylan Boswell, and Pelle Larsson combined for just 17 points on 5-for-30 shooting in the first matchup.
That’s highly unlikely to happen at McKale Center. As long as the Wildcat guards have a normal shooting night and prevent Utah from dominating the glass, the result should be an Arizona victory.
California at USC
Thursday, February 16
7:00 pm PT, FS1
Joshua Morgan is out for the game. Without him, the Trojans don’t have an interior presence throughout the game and are forced to go small when Vince Iwuchukwu rests.
That might not be as much of a problem against the Bears, though. Mark Fox does have a capable center in Lars Thiemann, but not much depth with ND Okafor still developing.
Still, coming off an overtime loss to Arizona State, Cal might have confidence in their ability to keep the game within reach.
Defending the perimeter is the key to beating California. Capable of getting hot from three, the Bears have several forwards that can step out and knock down shots from outside.
Sam Alajiki, Grant Newell, and Kuany Kuany can each go cold, yet all three are capable of making USC pay if left open from distance.
But outside of shooting the three, California does not present much of a threat. With a lack of emphasis on sharing the ball and rebounding, the Bears don’t get many easy looks or second-chance opportunities.
One-on-one defense will be key, yet the Trojans have superior athletes to win those battles.
As long as Boogie Ellis and Drew Petersen aren’t cold from the field, USC should defend the Galen Center.
Stanford at No. 4 UCLA
Thursday, February 16
8:00 pm PT, ESPN2
The Tree have fallen well short of their preseason expectations yet enter the game playing their best basketball of the season.
Maxime Raynaud has improved throughout the year and Harrison Ingram has shaken off his sophomore slump.
The result is a relatively polished group with wins over Arizona, Utah, and Oregon.
But the Bruins are the type of opponent that presents fundamental challenges to Jerod Haase’s roster. With one of the top defenses in the nation, UCLA figures to force turnovers while simultaneously limiting its own mistakes.
With fewer possessions to work with, Stanford will be forced to value each trip down the court and efficiently convert those opportunities into points.
That’s a problem for a Cardinal team that is 279th in the nation in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.
With a slowdown offense, the Tree figure to struggle to breach 60 points on UCLA’s home floor.
The outside shooting of Spencer Jones and the production of Brandon Angel are X-Factors, yet the schematic matchup between the two systems favors UCLA.
The Tree may have the size to compete with Mick Cronin’s group and the athleticism to somewhat compare, but their turnover propensity and tempo highly favor UCLA.
Unless Stanford forces the Bruins into turnovers and converts those mistakes into points—particularly on the fast break or in transition—UCLA should walk away with the win.
Oregon State at Washington State
Thursday, February 16
8:00 pm PT, ESPNU
Seeding is pivotal to taking the trophy home in Las Vegas and Washington State must avoid the 8-9 matchup in Round One. The winner of that game will face the 1-seed and will likely have their season end in the matchup.
To avoid that possibility, WSU must start by taking care of business against Oregon State.
The Beavers are a young team that struggles on the road but is full of confidence after beating USC.
With an underrated frontcourt that features variable lineups and forwards that score from the perimeter, Wayne Tinkle’s team can’t be overlooked.
OSU’s primary flaw, though, is their lack of emphasis on sharing the ball. As one of the worst teams in College Basketball in assists per game, the Beavs are easier to defend than other opponents in the league.
If Jordan Pope and Glenn Taylor Jr. are contained, Oregon State doesn’t have enough firepower to overcome.
And with the personnel to adequately match up with OSU’s variable lineups at the power forward and small forward positions, Kyle Smith’s team is in a favorable position.
Plus, without a player to adequately defend Mouhamed Gueye, look for the Cougs to run their offense through the big.
Rodrigue Andela and KC Ibekwe don’t have the skill to slow him down and there isn’t another player on the Beaver roster with the size to contain him.
As long as the Cougs aren’t cold from three they should leave the game with the win.
Our Senior Writers’ Game Picks
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