Posted on February 23, 2023
Washington and Colorado currently sit in the unfavorable 8 and 9-seed positions, spots that virtually guarantee an exit in the Quarterfinals.
Washington State is in the danger zone, too, coming into tonight’s contest as the potential 7-seed with only a one-game advantage.
Making a run in Las Vegas is never easy, but where a team starts can make all the difference. With the stakes high, the four games in the Pac-12 on Thursday are meaningful.
I preview all four matchups here and my picks, along with those of Stephen Vilardo, appear at the bottom.
Washington at California
Thursday, February 23
6:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
KenPom ranks the Bears’ offense 297th in the country with the 350th slowest tempo. While that’s normally a recipe for disaster against most opponents, it’s not as worrying against Washington’s zone defense.
Mike Hopkins’ system can force even the top offenses into a slow tempo by making them use most of the shot clock before getting the ball up.
The zone held Oregon State to 47 points on Saturday and limited Washington State to 56 earlier in the month.
That doesn’t mean Mark Fox’s group will be able to take advantage, but it does level the playing field in some ways.
California lost to Washington in Seattle by just three points earlier this year, too, setting the stage for a closer game than some may expect.
Center Lars Thiemann is arguably the key for Cal. The German senior has been in an uncharacteristic funk as of late, shooting 3-for-14 from the field over the past three games.
Thiemann’s efficiency on offense, particularly on shots in the paint, could be the difference.
But even if his offensive game is off, the Bears’ active leading scorer must slow down Braxton Meah.
The UW big is arguably the reason the Huskies are above .500 on the season. Consistent night-in and night-out, Meah is 27-for-36 (75.0 percent) from the field over the last nine games.
That’s spectacularly efficient and his energy on both ends of the court makes him the heart and soul of the team.
If the Bears can’t contain him on offense, it might not matter whether or not they are able to solve Hopkins’ zone.
But if they do keep Meah in check, Fox’s group must knock down their threes and crash the offensive glass.
The Husky zone consistently gives up open looks from deep and offensive rebounds. If Cal can take advantage, it may post a surprising upset.
USC at Colorado
Thursday, February 23
6:00 pm PT, ESPN2
Precariously situated on the Bubble, a victory at the CU Events Center would arguably push the Trojans to the right side of the Last Four In discussion.
At the same time, because the game is classified as Quad 1 for USC, a defeat would have limited blowback. In other words, the risk-reward nature of the matchup substantially favors the reward side of the coin.
With roster compositions that are mirrored in many ways, the teams are arguably facing clones of themselves. Colorado is led by KJ Simpson and Tristan da Silva while USC is headed by Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson.
Both duos are the lone players averaging in double-figures for their respective teams and the offenses flow directly through them.
The primary difference between the two rosters, though, is the frontcourts. Joshua Morgan has returned from injury for the Trojans, giving Andy Enfield’s team the advantage up front.
Vince Iwuchukwu helps to bolster SC’s strength down low and he should have a productive night against Colorado’s undermanned group.
Outside of Lawson Lovering, Tad Boyle has no size in his frontcourt.
The issues in the paint are devastating against some teams, yet USC’s offense is guard-dominant and CU’s flaws inside probably won’t be exploited as much as they otherwise would be.
Combined with the advantages of the altitude and crowd, the Buffs are in a somewhat favorable position.
As long as Boyle’s defense is able to keep Ellis and Peterson relatively inefficient, his offense should be able to consistently score on the Trojans.
But, if Enfield gets creative by playing Morgan and Iwuchukwu at the same time, while Ellis and Peterson make a point to get them touches down low, USC could find a way to get the job done.
Washington State at Stanford
Thursday, February 23
8:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
While it makes sense that the primary networks would choose to broadcast the L.A. schools against the Mountain teams, it’s games like this one where a partnership with CBS Sports Network would pay large dividends.
The Cougars are fighting for pivotal seeding in the Pac-12 Tournament while the Tree are gearing up for a potential run in Las Vegas.
Jerod Haase’s team was swept on the road in Los Angeles and have lost four of their last five, but are undoubtedly playing their best basketball of the year.
Kyle Smith’s squad, on the other hand, is on a three-game winning streak and brimming with momentum.
Combined with the one-point game between the schools earlier in the season, this matchup could be the most entertaining game on Thursday.
The battle to watch is Stanford’s defense against Mouhamed Gueye. Unlike most teams in the Pac-12, the Tree have the size and depth up front to keep him under control.
Maxime Raynaud’s style of play might not be the most natural fit to slow down Gueye. But with the size and quickness to stick with WSU’s leading scorer, Raynaud shouldn’t get blown out of the water.
More interestingly, Haase could go relatively small and put Brandon Angel on the Cougar big. At 6-foot-8 and 240-pounds, Angel should be able to handle Gueye’s finesse-style of offense.
Compared to Raynaud, Angel’s defensive game arguably matches up better with the way Gueye plays.
It’s a chess move, but the way Stanford chooses to defend the Wazzu big might be the deciding factor in the game.
Outside of the pivotal battle, the Cardinal must defend the perimeter efficiently. Smith’s team is loaded with outside shooters that can consistently hit open looks.
As long as Stanford contests those opportunities with disciplined defense, the Tree should be in a position to defend home court.
No. 4 UCLA at Utah
Thursday, February 23
8:00 pm PT, FS1
Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster are not expected to play against the Bruins, taking away the most important pieces of the Utes’ backcourt.
Madsen is Utah’s second-leading scorer and Worster leads the team in assists per game. Without the two pivotal pieces, Craig Smith’s offense is arguably broken.
The shooting efficiency of Lazar Stefanovic is an X-Factor, though. A high-volume shooter, Stefanovic can single-handedly win the game for Utah if he’s hot.
Similarly, a poor night from the field would probably be too much to overcome.
Still, Utah’s strength all year has been its defense. KenPom ranks the Utes 34th in defensive efficiency and they are No. 9 in the nation in field goal percentage defense.
Without their two starting guards, though, Utah must find a way to slow down Amari Bailey and Jaylen Clark. The duo is a mismatch for the remaining pieces Smith has and could have productive nights.
Branden Carlson should efficiently contain Adem Bona, yet Smith is probably worried about what to do with Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Marco Anthony is likely the player best suited to defend him and could rotate with Ben Carlson in an attempt to slow down UCLA’s leading scorer.
Even so, it’s a personnel conundrum for Utah with multifaceted problems. The Bruins frankly have too many weapons at several different positions that create concerns across the board.
Unless Stefanovic goes off, it’s unlikely the Utes are able to get the job done.
Our Senior Writers’ Game Picks
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