Posted on March 2, 2023
Arizona State and Oregon are fighting for the pivotal bye in the Pac-12 Tournament while Arizona and USC are battling for second place.
At the same time, Washington State could potentially move up to the 6-seed with a victory over Washington in Seattle.
With so much to play for, the start of March begins with a bang.
I preview all five games here and my picks, along with those of Stephen Vilardo, appear at the bottom.
Stanford at Oregon State
Thursday, March 2
6:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
Picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, Jerod Haase’s group enters the final week of the regular season 10th in the standings.
The underperformance this year is unacceptable considering the talent on the roster. The only way to save the perception of the season is by winning the Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
But, big picture aside, the Tree match up favorably with Oregon State.
The Beavers’ offense runs through guards Jordan Pope and Glenn Taylor Jr. With such a one-dimensional attack, opponents’ entire game plans revolve around stopping the duo.
Dexter Akanno could pop off, yet the third OSU guard is too inconsistent to be considered a significant threat.
Wayne Tinkle does have an underrated frontcourt led by a trio of variable forwards that are a matchup problem for some teams. The issue, though, is Stanford has the height across its roster to counteract the Beaver forwards.
Brandon Angel, Spencer Jones, Harrison Ingram, and Max Murrell can each match up reasonably well with any of the various lineups Tinkle can put together.
Combined with Maxime Raynaud’s superiority over KC Ibekwe and Rodrigue Andela, the Tree have a notable personnel advantage.
Still, Oregon State is a different team at Gill Coliseum.
The Tree must limit their turnovers, win the rebounding margin, and share the ball on offense in order to secure the win.
On the other side of the court, Tinkle’s system doesn’t emphasize passing and a large portion of the scoring is done in one-on-one situations.
As long as Stanford plays team defense by collapsing on the ball handler inside the perimeter and rotating when a player gets beat, the Cardinal should get the job done.
Arizona State at No. 4 UCLA
Thursday, March 2
6:00 pm PT, ESPN
To get the job done, the Sun Devils will need to be hot from the field. Bobby Hurley’s group shot 53.7 percent in Tucson and hit timely threes to keep the game within reach.
But, unlike UA, the Bruins’ defense is elite. Ranked No. 2 in KenPom, Mick Cronin’s group disrupts passes, generates steals, and contests shots with fundamentals and athleticism.
Coached with a defense-first philosophy, UCLA won’t be easy to score on.
Combined with the limited amount of turnovers the Bruins commit on offense and their slow pace, the number of opportunities for Arizona State to score will be comparatively few.
That makes every possession count and places a substantial emphasis on ASU’s offensive efficiency. Coming into the game No. 116 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric, the deck is stacked against Hurley’s team.
Yet, UCLA’s strengths can be negated by forcing turnovers and increasing the pace of play. Fast break and transition opportunities must be capitalized on, or Cronin’s group will grind the game down into a slugfest.
In that sense, Desmond Cambridge Jr. and DJ Horne’s shot selection and execution could decide the game.
If ASU’s top two scorers are knocking down shots with efficiency, the Sun Devils have the necessary supporting firepower to beat the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion.
California at Oregon
Thursday, March 2
8:00 pm PT, FS1
An at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament is unlikely for the Ducks. That leaves winning the Conference tournament as perhaps the only shot of making the Big Dance.
Although securing the automatic bid can be done from lower than the 4-seed, the pivotal bye provided by finishing in the Top 4 is invaluable.
Matched up with the Bears, defending the perimeter is the priority.
Mark Fox’s team doesn’t have a potent offense. Yet, in its three victories, Cal has shot 26-for-42 (50.0 percent) from three-point range.
Forwards Kuany Kuany, Grant Newell, and Sam Alajiki can each knock down shots from deep.
Contesting their looks could prove key, and the Oregon defenders should stay connected with them along the perimeter.
ND Okafor is arguably the next part of Dana Altman’s defensive game plan. Starting center Lars Thiemann missed Cal’s last game with an injury and Okafor has seen his minutes rise all year.
At 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, Okafor has potential. Yet, he’s a bit raw in his freshman year and N’Faly Dante figures to exploit his inexperience.
And without anyone to adequately match up with Nate Bittle, the Duck frontcourt should eat. Look for UO to have a substantial points-in-the-paint advantage with Dante posting an efficient night from the field.
No. 8 Arizona at USC
Thursday, March 2
8:00 pm PT, ESPN
Tommy Lloyd’s bigs are superior to any frontcourt lineup Andy Enfield can counter with. The Trojans don’t have the personnel to adequately defend Oumar Ballo or Azuolas Tubelis.
Arizona’s two leading scorers play together for long stretches of the game, creating a substantial mismatch in the paint.
Joshua Morgan and Vincent Iwuchukwu don’t have the size to contain Ballo and neither are the type of players that historically frustrate Tubelis.
Lloyd knows this and the Wildcat guards are highly willing to feed the ball inside. Combined with Arizona’s pace and free-flowing offensive scheme that gets the bigs moving outside of the paint, USC is in schematic trouble.
The Wildcats beat the Trojans by 15 in Tucson earlier this year and destroyed SC by 20 at the Galen Center last season. Enfield has yet to beat Lloyd and the average margin of defeat has been 14.6 points.
Still, USC’s strength is its guards.
Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson are among the top backcourt duos in College Basketball and can single-handedly beat Arizona.
Lloyd’s entire defensive game plan likely revolves around stopping one or both, with a greater focus on containing Ellis.
Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey will probably be challenged by the UA coaching staff and both should come out with high defensive intensity.
The X-Factor is the production of SC’s role players. Reese Dixon-Waters, Tre White, and Kobe Johnson, arguably comprise the top role-playing unit in the Pac-12.
With a substantial disadvantage in the paint and an opposing game plan designed to stop Ellis and Peterson, the efficiency of the trio might determine the game.
But, if Arizona wins the rebounding battle, limits points off turnovers, and connects on its threes, the Wildcats could leave with the win.
Washington State at Washington
Thursday, March 2
8:00 pm PT, ESPNU
A win against Washington State might not be enough to secure a contract extension, but a defeat would probably be the final straw.
The Cougars are on a roll as of late. Winners of five in a row, Kyle Smith’s team is healthy and positioned to make a run in Las Vegas.
Arguably without a bad loss in the new calendar year, the Cougs run a reasonably effective offense. Turnover limitation keeps the system efficient while three-point shooting makes it deadly.
With one of the top bigs in the Pac-12 down low and capable shooters along the perimeter, WSU is a dangerous force.
But Hopkins’ zone defense is a schematic kryptonite to Smith’s offense. With substantial length along the perimeter, the Husky zone hampers ball movement by making passing exceedingly difficult.
Combined with Wazzu’s lack of emphasis on sharing the ball and overreliance on one-on-one action, the efficiency of the Husky zone is multiplied.
The Cougars shooting from three is theoretically the key to breaking it down, but UW’s length on the perimeter figures to keep the three ball in check.
The potential deciding factor, then, is the shooting efficiency of Gueye in the midrange. The lengthy big should find open space outside of the paint and his ability to knock down those shots could tip the scales.
If Washington State struggles from the midrange, though, the Dawgs have enough offensive firepower to defend Alaska Airlines Arena.
Our Senior Writers’ Game Picks
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