Posted on March 4, 2023
No. 4 UCLA hosts No. 8 Arizona in a matchup that has major implications for seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
The winner is almost guaranteed to end up in the West Bracket and probably no worse than a 2-seed. The loser, on the other hand, faces a more arduous path in the Big Dance.
Later in the day, USC and Arizona State face off in a pivotal game for each team’s at-large prospects.
I preview all five matchups here and my picks, along with those of Stephen Vilardo, appear at the bottom.
Stanford at Oregon
Saturday, March 4
1:00 pm PT, CBS
The Ducks are one of the top rebounding teams in the country but face a Cardinal roster with length at every position. Starters Maxime Raynaud, Brandon Angel, Spencer Jones, and Harrison Ingram are all 6-foot-7 or taller.
The Tree are only a middle of the pack rebounding team, though, doing most of their damage from the three point line.
Still, maximizing strengths is probably high on Dana Altman’s game plan and the Ducks will need to be aggressive on the glass throughout the game.
Oregon’s other primary strength is its shot-blocking. Altman’s team enters the game 28th in the nation in blocked shots per game and could thrive against Stanford’s frontcourt.
N’Faly Dante should win the defensive battle against Raynaud and Nate Bittle has the length to make Angel’s day long.
That arguably leaves Oregon’s defense on Jones and Ingram as the deciding battles.
The Tree are the No. 3 three point shooting team in the Pac-12 and Jones is the catalyst. Able to consistently get hot, the Cardinal’s leading scorer must be contained by Altman’s defense.
Ingram is more of a wildcard. A guard-forward hybrid, the sophomore’s shooting efficiency, rebounding, and ball distribution are difficult to counteract.
But, as long as Oregon defends the perimeter by consistently contesting Stanford’s looks from deep, the Ducks should get the job done at home.
Utah at Colorado
Saturday, March 4
2:30 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
The Utes have been held back by injuries to their backcourt and enter the game without momentum. Once thought of as a Bubble team, Craig Smith’s group has an opportunity to regain footing before heading to Las Vegas.
The Buffs, on the other hand, are facing a similar injury issue with the status of Tristan da Silva in question. Described as “day-to-day,” Colorado would be in trouble without its leading scorer.
Still, the strength of each team is their defense.
Colorado is 17th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric and Utah is 32nd. That implies a low-scoring affair that could come down to the final possessions.
Turnovers figure to loom large and any offensive rebounds allowed could be devastating.
Mirrored in several key analytical categories, three primary differences could decide the game. The Buffs turn the ball over more often per game, have fewer assists per night, and are a worse three-point shooting team.
CU plays better at home, yet with da Silva potentially unable to go, the matchup arguably favors Utah.
To pull off the upset, the Utes must contain KJ Simpson by collapsing on him when he drives into the paint. Colorado is essentially a two-man show and Simpson will carry the full burden if da Silva can’t play.
The sophomore does most of his damage off the dribble and effectively finishes near the rim.
If Utah’s post defenders recognize the penetration and effectively rotate to contest the shot, Smith’s team might sneak away with a win.
California at Oregon State
Saturday, March 4
5:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
It’s easy to blame injuries for the Bears’ struggles this year, but the underlying offensive philosophy is the root of Cal’s problems.
Without an emphasis on sharing the ball, a slow pace, and no apparent focus on rebounding, the scheme is broken and unfixable.
Wayne Tinkle’s offense isn’t much different, but his players have clearly bought into his game plan and his roster meshes well together.
Jordan Pope and Glenn Taylor Jr. are the primary scorers, yet Tinkle’s variable frontcourt is arguably a difference maker.
The Bears don’t lack length down low, but OSU’s forwards play similarly to guards and are able to score from the midrange and perimeter.
That requires Cal to extend its defense and should open the floor for Pope and Taylor.
It’s somewhat of a Catch-22, but if Fox coaches his players to keep the interior clogged then Oregon State’s forwards can find space and score from outside the paint.
Yet if Fox extends the defense, then the interior has space that Tinkle’s guards will take advantage of. That’s a problem when you don’t have a correspondingly potent offense to outgun the opponent.
Unless California is hot from three, Tinkle should use his variable lineups to find what works and gash the Bears from all over the court.
No. 8 Arizona at No. 4 UCLA
Saturday, March 4
7:00 pm PT, ESPN
The Bruins may have the Regular Season Championship locked up, but the battle to get seeded in the West Bracket is alive and well.
The Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matchups this year are in Las Vegas, a location that highly favors both Arizona and UCLA.
Plenty can still transpire between now and Selection Sunday, yet the loser of this game might be de facto eliminated from the West and the chance to play in Sin City.
That’s potentially a problem for the Bruins who face a Wildcat team that is their schematic kryptonite.
Arizona runs with fast pace and has a highly efficient offense. KenPom ranks UA No. 6 in his offensive efficiency metric with the tenth quickest tempo.
The free-flowing system with a strong emphasis on sharing the ball has produced problems for Mick Cronin’s defenses. His teams are 1-3 against Arizona under Tommy Lloyd and have lost three straight matchups.
Lloyd’s scheme has resulted in victories this season against KenPom’s No. 1 and No. 2 defenses, along with wins over the No. 12 and No. 15 defenses, creating a high degree of confidence among the UA staff and players.
The key for Arizona, though, is its own defense.
UCLA has a somewhat nagging turnover problem that is uncharacteristic of Cronin’s teams.
The Bruins coughed up 17 against Arizona State on Thursday and the number of mistakes they make against the Wildcats could determine the outcome.
Second on Lloyd’s game plan is probably rebounding.
The Wildcats are No. 7 in the nation in rebounds per game while the Bruins are 109th. That’s a substantial flaw that Lloyd promises to emphasize and drill into his players to take advantage of.
Outside of the analytical strengths and weaknesses, the individual matchups between Adem Bona-Oumar Ballo and Jaime Jaquez Jr.-Azuolas Tubelis are keys to the game.
Both pairings are relatively even and could end up as washes.
That might make the deciding battle come down to the backcourts. Tyger Campbell and Amari Bailey versus Courtney Ramey and Kerr Kriisa is the matchup of the season.
Whichever pairing has the stronger defensive performance against the other probably ends up on the winning team.
Ramey and Kriisa’s three-point efficiency are the X-Factor for Arizona while the production of UCLA’s role players is the X-Factors for the Bruins.
In particular, if David Singleton is hitting his threes, the Bruins will be hard to beat.
Arizona State at USC
Saturday, March 4
8:00 pm PT, FS1
USC had a personnel matchup problem with Arizona’s roster, but the role is reversed against Arizona State.
The Sun Devils don’t have the same frontcourt strength to eat the Trojans up inside and instead feature a guard-focused offense. That’s a substantially more favorable matchup for Andy Enfield’s team that effectively starts four guards.
Bobby Hurley doesn’t play Warren Washington and Duke Brennan together all that often, preferring to operate his system with skilled guards who have a perpetual green light.
ASU’s willingness to pass makes his system deadly, though.
The Sun Devils are 96th in the nation in assists per game and have the roster chemistry that cultivates ball movement.
That creates a variable offensive scheme that can get buckets from all over the court with players at multiple positions.
The problem, though, is USC operates a similar system and has stronger guards. Boogie Ellis is arguably the top guard in the Pac-12 and Drew Peterson is highly skilled.
Combined with effective, role-playing, guard-wing hybrids in Reese Dixon-Waters, Kobe Johnson, and Tre White, the Trojans match up well with ASU’s personnel.
USC is more efficient at shooting the ball, too, and is an elite shot-blocking group.
And coming off a loss to Arizona, Ellis, and Peterson should be highly motivated to secure the win.
It’s a bit of a perfect storm for Arizona State and one that will be difficult to overcome.
Unless Hurley’s group locks down Ellis by making him inefficient, while knocking down their threes on offense, the Trojans should defend home court.
Our Senior Writers’ Game Picks
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