Posted on March 17, 2023
No. 2 UCLA defeated 15-seed UNC Asheville as expected, however, leaving the Conference with three remaining teams heading into today’s games.
USC faces a tough challenge in Michigan State this morning while Arizona State squares off against a dangerous TCU squad in the evening.
I preview both games here and my picks, along with those of Stephen Vilardo, appear at the bottom.
10-seed USC v. 7-seed Michigan State
Friday, March 17
9:15 am PT, CBS
The analytical interpretation of the game produces mixed signals. The Trojans average more points per game, rebound the ball slightly better, and shoot a better percentage from the field.
Yet, the Spartans are a stronger three-point shooting team, share the rock at a higher rate, and turn the ball over fewer times per game.
Without a clear winner on paper, the game is a proverbial toss-up.
But the key to beating Michigan State is defending the perimeter. Tom Izzo’s team is the No. 4 three-point percentage group in the nation. If the Spartans are hot from deep, the Trojans probably won’t get the job done.
Andy Enfield’s team is not a strong three-point defensive unit, either. Entering the game No. 155 in three-point percentage defense, USC could be in trouble.
The X-Factor, though, is Boogie Ellis.
The Pac-12’s second-leading scorer battled through an injury in last year’s NCAA Tournament and figures to come out with something to prove.
If Ellis has one of his legendary high-scoring performances, the Trojans will be tough to beat.
Enfield will need a strong night from Drew Peterson, too, and efficient production from Tre White, Kobe Johnson, and Reese Dixon-Waters.
The deciding factor could come down to USC’s defense.
Michigan State has five players averaging 9.0 points or more and three starters averaging in double-figures. Izzo’s group takes care of the ball with a high degree of efficiency, entering the matchup No. 40 in turnovers per game.
Unless the Trojans have answers on the defensive perimeter, MSU probably ends up advancing.
11-seed Arizona State v. 6-seed TCU
Friday, March 17
7:05 pm PT, TruTV
When adversity has hit his roster, his players have delivered.
Matched up with Big 12 opponent TCU, the Sun Devils must have a strong offensive game. Arizona State couldn’t miss in the First Four showdown against Nevada and could need a similar performance in Denver.
The Horned Frogs might not have powerful center Eddie Lampkin Jr. but TCU has three players averaging in double figures and a fairly deep rotation.
Mike Miles Jr. leads the way, averaging 17.3 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting. Those are spectacularly efficient numbers for a guard and he adds on 2.6 assists per game to boot.
Containing Miles will be at the top of Hurley’s defensive game plan.
Jamie Dixon’s offense emphasizes sharing the ball and his team is a strong rebounding group. Near the top of the nation in assists per game, Arizona State must disrupt passing lanes and collapse when the ball is moved inside.
The Horned Frogs are not a good three-point shooting team, however, creating some breathing room for Hurley’s defense to play aggressively. Still, ASU must win the rebounding and turnover margins to have a chance at advancing.
Assuming Arizona State’s defense plays up to its potential, the game could come down to the efficiency of its offense.
TCU has the No. 21 defense according to KenPom, which would be the No. 2 defense in Pac-12 behind UCLA.
Desmond Cambridge Jr. and DJ Horne must have strong days from the field. Yet, without similarly efficient games from Jamiya Neal, Alonzo Gaffney, Devan Cambridge, and Luther Muhammad, the Sun Devils could struggle to score enough points to get the win.
Basketball is the ultimate team sport and magical runs always require unexpected contributions from players that come off the bench. If Arizona State is this year’s Cinderella, Hurley could need a legendary performance from one of his role players.
15-seed Princeton 59, 2-seed Arizona 55
Thursday, March 16
1:10 pm PT, TNT
The Wildcats face Ivy League Tournament Champions Princeton in their First-Round matchup.
The Tigers run a respectable offense, averaging 76.0 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting. KenPom ranks their system 103rd in the nation with a middle-of-the-road tempo at No. 172 out of 363 teams.
Led by forward Tosan Evbuomwan, Princeton has fairly balanced scoring with five players averaging 8 points or more. The Ivy League program is a strong rebounding group, too, entering the matchup No. 10 in the nation in rebounds per game.
There’s a reason why Princeton made the NCAA Tournament and this game could be closer than some expect.
The Tigers have some size inside, including the type of players that historically challenge Azuolas Tubelis. Forward Zach Martini is 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds while forward Keeshawn Kellman is 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds.
Those body types are within the range that has traditionally been able to counteract the Lithuanian’s finesse game. Yet, Martini and Kellman are role players who each average under 20 minutes per game.
The majority of the Tigers’ minutes go to four individual players, the tallest being Evbuomwan at 6-foot-8 and 219 pounds. And while they may have some options to counteract Tubelis, Princeton has nobody to slow down Oumar Ballo.
At 7-feet and 260 pounds, Ballo dwarfs anyone the Tigers can throw at him.
The UA’s center’s production, particularly his efficiency finishing around the rim, could be the difference.
Princeton’s defense isn’t exactly stellar, either, slotting in at No. 138 in KenPom despite the weak competition of the Ivy League and an underwhelming nonconference slate.
Look for Arizona to pound the ball inside all game and consistently score on the fast break and in transition. As long as the UA guards and wings aren’t turning the ball over with consistency, Arizona should move on to the Second Round.
2-seed UCLA 86, 15-seed UNC Asheville 53
Thursday, March 16
7:05 pm PT, TruTV
The Bruins begin their March Madness journey with a matchup against Big South Tournament Champions UNC Asheville.
The Bulldogs won their regular season championship by four games and are 18-1 since January 4th.
One of the most elite three-point shooting teams in the nation, UNC Asheville can’t be overlooked. The Bulldogs enter the matchup No. 7 in the nation in three-point percentage and are the top three-point shooting team UCLA has faced all year.
Led by forward Drew Pember, the Big South team is a two-man show. Pember averages 21.2 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting while guard Tajion Jones averages 15.0 points per night on 51.4 percent shooting, including 45.6 percent from deep.
Mick Cronin’s game plan begins and ends with shutting the duo down.
With the No. 1 defense in the nation according to KenPom, UCLA should be able to quiet the Bulldogs’ two leading scorers.
Cronin’s group is No. 41 in the country in three-point percentage defense, adding some degree of confidence to the defensive game plan.
Still, there’s nothing more dangerous than a three-point shooting team in the Big Dance. Everyone remembers what happened to 1-seed Virginia a few years back and Cronin’s group must come out with high defensive intensity.
That shouldn’t be a problem considering UNC Asheville’s turnover propensity.
The Bulldogs are No. 309 in turnovers per game and figure to be eviscerated by UCLA’s defense. With plenty of extra possessions anticipated, as long the Bruins aren’t ice cold from the field, they should skate into the Round of 32.
Our Senior Writers’ Game Picks
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