Miller: First-Round Tournament Preview

Week 18: Upshot From Last Week, Outlook & First-Round Games

Posted on March 11, 2020

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

Upshot from Last Week: Wild Finish Hurts Bruins, Helps Ducks

The field is set.

After a highly contested conference season, Payton Pritchard and the Oregon Ducks emerged as the regular-season champion, winning every game at Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks sealed it with a home sweep of the Bay Area programs to close out the year. But more importantly, Pritchard led his team to road splits on each and every trip away from Eugene, sticking to the decades old strategy of winning at home and splitting on the road. Fittingly, Pritchard capped his Senior Night with a 29-point performance, exiting his home court in a Duck jersey for the last time. And while the pomp and circumstance of winning the regular season title on Senior Night is a great memory, the bigger prize is on the horizon: a Final Four appearance. 

All runs must eventually come to an end. Devastatingly, UCLA’s ended a hair’s width short of glory. The defeat to USC extinguished a flame that had grown from a faint spark to a raging wildfire, a dagger through the heart of every Bruin fan. With 10 seconds remaining in the game, UCLA was one defensive possession away from a Pac-12 Championship. In those moments, the fate of the season hung in the balance, dangling in the winds of chance. As Jonah Mathews stepped back for a last-second three, the defeats earlier in the year to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton were rendered meaningless. All was forgotten—this was the moment. Then, as the sound of the swishing net brought reality crashing down, the incomparable feeling of loss spilled out. It just wasn’t the year. 

USC celebrates Jonah Mathews’ dramatic shot. | Katie Chin/USC Athletics

In another universe emotionally, the USC Trojans won what could be the biggest game in school history. On Senior Day, Mathews cemented himself as a legend, denying the Bruins a championship. Moments like that don’t just happen. The stars had to align. The chance had to be taken. Swish. It’s more than just a game.

Over in Salt Lake City, another rivalry played itself to an instant-classic. Overcoming a slow start, the Utes clawed their way back into the game, forcing Colorado into overtime. Then, down one in OT, Both Gach took a contested three to win the game. The shot was off the mark, but McKinley Wright IV was called for a foul, sending Gach to the line. The poised sophomore drained all three shots, sealing the victory for Utah. With those free throws and a monster 28-point performance, Gach nearly single-handily won the game for Larry Krystkowiak and the Utah fan base. And while rivalry games are different animals, it takes a special type of person to seize the moment. For Gach, it’s one he won’t ever forget.

Out of nowhere, Washington swept the Arizona schools in the desert, getting hot at the best possible time. With two future first-round draft picks on the roster, the lack of success this year has been head-scratching to say the least, and the road sweep does little to assuage those concerns. Putting that aside, the victories over ASU and UA electrify the possibility of a never-before-seen tournament run in Vegas. And while the two wins did nothing to change UW’s seed, the rematch with Arizona on Wednesday provides a winnable first-step to a once unthinkable outcome: the automatic birth.    

Similarly, Wayne Tinkle and Oregon State are entering Las Vegas on a two-game winning streak, defeating Stanford and California in the final week of the season. Tres Tinkle became the all-time leading scorer at OSU, and capped his Senior Night with a 24-point performance. The two wins give the Beavers much needed momentum as they take on the 9-seed Utes in the opening game on Wednesday. 

OSU’s Kylor Kelley Had a big game against Cal. | Hallie Utter/OSU Athletics

On a four-game losing streak, Colorado heads to Vegas with more to lose than gain. Once pinned as a 5-seed or higher, the Buffs have potentially relegated themselves to the dreaded 8-9 game. Worryingly, CU hasn’t won since February 22nd, making an early-round exit in the conference tournament a distinct possibility. If an upset were to occur, Colorado could be shipped off to the East or South bracket for a tough test in the First-Round of the Big Dance. To avoid that, a strong showing in Las Vegas is needed. If they get it done, it may be enough to bring CU back to a 6 or 7-seed come Selection Sunday.

In the same boat, Arizona’s inconsistent play may have dropped it to the game nobody wants: the 8-9 matchup. Fortunately for the Cats, the possibility of bumping up to a more favorable seed exists, if they can string together a semi-final run in Sin City. After stomping WSU on Thursday, UA forgot to show up in the first half of the Washington game, scoring just five field goals in the first 20 minutes. The Wildcats mounted a comeback on the back of Dylan Smith’s six threes, but it wasn’t enough as the Dawgs out-muscled Sean Miller’s team, defeating Arizona by six.

Up the road in Tempe, Bobby Hurley’s week played out symmetrically. After losing to UW on Thursday, the Sun Devils turned it around with a nine-point win over the Cougars on Saturday. Simultaneously, ASU secured it’s first-ever bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, allowing Hurley’s players to relax and watch the Wednesday matchups from the stands. Topping off the regular season, Alonzo Verge Jr. won the Sixth Man of the Year award, garnering recognition for the pivotal role he has played in Arizona State’s conference success.

On the wrong foot, Stanford ended the year with two road defeats in Oregon. The losses put a damper of the Cardinal’s Big Dance hopes, but didn’t knock them out of consideration. Nobody was realistically expecting them to beat Oregon, making the game with Oregon State the best chance of securing the split. Unfortunately, the Tree’s starting guards combined for 9-26 from the field, contributing to their three-point defeat in Corvallis. Even so, with a winnable matchup against rival California to start things off right in Vegas, Jarod Haase has a chance to lead Stanford to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014. 

Stanford looks to rebound after UO loss. | Bob Drebin/ via Stanford Athletics

Across the Bay, California is licking its wounds after taking two beatings in the Beaver State. Though the losses weren’t unexpected, the margins of defeat were troubling for a program trying to separate itself from the bottom tier of the conference. And while it may take a recruiting class or two to truly make the jump, the better-than-expected success this season makes the two defeats disappointing to say the least. Looking forward, the Bears get an interesting matchup with rival Stanford in Las Vegas, a team they have already defeated once this year.

Back in Pullman, the Cougars are preparing for their first conference tournament of the Kyle Smith Era. And while the trip to Arizona was one to forget, they were at least competitive for half the game in Tucson, and nearly pulled off the comeback in Tempe. Luckily, Smith knows how to motivate his team by bringing out the positives in every game, setting up WSU for a potential upset with struggling Colorado on Wednesday. To do so, CJ Elleby must play better than he did in the desert, where he shot an astonishing 6-33 over the two games. 

General Outlook: First-Round Stumbles could Prove Costly

Seven teams are in contention for NCAA Tournament bids, but a first-round loss from Stanford would likely whittle it down to six. Similarly, even though they have byes, an opening game stumble from UCLA and ASU could end their March Madness hopes. At the same time, Arizona and Colorado are playing for seeding, both hoping to ease their paths with a 7-seed or better.

First-Round Games (March 11)



No. 9 Utah vs. No. 8 Oregon State
Wednesday, March 11
 Noon, Pac-12 Network

In the always-entertaining opening game, Utah and Oregon State battle for the chance to survive and advance. The Beavers are coming off two nice wins, while the Utes are fresh off an overtime upset victory over CU. Both have momentum, making this showdown the perfect opener for the tournament. Historically, Utah fans travel well to Sin City, giving it a slight advantage over OSU. On the other hand, the X-Factor is Tres Tinkle. A loss would likely be the last college game of his career, something he wants to avoid at all costs. For the fans fortunate enough to be there in person, this game should start off a wonderful four days of highly contested games.   

No. 12 Washington vs. No. 5 Arizona
Wednesday, March 11
2:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network

A rematch of last Saturday’s battle, Arizona and Washington face each other again, this time in the second game of the Pac-12 Tournament. Much more is on the line, as the Cats seek to improve their Big Dance seed while the Dawgs attempt the daunting task of securing the automatic birth. Realistically, UW is hands down the best last-place team of any conference in the nation, making them a dangerous opponent with nothing to lose. Acting as a counterweight, Sean Miller’s success and experience in this tournament gives his team a coaching advantage most other programs lack. When it’s all said and done, Nico Mannion’s ability to handle the 2-3 zone without committing turnovers will likely decide the game. 



No. 10 California vs. No. 7 Stanford
Wednesday, March 11
6:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network

Taking their rivalry to another level, Stanford and California face off in the third game of the conference tournament. Splitting the series in the regular season, both teams must feel a little uneasy about this matchup. Fortunately for the Bears, they have nothing to lose and are playing with no pressure. The same can’t be said of the Cardinal, as a defeat would likely knock them out of the NCAA Tournament. The Tree’s guards are key, but their youth is concerning. Particularly, Tyrell Terry has never been in this situation before, putting a lot of pressure on the prolific scorer to perform well. In the end, a poor shooting night from Terry could spell disaster for Stanford.

No. 11 Washington State vs. No. 6 Colorado
Wednesday, March 11
8:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network

In the final game of Day 1, struggling Colorado takes on Washington State in a showdown with sneaky upset potential. The Buffs are on a four-game losing streak, providing a selling-point for Kyle Smith to harp on all week in practice. Objectively, the two-headed monster of CJ Elleby and Isaac Bonton is enough to compete with CU, but a poor game from either would likely destroy any chance of an upset. For Tad Boyle, the season has taken a significant downturn over the last few weeks, but that can all be overcome with a tournament run. Though not on the bubble, a loss would almost surely relegate the Buffaloes to an 8-seed or lower.

—More from Dane Miller—