It’s the best time of the year for college basketball, as fans will soon find out which teams can capture the magic of March Madness. Only three Pac-12 squads have made the dance this year, but while they may be small in number, they may potentially find big success. The Daily Californina Sports Editor Ryan Chien and men’s basketball beat reporters Benjamin Coleman and Ali Fazal break down the conference’s chances.
How far will No. 1 Arizona go in this year’s tournament?
Ryan Chien: It’s championship or bust for the Wildcats — and with the way that they’re playing right now, the expectation should be nothing less. Winning 15 out of their last 16 games in a competitive Pac-12 field is impressive in its own right; dominating a previous Final Four team that retained virtually the same squad in UCLA twice this season is even more so. However, the No. 1 seed does have quite a challenging slate of opponents in its South region ahead, including potentially No. 3 Tennessee. Sure, the Wildcats may be a formidable favorite to win it all. But they’ll be tested in ways that they haven’t been during the regular season.
Benjamin Coleman: With the way the Wildcats ran through the Pac-12 in both regular season play and the Pac-12 tournament last weekend, Arizona is my pick to win the entire tournament. The Wildcats have unmatched size, strength and depth, not to mention elite talent on both ends of the floor. They have one of the best defenses in the country anchored by Pac-12 defensive player of the year Christian Koloko while boasting a high-powered offense led by a legitimate star with Pac-12 Player of the Year Bennedict Mathurin, a projected NBA lottery pick come April. Put all of that together, and you have a team that I think can go all the way.
Ali Fazal: Depth is always the name of the game come tournament play, and the play of Arizona’s guards despite Kerr Kriisa’s ankle injury and some early foul trouble by Justin Kier quelled any concerns about the overall roster. That being said, Kriisa’s availability will be the X-factor for a young team that could potentially have No. 5 Houston, No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Tennessee (who beat the Wildcats earlier in the season) on the docket.
Is No. 7 USC a dark horse?
RC: Stop kidding yourself — this USC team is not the same it was last year. It doesn’t have a No. 3-caliber NBA draft pick in Evan Mobley; it doesn’t have any ranked wins outside of the Pac-12 to brag about; and it doesn’t have the balance of guards and bigs beyond the likes of Boogie Ellis. One of the tallest teams in the tournament, it has the height to assert its dominance in the paint against an undersized Miami if it so chooses. At the same time, it’s been turnover prone all season long when pressured by swift and nifty guards, which Miami prides itself on. Even if it’s not the Hurricanes, No. 2 Auburn will likely topple the Trojans in the second round.
BC: The Trojans are a fun yet flawed team who have impressed in their ability to win close games over good teams such as UCLA but have also frequently disappointed, including two head-scratching losses to Stanford. The Trojans’ talented trio of Isaiah Mobley, Drew Peterson and Ellis should keep things interesting and may even help them win a round or two, but ultimately, USC doesn’t have the consistency to be a legitimate dark horse candidate to make a serious run in March Madness.
AF: There have been some arguments that USC got shafted despite winning a program-record 25 games during the regular season. If the Trojans’ run to the Elite Eight in 2021 was any indication, this team is definitely capable of yet another deep run through the NCAA tourney. USC doesn’t have any prior experience with the teams it could face en route to a possible Final Four appearance except for San Diego State, which it beat, so how far it goes can only be judged on its recent play. Although USC slogged toward the end of the regular season and got ousted in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, it isn’t likely to face an opponent of Arizona or UCLA caliber, making a deep run a strong possibility.
Will No. 4 UCLA prevail in spite of a competitive East region?
RC: Despite its loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament final, UCLA has been firing on all cylinders. Before facing the No. 1 seed, it rolled past nine out of 10 opponents, including two victories against rival USC. A complete team all-around, forwards such as Cody Riley and Jaime Jaquez Jr. nearly perfectly complement guards Johnny Juzang, Tyger Campbell and Jules Bernard. While it is true that the Bruins haven’t exactly exceeded preseason expectations, they tend to show up big on the brightest of stages, such as when they edged out No. 2 seed Villanova in one of its highest profile games. And if there’s one thing we learned from last season, it’s to never count the Bruins out — they will prevail amid the uber-competitive East region.
BC: The Bruins have had a strong if slightly underwhelming season coming off of last year’s Final Four appearance, with a year marred by injuries and inconsistency. UCLA has a chance to put all that behind them come March Madness, returning most of last year’s squad. The X-factor is Juzang, who is the most talented player on the team and one of the best in college basketball — but very hot and cold. He went from averaging 22.8 points during UCLA’s tournament run last year to just 10.7 points in the Pac-12 tournament. But if Juzang and company are on, the Bruins definitely have the potential to meet or even exceed last year’s success.
AF: In order to be the cream atop a gauntlet-esque East region, UCLA will have to fix the holes in its defense that Arizona exposed in the second half of the Pac-12 championship game. That won’t be an easy task against top offensive teams such as Purdue, Murray State and Kentucky, each of whom rank top 20 in the nation in scoring offense. UCLA does match up well with Baylor, but it could still be an arduous road in the East for head coach Mick Cronin and company.