Miller: Week 9 Thursday Men’s Hoops Previews

The Pac-12 is worryingly close to being relegated to just four teams in the Big Dance

Posted on January 21, 2021

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

The first two games of the week in the Conference of Champions have turned the race for second place on its head. With a somewhat tarnished image due to the upset defeats, the Pac-12 is worryingly close to being relegated to just four teams in the Big Dance.

Any additional shocking losses would only feed the flames of the East Coast media that are currently frothing over the Big 12 and Big Ten.


 

But Thursday’s slate begins with another mid-afternoon showdown on FS1, this time between the Cardinal and Trojans. A victory for either is vital for their Conference Tournament seed, and equally important for their at-large bid expectations.

It’s time to put up, or shut up.

Below, I preview all of Thursday’s games beginning with the showdown in Santa Cruz.


USC at Stanford

Thursday, January 21st
2:00 pm PT, FS1

usc logoComing off a loss to Oregon State, the Trojans must bounce back to keep the Pac-12 Regular Season Championship within reach. The Quad 1 matchup against the Cardinal in Santa Cruz provides just that: An opportunity to prove the game in Corvallis was a fluke.

And even though one bad loss doesn’t define a season, it could snowball into a dangerous downturn if not put to bed early.

But Stanford is loaded with talent and its roster matches up well with USC’s length, though—as reported today by Jeff Goodman—the Cardinal is expected to be without Ziaire Williams. Even so, Jerod Haase’s system is built on hard-nosed defense, pitting Andy Enfield’s offense against a unit whose identity is locking down opponents.

The result might be a grind-it-out, slowed down, defensive slugfest where the first team to score 50 points wins. For starters, Evan Mobley must be more involved than he was in the Beaver State, but the Trojan guards arguably hold the key to victory.

The Tree play a disciplined, in-your-face, man defense that projects to make life difficult for Enfield’s back court.

A back-to-back loss wouldn’t derail their season, but it would likely extinguish the Trojan’s chances to compete with UCLA for the Regular Season title.


Arizona at Arizona State

Thursday, January 21st
6:00 pm PT, ESPN

The hardwood version of the Duel in the Desert tips off with the Sun Devils on a four-game losing streak and winless since December 13th. On the other bench, Sean Miller and the Wildcats are coming off their largest win in Corvallis during the Pac-12 Era, with true freshman Bennedict Mathurin rearing to build on his 31-point outing against the Beavers.

Throw in the motivation to avenge UA’s atrocious 70-7 defeat in football, and the clash of momentum couldn’t be much starker.

But Bobby Hurley and the Sun Devils have flipped the script in the rivalry over the past several seasons. In fact, ASU has won three of the last four matchups, and Arizona hasn’t won in Tempe since 2018.

The four-pronged attack of Remy Martin, Josh Christopher, Alonzo Verge Jr., and Marcus Bagley should prove difficult to defend, as the four combine for 62 points, or 81% of the Sun Devils’ offensive production.

Still, the Cats have weapons on offense that can pick apart defenses in multiple ways. James Akinjo can get his own in one-on-one situations, left-handed Azuolas Tubelis is a mismatch down low, Mathurin drains threes and scores in transition, and Jordan Brown can gash opponents with his back to the basket.

But in the end, the performance of Miller’s defense could be the deciding factor.


 


No. 24 UCLA at California

Thursday, January 21st
6:00 pm PT, ESPNU

The Bruins are on notice.

This week’s upside-down trends in the Pac-12 have seen the Conference’s top teams drop games they were expected to win. Both the Trojans and Buffaloes have been defeated in their respective opening road game, reminding Mick Cronin’s players of the consequences of taking a night off.

But the 7-0 Bruins enter Haas Pavilion with nothing but winning on their mind. After nearly losing to Washington on Saturday, and California upsetting Utah in Salt Lake City, there’s no reason to think Cronin’s players would overlook this game, even with the impending Quad 1 matchup against Stanford on Saturday.

No, the Bruins will likely come out swinging with something to prove: The Bears just happen to be on the receiving end.

Jules Bernard is having the best season of his career, and the junior guard may end up with a double-double against Cal’s guard-heavy rotation. But Mark Fox’s team is brimming with confidence and is capable of keeping the game within reach.

With four healthy players averaging ten or nine points per game, the Bears have offensive weapons that can get it going from the field. Andre Kelly is the only true inside threat, putting an onus on Cronin to slow the big man down and force Cal to beat them with its guards.


Utah at Washington State

Thursday, January 21st
7:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network

For the Cougs, this is one they can’t lose.

Throughout the nonconference season, Washington State and its fans were clamoring for respect, pointing to their undefeated mark as proof of their emergence. The shouts were like echoes in a cave, with nothing but resounding silence returned in which you could almost hear, “But who did you play?”

Now, after losing four of their last five, the Cougars finally come back to Pullman for a home stretch against the Mountain programs. Timmy Allen and Alfonzo Plummer lead the way for the Utes, but true freshman Pelle Larsson has quietly begun to emerge as a threat to score.

Containing Utah’s offense, which ranks 78th in the nation according to KenPom, could be a challenge, even for WSU’s 56th-ranked defense. But the battle to watch, arguably, is Washington State’s offense against the Utes’ interchangeable pieces.

Larry Krystkowiak consistently utilizes an eight-deep rotation, with seven players averaging 19 minutes or more.

Isaac Bonton is the piston that drives the Cougs’ engine, but Noah Williams, Andrej Jakimovski, Efe Abogidi, and Dishon Jackson each must contribute.

And on the Palouse, Kyle Smith must prove his team worthy to generate the respect they desire.





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