Posted on March 4, 2020
Upshot from Last Week: UCLA’s Amazing Turnaround
When you’re hot, you’re hot.
In perhaps the story of the year in college basketball, UCLA continued its winning ways with a sweep of the Arizona schools at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins now control their own destiny, able to win at least a share of the Pac-12 title if they defeat USC on Saturday. What was once considered a lost season in mid-January has transformed into a potential NCAA Tournament year, while Mick Cronin has become the clear favorite to win Coach of the Year honors. Unexpectedly, the Bruins have turned it around by rattling off seven-straight wins, and 11 of their last 13, including a last-second buzzer-beater from Jaime Jaquez Jr. against Arizona State on Thursday. Equally important, Cronin followed it up with a come-from-behind victory over Arizona on Saturday, seizing the win in the last two minutes after trailing most of the game. It’s no secret that defense travels and wins championships, and while a lot of coaches preach it, Cronin masterfully practices it.
Without as much national attention, Jarod Haase and the Stanford Cardinal have similarly turned their season around with a winning streak. Out of nowhere, the Tree have won their last four, including an 8-point victory over Utah, and a 8-point statement win over Colorado at Maples Pavilion. With more on the line than the Buffs, the Cardinal players clearly wanted it more, out-hustling CU to loose balls, putting their bodies on the line, and in the case of Daejon Davis, battling through injury to will his team to a win. As in any sport, its not always the most-talented team that wins, but the team that works the hardest. If Haase manages to maintain the fire he has lit in his players, it’s not a stretch to think Stanford could make another Sweet 16 run as they did the last time they went dancing in 2014.
At the beginning of the week, Arizona State controlled its own destiny and appeared to be on a path to their first-ever Pac-12 Championship. That dream was crushed when a dagger three-ball sent the Sun Devils out of Pauley Pavilion with a loss, sucking the soul from Bobby Hurley’s players. Needing to bounce back, ASU couldn’t shake the feeling, dropping the second game of their Los Angeles trip to USC. The two defeats put pressure on Hurley to rally his troops, as their historic dream of a Pac-12 regular season championship has fallen by the wayside. Even so, a First-Round bye is still on the table, as well as Arizona State’s first-ever Pac-12 Tournament championship. Moments like these require great leaders, and Hurley is up to the task.
People east of the Rocky Mountains may not have noticed, but USC has thrust itself back onto the good side of the bubble, sweeping Arizona and Arizona State. It may not have been pretty, but the record books only note a “W” or an “L,” and the two Ws may be enough to send the Trojans back to the Tournament for the first time since 2017. Significantly, USC’s guards stepped up in a big way against ASU, combining for 48 points and compensating for an unusually quiet night from Onyeka Okongwu, who fouled out in the 10-point victory. Earlier in the the week, Andy Enfield’s defense forced Arizona into a season-low 48 points on 28% shooting, splitting the series with UA in the nine-point win. The two victories simultaneously catapulted Enfield’s team back into contention for the first-round bye in Las Vegas, and set the table for what may turn out to be the game of the year in the Conference on Saturday against UCLA.
Quietly doing what they needed to do in Eugene, the Oregon Ducks dispatched rival OSU in a 15-point victory. Payton Pritchard led the way with 23 points, including five threes, while the UO defense forced 15 turnovers. On top of that, the Ducks took care of the ball all game, committing a remarkable four turnovers while snagging 16 offensive rebounds. That’s a winning formula that should pay dividends in March, and Dana Altman knows it. Looking forward, a final home sweep this week would secure Oregon’s third regular season championship under Altman. As it stands, the trophy is in sight; it’s now up to the Ducks to go seize it.
Backpedaling, Arizona has put its March Madness run in jeopardy after losing both games in L.A., extending its losing streak to three. Now projected as an eight seed, the Cats face an uphill battle to escape the first round, let alone the second. In fairness, the trip to Southern California was marred by the absence of Josh Green, who stayed in Tucson to recover from a hip injury sustained against Oregon. Adding fuel to the fire, Max Hazzard missed Thursday’s game against the Trojans for personal reasons. The hits just kept coming, as Sean Miller was ejected in the UCLA showdown for vehemently protesting questionable foul calls. Even so, UA had an opportunity to win in the final two minutes, but committed three-straight turnovers, all but throwing the game away.
Similarly, Colorado went cold at the worst possible time, losing both games in the Bay Area. The defeat to Stanford may be excusable, but the loss to California earlier in the week was disastrous. Frankly, good teams don’t lose in Berkeley—at least, not this year—and CU’s 14-point loss raises serious red-flags just as March begins. And while the Buffs’ defense has been fairly consistent all season, their offense has struggled as of late, scoring more than 70 points just twice over their last eight games. In retrospect, Tad Boyle’s squad may still feel a little shell-shocked from their collapse in Eugene, where they were leading the conference race and looked like the team to beat. Since then, they had to come from behind to beat USC in Boulder, and have now dropped their last three. Even worse, McKinley Wright IV has lost his touch from three, going 6-29 from deep over the last six games.
Back in the Bay Area, Mark Fox must be smiling. Nobody realistically gave his team a chance this season, expecting two or three wins in league play at most. Somebody shouldn’t have told Matt Bradley that, as the sophomore has put together a fantastic second season, leading the Bears to seven conference wins. Two of those victories came last week, as Cal swept the Mountain programs in Berkeley, separating themselves from the bottom-tier of the Conference. Depending on how things finish, California could end up carving itself a true mid-tier designation: Not quite good enough to make the Tournament, but a step above the bottom-third.
On comparable footing, Washington State took down Washington in Seattle, notching the sweep of the Dawgs in Kyle Smith’s first year. As always, CJ Elleby did his thing, scoring 21 with nine rebounds in the Cougs’ four-point win. Fortunately, Isaac Bonton returned to the lineup after missing three games, dropping 20 to go along with four assists. The duo has led Wazzu to its best season in eight years, setting the stage for a potential upset in Las Vegas, and laying the groundwork for a resurgence in Pullman.
How things change. Coming off a Pac-12 regular-season championship and Round of 32 appearance last year, the Washington Huskies have collapsed after losing Quade Green. For a coach that was generally well-respected, the downturn raises questions about Mike Hopkins’ handling of this year’s squad. Arguments could be made about the failure to develop his bench in the non-conference, or his negligence in monitoring his players’ academic performance, but his failure to connect with Jaden McDaniels could be the biggest shortcoming of his head-coaching career. Touted as a Top 5 prospect, Hopkins hasn’t held up his end of the bargain, squandering the talent of one of the best players in the class. While attitude issues may play a role, if you’re a highly rated recruit, there is no way you choose to come to Seattle after this year’s debacle.
Just as concerning, Wayne Tinkle has fallen short this season in Corvallis. Despite an experienced roster, talented big men, and one of the best players in league history, Oregon State is sitting in 11th place, 5-11 in conference. In the end, the roller coaster of inconsistency falls at the feet of the coaching staff. And while players have hot and cold nights, the team-wide trend of on-again off-again performances has nothing to do with key players. Something needs to change, even if that means revamping the assistant staff in the offseason. Putting that aside, the Beavs are coming off a double-digit loss to Oregon, and have two more chances to defend home court this week before heading to Vegas.
Some things never change, one of those being Utah road losses, apparently. After opening the season with a respectable road win over Nevada, the Utes have failed to win a true road game since, even after nearly pulling off the feat in overtime against Cal last week. At this point, it is what it is, and Larry Krystkowiak can only focus on the next game. Worryingly, Rylan Jones appeared to suffer a concussion against the Bears, putting his status in question for the rivalry game with Colorado this week. The Utes need him, as the scrappy freshman has had a lot to do with their success at the Huntsman Center this season.
General Outlook: A Wild Goose Chase for the Title
The regular season title has come down to the final week, setting the stage for a potential shared championship. Oregon and UCLA control their own destiny, and if both win out, they each will share the title. The Bruins play just one game, a Saturday road test against rival USC. The Ducks host the Bay Area programs, with the pivotal Stanford matchup coming on Saturday night. Either way, the championship will be decided on Saturday in the last game of the season: A perfect ending to a wild year.
On top of that, the race for the final bye in the conference tournament is a wild goose chase between four teams. There are various scenarios which invoke the league’s archaic tie-breaker rules, making it anyone’s guess who secures the pivotal four seed.
Upcoming Games (March 5 – March 7)
Washington at Arizona State
Thursday, March 5
6:00 p.m., ESPN2
Needing a bounce back performance after dropping both games in L.A., the Sun Devils host floundering Washington in a must-win for seeding purposes. A defeat wouldn’t knock ASU out of the Big Dance, but it could relegate them to the dreaded Last Four In discussion. Fortunately, UW’s zone isn’t as strong this year, and Bobby Hurley’s guards are shooting the ball well. In particular, Rob Edwards has been on a tear as of late, hitting 16-33 from deep over the last four games. As such, ASU’s ability to knock down perimeter shots against the zone will go far in securing the victory.
Stanford at Oregon State
Thursday, March 5
6:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Every game is a tournament game from here on out for Stanford, with any defeat having the potential to keep them out of the Dance. And while the Beavers have played well at home, a loss would substantially damage the Cardinal’s chances. With the consequences of a defeat clear, Jarod Haase must deliver the same type of energy that pushed his players to lay their bodies on the line, dive for loose balls, and make every hustle play that they made against CU last week. That effort level could make the difference in a contested game, especially if Tyrell Terry is cold from the field. But if the freshman is hot, and distributing the ball to his teammates, the Tree could all but secure their March Madness dreams.
Looking to get back on track, the Wildcats host Washington State at McKale Center. Last season, Wazzu snapped a 13-game losing streak to Arizona, and a nine-year drought in Tucson behind a 31-point performance from Robert Franks. The Cougars likely need something similar out of CJ Elleby, because the Cats are angry after losing three in a row, and view this game as a springboard to begin March. Arizona must also contend with Isaac Bonton, who is back from injury and liable to put up 20 or more. Fortunately for UA, Nico Mannion is coming off his best game in conference, apparently getting his swagger back after struggling for more than a month. The freshman’s passing is key, as there isn’t a player on WSU’s roster who can guard Zeke Nnaji in the paint.
Colorado at Utah
Saturday, March 7
11:30 a.m., Pac-12 Network
In a midday showdown, Colorado and Utah square off in the Battle for the Mountain Region. CU is trending in the wrong direction, putting an emphasis on defeating the Utes on their home court to cap the regular season. Failing to do so could have dire consequences on Selection Sunday, especially if the Buffs’ slip up in the first round of the Conference tournament. All that can be avoided with a strong performance in a tough road environment, which takes poised upperclassman leadership from the guards. Even so, this is the final home game of the season in Salt Lake City, ensuring 10,000+ fans likely come out to support their Utes. With the stage set, Larry Kryskowiak has his team hyped for this game, and Timmy Allen is ready to ruin the Buffs’ final game of the year.
UCLA at USC
Saturday, March 7
12:15 p.m., CBS
There may not be a bigger game in the history of the USC-UCLA basketball series than this one. A Bruin win would ensure at least a share of the Pac-12 title, while a Trojan loss could potentially knock them out of the NCAA Tournament. Both programs are battling for the fledgling remaining at-large bids, and the loser could very well miss out on the Big Dance. Andy Enfield won Round One earlier in the year, but Mick Cronin has his team playing exponentially better now. On top of that, the showdown is on National TV, a stage the Bruins have come to thrive on, and one in which the Trojans are patently unfamiliar. Acting as a counterweight, USC is playing at home where it just defeated both Arizona programs last week. All in all, there aren’t many games like this in any rivalry series, setting the table for an historic instant classic.
California at Oregon State
Saturday, March 7
1:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Unless something dramatic happened on Thursday, the Bears are seeking just their second road win of the year as they stroll into Gill Coliseum. To take the proverbial next step, Mark Fox must find ways to win on the road. It may take a new game plan, with a changed defensive set, that throws Cal’s opponent so far off their game they don’t know what hit them. Otherwise, it may take a ridiculous shooting performance from a star or bench player, willing his team to victory. Whatever it takes, it must be done. Otherwise, California is just another bottom-tier conference team.
Washington State at Arizona State
Saturday, March 7
3:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The final home game of the year in Tempe is one the Sun Devils can’t afford to lose. Realistically, a defeat probably wouldn’t knock them out of the Dance, but it would put substantial pressure on Bobby Hurley’s players to perform well in Las Vegas. And while ASU’s loss earlier in the year to WSU wasn’t ideal, it at least provides extra motivation to get revenge and close out the regular season with a bang. In the end, the game plan for stopping Wazzu is fairly straightforward: shut down CJ Elleby and Isaac Bonton. Objectively, Arizona State has the firepower to blow the Cougs out of the gym, and the home crowd should provide that extra juice to finish off the year with a statement win.
Washington at Arizona
Saturday, March 7
7:00 p.m., ESPN
While at Arizona, Sean Miller’s kryptonite has been zone defenses. And though Washington’s hasn’t been as strong as expected this season, it still presents a challenge on Senior Night. Putting that aside, for the last time in his career, Dylan Smith will get to play in front of 14,000+ fans at McKale Center, capping a three-year career in the Old Pueblo. Invoking shades of Gabe York from 2016—who on Senior Night dropped a career-high 32 points while tying a McKale record nine threes—Smith has an opportunity to end his tenure with a similar legendary performance. Fortunately, UW’s zone presents the exact formula he needs, as Mike Hopkins’ 2-3 tends to give up perimeter shots all game. On top of that, this final home game is likely the send-off for Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji, and Josh Green as they chase multi-million dollar contracts in the NBA.
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