2018 Pac-12 Men's Basketball Tournament: Previewing the opening-round matchups
LAS VEGAS -- Wide open.
Perhaps that’s the best way to describe the 2018 Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, which tips off Wednesday with a quartet of first-round matchups. While regular-season champ No. 19 Arizona enters as the Conference’s lone team in the Associated Press Top 25, the top-seeded Wildcats won’t be waltzing through this tourney. But they will be able to rest on Wednesday with a first-round bye, along with No. 2 seed USC, No. 3 Utah and No. 4 UCLA.
Here’s a look at Wednesday’s matchups at T-Mobile Arena.
In the final three weeks of the non-conference schedule, the Sun Devils (20-10) worked their way into the top five, peaking at No. 3 by winning their first dozen games. But ASU went 8-10 through league play as its robust, guard-oriented offense was slowed by Pac-12 foes.
As perplexing as the season’s been -- this team won at Kansas in December but has lost four of its last five -- coach Bobby Hurley is confident in his squad.
“We're probably one of the best nine seeds in the history of the Pac-12, to be honest,” Hurley said, according to the Arizona Republic. “We didn't run through the (Conference) schedule the way we needed to. Our record should be better. We didn't get the job done there – that's on me. ... But I think teams still will get ready for us because they respect what we've done.”
Awaiting ASU in the first round is No. 8 seed Colorado, which also went 8-10 in conference play. The Buffs (16-14) flexed their muscles in the first week of January, defeating ASU and Arizona in the span of about 48 hours. But the Sun Devils evened the season series with Colorado on Jan. 27, winning 80-66 in Tempe.
Coach Tad Boyle’s bunch, like ASU, has been streaky. The Buffs are also built largely on a stable of guards, led by freshman point guard McKinley Wright and swingman George King. Wright is the team’s leading scorer (14.2 points per game) and his slashing ability also opens up the floor for all of his teammates, as he ranks third in the Pac-12 in assists with 5.3 per game.
But the two squads have different philosophies. While the Sun Devils like to constantly push the tempo and feature the Pac-12’s highest-scoring offense with 83.5 ppg, the Buffs like to keep it in the half court. The firepower from both sides on the perimeter should make for an intriguing Pac-12 Tournament opener.
"It's a matter of going and executing and playing with great passion and great energy," Boyle said, via BuffZone.com. "I'd like for this team to not be that first (to lose in the first round). This is a very formidable opponent. ASU is a good team. Obviously going into league play they were the darlings of college basketball and they're still very explosive."
The Bay’s rivalry makes it way south to Sin City for Wednesday’s second matchup.
Stanford (17-14, 11-7 Pac-12) has playmakers all over the floor and is in the midst of a solid run, having won four its last five contests. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection Reid Travis remains the centerpiece of the Cardinal attack, ranking third in the league in scoring (19.6 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (8.2 rpg). But freshman guard Daejon Davis and freshman forward KZ Okpala have elevated their play throughout the year and look like cornerstones of the program going forward.
“We relish the opportunity to go play another game,” Travis said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
First-year coach Wyking Jones only led Cal (8-23, 2-16) to a pair of Conference wins, but one of them came at Stanford on Dec. 30. The Bears stormed back from a 17-point deficit to silence the crowd at Maples Pavilion and secure the signature win of Jones’ tenure thus far. Cal has only won one contest in 2018, a 74-70 victory over Oregon State on Feb. 3, and has lost seven games since.
Mental lapses and turnovers have plagued the Bears all season long. Shifty guard Don Coleman leads the Bears with 14.7 points per game but is shooting just 33.5 percent on the year. Versatile freshman swingman Justice Sueing has emerged as the team’s best player of late while big men Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh will be tasked with slowing down Stanford’s imposing frontcourt, which also features bigs like Josh Sharma and Michael Humphrey.
Despite their seed, the Bears are staying optimistic.
“We’re trying to win it all,” Sueing told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s all new. Records don’t matter. Anyone can win. Anyone can lose. My mindset is to win it all.”
Take a bow, Mike Hopkins. In his first season at the helm of the Huskies, Hopkins was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. It’s not as if he inherited a team devoid of talent, but there seemed to be a smooth transition as Hopkins led Washington to a 20-11 record overall and 10-8 in Conference play.
Freshman guard Jaylen Nowell (16.0 ppg) is one of four double-digit scorers for the Huskies, along with big man Noah Dickerson (15.4), point guard David Crisp (11.7) and swingman Matisse Thybulle (10.7). Thybulle, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, sets the tone for the Dawgs on defense. He is one of just two players in league history to record at least 90 steals (92) and 40 blocks (44) in the same season. Throw in high-flying dunker Nahziah Carter and the Huskies are a dangerous team to watch in this tournament.
“There’s a lot of parity in college basketball and a lot in our league,” Hopkins said, per the Seattle Times. “It looks like jambalaya. And that’s what makes it fun, because anything can happen. Just being able to have that opportunity to go out there and compete at this level with anything that can happen. That’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun.”
Oregon State bounced back from last year’s nightmare to go 15-15 overall during the regular season and 7-11 in the Pac-12. The Beavs nearly knocked off the Huskies last Thursday, almost erasing an 11-point deficit in the process, but suffered a 79-77 loss. OSU finished the regular season with an exclamation point on Saturday, though, rolling past Washington State in a 92-67 victory.
The Beavers shot a scorching 60.6 percent from the field, as their four top players -- forward Tres Tinkle, center Drew Eubanks and the Thompson brothers, Evan and Stephen, Jr., -- each notched double digits. When the Beavers are humming, they’re a handful. Not to mention they feature the league’s second-stiffest defense, allowing 70.8 points per game.
"We're going to be hungry because we just lost (to Washington)," Eubanks said, via The Oregonian. "We won (in Corvallis) but it was really close here, obviously. So we want to make sure that we beat them soundly and don't leave any questions in the air."
The opening day of the Pac-12 tourney will feature yet another matchup that could conceivably go either way.
But which Oregon team will show up? Ditto for Washington State.
There’s no doubting the talent on the Ducks, but coach Dana Altman is clearly in something of a transition period after the mass exodus of talent following its 2017 Final Four run. Oregon (20-11, 10-8) is paced by point guard Payton Pritchard, the team’s leading scorer (14.6 ppg) and assist man (4.8 apg) for what’s become a balanced offense. Senior guard Elijah Brown and freshman forward Troy Brown have become consistent contributors while freshman forward Kenny Wooten can be absolute flash of lightning off the bench.
The Ducks are eyeing retribution after Washington State earned a 78-76 win over Oregon in Pullman last Thursday.
“Just coming back less than a week later and playing them,” Altman said, via The Oregonian, “that should be motivation for our guys.”
The Cougs (12-18, 4-14) were able to limit the Ducks to just 40 percent shooting in that recent victory, while guard Malachi Flynn exploded for 28 points. WSU can present some major matchup problems with opponents, starting with 6-foot-7 forward Robert Franks. The junior, who leads the team with 17.4 points per game, can stretch out defenses with his 3-point shooting prowess.