2018 Pac-12 Men's Basketball Tournament championship: Arizona-USC preview
When: 7 p.m. PT / 8 p.m. MT
Tune in: FS1
LAS VEGAS – On Saturday night, one team will be climbing up the ladder to cut the net as Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament champs. Following three packed days of wall-to-wall Pac-12 hoops action, top seed Arizona and No. 2 seed USC have emerged from the pack as finalists and will battle for the trophy in Sin City in the Pac-12 Tournament championship.
While USC punched its ticket to the Pac-12 tourney title game by cruising past No. 6 seed Oregon with a 74-54 victory in Friday’s semifinal, Arizona had to sweat it out ‘til a dominant overtime performance clinched the 78-67 win over UCLA.
Big surprise – Pac-12 Player of the Year Deandre Ayton played a massive role in Arizona’s thrilling victory on Friday. The 7-foot-1 freshman phenom racked up a career-high 32 points while grabbing 14 rebounds. He completely took over near the end of the game, scoring 13 straight in a span between the fourth quarter and overtime.
“He's a special talent,” teammate Rawle Alkins said. “I see it every day in practice, so it's nothing new to me. But to you guys, you know, you guys can see what we see everyday. It's just another day in the office for him. But there's no doubt in my mind that he's becoming in talks for the National Player of the Year. He should be Player of the Year in the country. I don't see anyone playing better than him right now.”
Oregon could never find a rhythm against USC’s defense, as the Ducks shot just 33 percent on the evening. The Trojans led by as many as 28 points in the second half, while the Ducks never cut the deficit to less than 14. Guard Jonah Mathews was nearly unstoppable, making 7 of 9 shots from behind the arc, en route to a career-high 27 points. But Mathews was pretty ho-hum about his huge performance on a big stage.
“We moved the ball as a team,” Mathews said. “Had some open shots tonight and knocked them down.”
Now comes time for the main event.
Obviously, all eyes will be on Ayton in what could be the final Pac-12 game of his career, as he’s expected to declare for the NBA Draft after the season. But USC also has one of the country’s most explosive big men in Chimezie Metu, and it figures to be a great battle in the paint all night. To say nothing of the perimeter, where both teams are loaded with talent.
Arizona features point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a shifty, short guard who has been able to take over for stretches throughout his team’s run in Vegas. The Wildcats also feature prolific scorer Allonzo Trier and the always-aggressive Rawle Alkins. But the Trojans counter with skilled point guard Jordan McLaughlin, bouncy Elijah Stewart and the sharpshooting Mathews.
The Trojans and Wildcats have only met once this year, with Arizona claiming an 81-67 victory in Tucson on Feb. 10 behind big nights from Alkins and Ayton. Looking ahead to Saturday, USC coach Andy Enfield said he’s focused on stopping Ayton.
“Who is he?” Enfield cracked after the game. “He's probably the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. He's a tremendous talent. He's a very unselfish player. I really respect him as a player. He makes great decisions on the court, and he has long arms. So we're going to have our hands full, but we have some pretty good players, too.”
As for Arizona coach Sean Miller, he’s looking forward to playing on the Pac-12’s biggest stage in front of what’s sure to be a rowdy Arizona crowd.
“Our fans, they're the best; one of the best in all of the country,” Miller said. “McKale Center, if you were with us on the last weekend, I don't know if there would be an arena filled with more excitement or pageantry than what these guys experienced in the last weekend playing in McKale. On the road, we hear the U of A chant quite a bit, and no question, this tournament has become a destination spot for a lot of them. It's a fun place to come and to watch basketball.”