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Pac-12 Tournament Preview

By Rich Ruben

There is nothing that can be done about it, but I’m still ticked off over how the PAC 12 determined the regular season champion. When one team plays two fewer games, misses one of its two most difficult road games, and finishes only percentage points ahead of a team that played all scheduled games, in my mind the champion should be decided by the head to head result.

USC put themselves on the line twenty times; every game a team plays there is the potential to lose. Third place Colorado played the full twenty game slate and lost to the two worst teams in the conference, Cal and Washington. That’s the last time I will complain about this, or at least, the last time until the next time.

This week in Las Vegas the top five teams receive first round byes due to Arizona’s self imposed ban reducing the field to eleven teams. There will be only three first round games on Wednesday and the rest of the tournament format will be the same as in every other year. The Wednesday game with immediate implications for the Trojans is the Utah- Washington matchup. The Trojans play the winner on Thursday.

As of Monday, USC is a slight favorite over Colorado to win the tournament with a little separation between the two favorites and Oregon. UCLA’s odds are 2 1/2 times greater than the Trojans and the other eight teams are far back. Utah’s odds are four times higher than UCLA and ten times higher than USC. With more attention this week on conference tournaments around the country there will likely be changes to the opening betting odds. Different sites list different odds but as of Monday the order of the top four is the same almost everywhere though one site picks CU ahead of the Trojans. I’m surprised Oregon isn’t getting more play.

It would be a major surprise if a team outside the top four wins the tournament. Since the first couple of weeks of conference play there has been a top four and “all the rest.”

Pac-12 Teams Are Not Receiving The Respect They Deserve

All four of the top teams are capable of winning games in the tournament depending on matchups. In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology he has CU a five seed, USC and Oregon both at six and UCLA a ten. Lunardi has the Trojans meeting an improving Michigan State team in the first round, which would be a difficult matchup. He has CU playing Toledo and Oregon getting Wichita State. Guess who is the big loser in his bracket projections.

His projections before the conference tournaments aren’t very meaningful and even if he has a team seeded on the right line his prediction of which region a team will play in and who it will play is more guesswork than data driven.

The conference teams reduced and adjusted their non conference schedules to comply with the NCAA reduction in the number of regular season games permitted from 31 to 27. The Pac-12 teams also tried to limit travel when Covid was raging in December. USC missed a neutral site game against Gonzaga and a game at Kansas. The latter was a winnable game because KU is down this year and wasn’t playing particularly well in the early part of the season. Playing the Zags would have been ugly.

The conference leaders played some high profile non conference games. The Trojans beat BYU and lost by to UConn by three without starting point guard Ethan Anderson who was injured early in the BYU game. These were played at a “neutral site” in Connecticut.

Oregon lost to Missouri and beat Seton Hall. CU lost to Tennessee and the Bruins lost to San Diego State and Ohio State. The record against top non conference teams isn’t good but most of these losses were close games were all came against teams that will play in the NCAA Tournament. This season the ACC is down; the top teams other than perhaps Florida State and maybe Virginia are not having good seasons. The situation in the Big East is similar. Villanova has had a good but not great season and UConn may be the best team in the league after Villanova lost its star point guard. The SEC isn’t great either. Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee at the top are good but the PAC 12 leaders would give any of them a good game.

Still, Lunardi projects Alabama as a two seed, an average Georgia Tech as an eleven (one line lower than UCLA) and struggling Louisville a ten. He has Creighton from the Big East at five, LSU an eight, inconsistent North Carolina on the nine line and Virginia Tech an eight.

Lunardi’s predictions have no meaning but unfortunately they do reflect the media perception of the Pac-12.

Tournament Predictions Are Difficult When Matchups In Later Rounds Are Not Yet Determined

Washington’s head coach Mike Hopkins’ job may be in jeopardy after two successive very poor seasons, and Im assuming Utah beats the Huskies on Wednesday and advances to play the Trojans. Among the teams the Trojans may play this week the Utes come closest to being able to match USC’s size. Seven foot Brandon Carlson is much improved this season and is second in the conference in blocked shots, behind only Evan Mobley. He is built much like Evan and won’t be able to push the Trojan bigs around. 6’9” Riley Battin weighs 230 and is a more physical player.

The one area in which the Utes have a decided advantage is from the foul line. The Trojans make a miserable 64% of their foul shots and the Utes make 79%.This issue will be the same in every game the Trojans play in March. It presents a dilemma for Enfield over whether he can play Isaiah Mobley and Chevez Goodwin late in close games.

The Trojans are the best rebounding team in the conference and Utah is at the bottom. Evan leads the league in rebounds and his brother Isaiah is third. Utah also doesn’t score as many points as the Trojans. USC shoots less threes than any other team and make roughly the same percentage as most teams in the Pac.

Assuming the favorites win on Thursday the Trojans will face Colorado on Friday. The Buffs seem to have the Trojans’ number and own a good winning streak against Troy. McKinley Wright leads the conference in assists. The two teams score almost the same number of points per game and make about the same percentage of their shots. The Buffs make 2% more of their three point attempts and shoot a couple more per game.

The biggest differences in favor of the Trojans are the teams’ overall size, rebounding and defense. Evan Battey is 6’8” and at 260 pounds he has had success bullying his way inside against the Trojan defenders. Jabari Walker and reserve Tristan da Silva are both 6’8” and will be at a size disadvantage against the Trojans front court. 7’0” Dallas Walker has played more lately and has the height, if not the talent, to match the Trojan front court.

If the Trojans survive they will likely play either UCLA or Oregon for the championship. Those two teams are physically similar. Cody Riley is the only Bruin starter over 6’6” and Oregon’s starters are almost 6’6” across. Oregon has additional size on the bench in 6’8” Chandler Walker who averages only 4 ppg and 6’11” freshman big body Franck Kepnang who averages only 2 points but played pretty well against the Trojans.

Oregon has a very balanced offense; Chris Duarte averages 17.3 points, fourth in the league, and Eugene Omoruyi is fifth at 16.9 and is a physical player. The Ducks pressure the ball all over the court and try to trap and create turnovers and want to play fast. They lead the conference in field goal percentage just ahead of USC. They also lead the league in percentage from three, but they are below average in rebounding. Surprisingly given their style they are not a high assist team.

UCLA also has very balanced scoring. Six players average double figures, with Johnny Juzang, who did not play on Saturday, the leader at 14.2 ppg though he makes only 40% of his shots. The Bruins slowed the game down on Saturday against the bigger Trojans in order to force USC to play a half court offense on every possession. The Bruins are second to Oregon in three point percentage and are in the middle of the conference in rebounding.

The Trojans’ Tournament Outlook

USC’s very good defense did not play as consistently well over the last stretch of games. They will need to limit the key scorers on each team and force them into uncomfortable shots. They played very poorly on defense in the first half against UCLA but were much better after the break.

The personnel on opposing teams will dictate how each team will to try to limit Evan and Tahj’s scoring. Evan must be assertive; if he is not double teamed he should look for his shot anytime he gets the ball inside 15 feet. If he is double teamed inside he will need to make quick decisions on whether to take a shot or find the open man who may be on the perimeter or cutting to the basket. When he brings the ball against a double team he is prone to turnovers. Tahj can create his own shot and can score at all three levels and the Trojans will depend on his scoring.

The Trojans will also need other players to score in each game like Chevez did against the Bruins and Drew Peterson against Stanford. Isaiah White’s availability could impact the Trojans; he has a different skill set than anyone else on the roster. The Trojans won their last two games but are only 3-3 in the last six and 9-3 in the last twelve.

Oregon was best team in the league over the last few weeks, winning five in a row and 9 of 10. UCLA lost its last three to Colorado, Oregon and the Trojans. They were 4-2 over the prior six including another loss to USC. Colorado has won 4 in a row including wins over the Trojans and Bruins. Before that stretch they lost 2 in a row and were 3-3 before the late winning streak.

It is often said that it is hard to win three games against a team in one season though the Trojans beat the Bruins three times a few seasons ago. If it is hard to win three that could spell trouble if the Trojans play UCLA in the or could help USC if they play CU in the semis.

I expect the Trojans to beat Utah handily and regardless of streaks I believe USC will beat either the Bruins or Buffs in the semis. Enfield said after the Colorado loss that he might play more zone against Colorado if they met again and I think the Trojans have more talent overall than Colorado. I expect UCLA to try something different if the two teams meet again, possibly employing a press or pressure defense to get a few turnovers and leave the Trojans with a shorter shot clock. The Bruins might also play at a faster pace. Saturday Bruin coach Mick Cronin seemed determined to ensure the Trojans played against a set defense on every possession.

The Trojans and Ducks appear to be the two best teams in the league and expect to see them in the championship game. For the Trojans to win the front court will need to keep Oregon out of the lane and force more difficult shots. The Ducks want to run and the Trojans will need to limit turnovers against the press and avoid traps against the sideline or in corners and not allow fast break opportunities. This matchup could be speed against size. If the teams met tomorrow I would favor the Ducks; they are playing the best basketball in the league over the last few weeks. But if they meet it will be after both teams have played two additional games and the landscape may look different. Both teams have several players who transferred to play in March. I expect maximum effort from both of these teams in every game they play this month.

WeAreSC Player Of The Week

In all of the euphoria over the win on Saturday we didn’t name a player of the week. In the easiest decision of the season the Week 13 winner is Tahj Eaddy. He made the shot of the season and one that will be remembered for a very long time. It’s his third Player of the Week award.