- Deandre Ayton's sheer dominance in the Pac-12 semifinal and final showed why Arizona is still a Final Four contender, even despite all the off-court headlines surrounding the program.
LAS VEGAS — Arizona paired its Pac-12 regular-season title with a conference championship on Saturday night after defeating USC 75–61 at T-Mobile Arena. Here are three thoughts from the tournament:
1. Arizona's endured a turbulent season to say the least, ranging from its reported involvement in the FBI-NCAA probe to Allonzo Trier testing positive for a banned substance and his ensuing suspension. Even on the court, the Wildcats have their worst-ranked defense (71st in KenPom defensive efficiency) since Sean Miller’s first season in Tucson in 2009. But over the past two nights, the Wildcats showed us the key reason they should still be treated as a title threat: Deandre Ayton.
There shouldn’t be a debate whether the gargantuan freshman is the most dominant player in college basketball.
There were struggles in his Pac-12 tournament debut—his 10 points vs. Colorado were the second-lowest total he’s posted against a conference opponent. But in the semifinals and championship, he elevated his game when Arizona needed it most, posting back-to-back 32-point games against UCLA and USC. He was a force on the glass as well, grabbing 32 rebounds against the Los Angeles schools. Simply put, when he plays at this level and decides to completely take over a game, there isn’t much the other team can do.
“I was a little star struck, I wasn’t ready to be honest,” Ayton said regarding his adjustments from his disappointing start of the tournament. “I was rushing all my shots against Colorado, wasn’t taking my time. I just needed to really watch film. Coach told me take my time, face up, see what the defense is giving me, and that’s what I did.”
Ayton alone is a major challenge to handle, but with the Wildcats adding another 7-footer into the fold with Dusan Ristic, they can look unstoppable at times. Arizona out-rebounded USC 42–19, leading to a crucial 13 second-chance points. The Tucson twin towers forced USC’s big men into foul trouble midway through the second half, which allowed Arizona to break it open after a tight first 30 minutes. Basketball has become a more guard-oriented sport, but the Wildcats’ two dominant big men can help disrupt that notion in the NCAA tournament. Granted, Arizona has great guard play as well with Trier, Rawle Alkins and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, however the key to a deep tournament run will be utilizing its size advantage in the paint.
So can Sean Miller crack his first Final Four with this team? It would certainly be a storybook finish to this up-and-down season. But the roller-coaster ride the Wildcats have ridden ended up being a positive, as thriving against the pressure and scrutiny has molded Arizona.
“I give the leadership of our team a lot of credit,” Miller said. “We stuck together, and you hear it all the time, that adversity can bring out the best in a group, bring a group closer together. And in some ways that really is the identity of our team. We fought all year, and hopefully we can continue to fight here for a couple more weeks.
2. USC had to deal with hardships of its own throughout the season as well. Scandal, injuries and underachieving put the Trojans on the bubble in mid-February despite lofty preseason expectations.
The team responded by ripping off six wins in seven games coming into Saturday, including the first road sweep of the Oregon schools and mountain schools (Colorado and Utah) in conference history. The defense has been the difference-maker, as opponents accounted for less than one point per possession four times over that stretch, including against Oregon State and Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament.
“Well, our players have given great effort,” Enfield said regarding the defense’s improved play. “We started to really understand our rotations and our zone. Our man-to-man has been pretty good, but our zone has been excellent.”
The Trojans were solid on that side of the ball in the first half against Arizona, particularly by forcing turnovers. But due to Chimezie Metu and Nick Rakocevic’s foul troubles as the game progressed, the Trojans were unable to put both their big men on the floor at the same time to counter Arizona’s 7-footers.
USC helped out its at-large bid hopes by winning two Pac-12 tournament games. While the Trojans won’t end up with the high seed many thought they would nab coming into this campaign, USC is proud of what it has accomplished thus far in the face of adversity.
“If you look at our body of work over the season, we’re the second-place team in a major conference. With all our injuries and the guys out we’ve had, we’re just thrilled to be here,” Enfield said. “Whatever happens next, we’ll find out tomorrow and go from there.”
3. Arizona is the only lock from the conference to make the NCAA tournament, however USC is in good shape for joining the Wildcats in the field.
There’s only two other Pac-12 schools with a chance to dance: UCLA and Arizona State. The Bruins actually could be a major threat to top seeds, as they took Arizona to overtime after beating it in Tucson in the regular season. UCLA also owns a win over Kentucky on a neutral site and a season sweep over USC. Aaron Holiday is one of the best guards in the country and the Bruins also have plenty of length and talent to frustrate any opponent.
Arizona State has cratered after its scorching start. The Sun Devils were college basketball’s last remaining undefeated team, but finished 8–10 in a weaker-than-usual Pac-12 and were bounced in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament. Like UCLA, ASU’s résumé features a couple of impressive wins—highlighted by victories away from Tempe against likely NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds Kansas and Xavier.
UCLA and Arizona State will both be rooting heavily for Rhode Island on Sunday to prevent Davidson from stealing a bid. Despite a down year for the Pac-12 in general, there's still a chance for the conference to make some noise in the NCAAs.