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  • It hasn't been a banner year for Pac-12 basketball, and its conference tournament feels unpredictable—with an NCAA tournament bid there for the taking even for teams off the bubble.
By Max Meyer
March 11, 2019

This will probably be one of the least helpful previews you’ll read ahead of a conference tournament in 2019. Why? Because trying to predict what will happen in a Pac-12 basketball game this season is borderline impossible, let alone what will happen during four straight days of Pac-12 basketball.

Some examples of how nonsensical this conference has been in the 2018-19 campaign:

·Cal, which was 0–15 in Pac-12 play at the time, upset first-place and then-nationally ranked Washington in Berkeley on Feb. 28. The Golden Bears are now one of the hottest teams in the conference, as they are on a current three-game win steak. According to college basketball savant Ken Pomeroy, Cal is the first team in the 21st century to win its final three regular-season conference games after not winning any to that point.

·Washington State, which had entered the Arizona road trip 1–8 in Pac-12 play, not only swept Arizona State and Arizona, but won each game by double digits (21-point win over second-place ASU, 14-point win over ninth-place Arizona). Less than two weeks later, Stanford lost at Arizona State and Arizona by a combined 34 points. So what happened when the Cardinal played Washington State next after the embarrassing sweep? Oh, just a 48-point victory over the Cougars.

·A game involving UCLA is never over until there are only zeroes showing on the scoreboard. On Jan. 11, the Bruins pulled off the sixth-largest final-minute comeback in Division I history, as they rallied from a nine-point deficit with 48 seconds to go and stunned Oregon in overtime. This was also a game where UCLA trailed by 17 with 6:36 to go. Then, a month later, UCLA led by 22 points with 12 minutes to go against Utah. The Utes pulled off a legendary comeback of their own, capped by Parker Van Dyke’s three at the buzzer to give Utah a stunning 93–92 win.

As you can see, this conference can drive even the most hardcore followers crazy due to the seemingly random results nearly every game. Nothing makes sense, except that nothing will make sense when watching this conference. You have a better chance of coming up with what Bill Walton will say next than projecting what will happen this year in Vegas.

But let’s not worry. Instead, let’s explore these mysterious waters together and attempt to figure out the West Coast’s biggest enigma since Area 51.

Most on the Line: Washington

Are we sure Washington has an at-large bid locked up?

The Huskies’ best wins are a road win at Oregon and sweeping Colorado. According to Sunday night’s NET ratings, Oregon is No. 59 and Colorado is No. 70. Washington has a losing record in Quadrant 1 games at 2–4, and somehow lost to Cal, which in my opinion is worthy of a punishment of being ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s other team with a shot at an at-large bid, Arizona State, has a more compelling résumé. The Sun Devils have wins over No. 20 Kansas, No. 21 Mississippi State, No. 30 Utah State and a 12-point home win over No. 38 Washington, the only time they have played each other this season. What’s dragging ASU down is home losses to No. 188 Princeton and No. 196 Washington State. Losing by 16 on the road to a Vanderbilt team that went winless in SEC play doesn’t help either.

But what the Selection Committee has harped on in the past is notching big wins compared to suffering embarrassing losses. It makes sense: Why should you be in the field if you haven’t shown you can compete with the best of the best?

The Huskies have also struggled of late. Their last four games: A loss at Cal, a one-point win at Stanford when the Cardinal didn’t have Daejon Davis, an OT home win over Oregon State and an eight-point home loss to Oregon.

Washington won’t pick up any marquee wins in Vegas because of how low the rest of the conference is ranked in the NET, but I do think the Huskies could use multiple wins to avoid sweating out Selection Sunday. It would also help to boost the team’s confidence if it does get into the NCAA tournament, given its recent struggles.

Hottest Team: Colorado

Instead of doing traditional best/worst teams, let’s do hottest/coldest teams entering the tournament instead. Apologies to Oregon (four-game winning streak, including wins over first-place Washington and second-place ASU) and Cal (aforementioned three-game winning streak), but I’m going with the Buffaloes here.

Colorado’s hot streak began on Feb. 3, when the Buffaloes drubbed Oregon 73–51 in Boulder. That started a stretch where Colorado has won eight of 10, with the two losses coming on the Washington road trip (76–74 at Wazzu and 64–55 at Washington). 

Since the calendar has flipped to February, Colorado is 46th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and 49th in defensive efficiency, per T-Rank. Over that span, only two other Pac-12 teams have ranked in the top 50 in ADJOE (Utah at 29 and Oregon State at 47) and in ADJDE (Oregon at 20 and Washington at 24). The Pac-12 doesn’t have many teams that do just one thing well, so the fact that Colorado is balanced and can win games with its offense or defense bodes very well here.

McKinley Wright has had an up-and-down sophomore season after exploding onto the scene as a freshman, but he’s still one of the best point guards in the conference. Yet the biggest key to Colorado’s improved play has been fellow sophomore Tyler Bey. The do-it-all 6’7” forward has sparked the Buffaloes’ resurgence after a sluggish start: In that 10-game stretch, he’s averaging 16.9 ppg on a sizzling 61.8% shooting from the field.

This is a very young team (316th in experience per KenPom), but its ultimate downfall for this team could be its outside shooting. Colorado ranks 11th in Pac-12 play in three-point percentage (31.2%). That is a tough issue to overcome when the majority of the conference plays a good amount of zone defense: Washington, UCLA, Oregon State and Cal are four of the 22 teams in the country that went zone on 50% or more of its defensive possessions this season, per Synergy. USC (46.9%) and Oregon (46.6%) aren’t that far behind either.

Sure enough, Colorado is in the 82nd percentile in points per possession against man defenses, while it ranks in the 38th percentile against zone. I think the Baby Buffs are one year away from seriously competing for a Pac-12 tournament title, but they will still be a tough out for Oregon State in quarterfinals and potentially Washington in the semifinals if they make it that far.

Coldest Team: Arizona

There are four Pac-12 teams with less than four Pac-12 wins since February. The first two are obvious: Cal and Washington. The other two are a little tougher to figure out: USC and Arizona.

I could have given this “honor” to USC, as two of its three Pac-12 wins since February have come against Cal and Washington State. But not only has Arizona gone 3–6 since February, the Wildcats lost their last three games in January too, including a 23-point loss at USC.

None of Arizona’s five starters from last year’s team that won the Pac-12 tournament came back and Sean Miller lost out on some big incoming recruits as well with the program being mired in scandal. The Wildcats have dealt with injuries to two of their best players, Brandon Williams and Chase Jeter, throughout conference play as well. It’s still inexcusable, however, to lose nine of the past 12 games in this blob of mediocrity otherwise referred to as the Pac-12, including a seven-game losing streak that was the program’s longest winless drought since 1983.

The Wildcats have had major issues on offense—they rank 240th in offensive efficiency since Feb. 1. Not only is this a team that likes shooting mid-range jumpers (per hoop-math, Arizona shoots two-point jumpers on 28.7% of shots, which is tied for 86th-highest rate nationally), but Arizona is also poor at getting them to go—it is shooting 32.4% on two-point jumpers, which is tied for the 38th-worst mark in the country.

Arizona’s biggest Achilles’ heel under Sean Miller has been its offense against zone defenses, and that problem has reared its ugly head again this season. The Wildcats rank in the 16th percentile in terms of PPP against zone defenses this season, and will have to deal with two teams that will play heavy zone in the opening round (USC) and, if Arizona advances, in the quarterfinals (Washington).

This has been a lost campaign in Tucson, and expect it to mercifully come to an end before this upcoming weekend.

Player to Watch: Matisse Thybulle

Thybulle is one of the most unique talents in college basketball because he doesn’t have to score to dramatically impact a game. He is the heart and soul of Washington’s 2–3 zone, and is putting up cartoonish defensive numbers.

The 6’5” senior guard leads the country in steals per game at 3.52. LSU point guard Tremont Waters is the only other player to average at least three steals a game (3.07).

Thybulle is also tied for 21st nationally with 2.23 blocks per game. The guard with the next-highest mark is Jacksonville’s Jalyn Hinton at 1.75 (which ranks 68th). Thybulle has rare defensive instincts, and his prowess on that end has put him in rarified air. He is just the 18th player in the past 25 seasons to average more than two steals and two blocks per game.

But enough about his numbers. Go read Greg Bishop’s piece on Thybulle to grasp what a special individual he is off the court as well.

Best Chance to Steal an NCAA Bid: Oregon

While I also like Oregon State as a darkhorse, the Beavers have a much tougher slate than their in-state rivals—their first game after the bye will likely be against the aforementioned red-hot Colorado and if they beat the Buffaloes, it sets up a semifinal against Washington (who Oregon State has played very tightly in recent years).

After beating the Huskies in Seattle this past Saturday, Oregon was able to secure the No. 6 seed compared to the No. 7. That’s crucial because the Ducks get the second-easiest first-round matchup (vs. Washington State) and the easiest quarterfinal matchup of the bye teams (vs. Utah). That boosts the Ducks’ odds tremendously compared to having to play Stanford and then Arizona State as the No. 7 seed.

Oregon’s defense has been on a tear of late, and a big reason why is the Ducks’ ability to generate turnovers. Whether it’s through trapping in Dana Altman’s match-up zone or bringing even more pressure on the full-court press, Oregon excels at making its opponents uncomfortable handling the ball. The Ducks are second in the conference at forcing turnovers (21.9% of possessions), only behind Washington.

The great news for Oregon is that both Washington State and Utah have had trouble being careful with the rock, as both rank sub-200 in offensive turnover rate. The Ducks also are strong at defending the perimeter, as opponents have shot 31.6% from beyond the arc in Pac-12 play (best three-point defense in the conference). Washington State and Utah have the Pac-12’s two top three-point attempt rates.

The Ducks have also played the Pac-12’s best competitively. They’ve beaten both Washington and Arizona State over the past two weeks. The first time Oregon played Washington, the Huskies escaped in Eugene after Jaylen Nowell was fouled attempting a three near half court with under a second remaining.

ASU did beat Oregon by 14 in Tempe, but that score is somewhat misleading. Forward Paul White twisted his ankle early in the second half and big man Kenny Wooten was in foul trouble, which gave the Sun Devils a major advantage in attacking the rim. Oregon actually led 54–50 with 8:37 left, but ASU ripped off a 19–0 run over the next four minutes to put the game away. ASU shot 66.7% on two-point shots in that one, which is an anomaly even for a team as good at getting close to the basket like the Sun Devils are. Sure enough, ASU shot 48.3% on twos in the rematch, averaged just 0.75 PPP and lost by 28.

So between a manageable side of the bracket, entering the Pac-12 tournament as one of the conference’s hottest teams and playing Washington/ASU rather well during the regular season, the Ducks certainly have a realistic shot to shrink the bubble by one spot.

Picks

First Round:

No. 8 USC over No. 9 Arizona
No. 5 Colorado over No. 12 California
No. 6 Oregon over No. 11 Washington State
No. 10 Stanford over No. 7 UCLA

Quarterfinals:

No. 1 Washington over No. 8 USC
No. 4 Oregon State over No. 5 Colorado
No. 6 Oregon over No. 3 Utah
No. 2 Arizona State over No. 10 Stanford

Semifinals:

No. 4 Oregon State over No. 1 Washington
No. 6 Oregon over No. 2 Arizona State

Championship:

No. 6 Oregon over No. 4 Oregon State

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