Posted on March 16, 2023
T:he Pac-12 started the NCAA Tournament on the right foot with Arizona State dominating Nevada in Dayton.
But the blowout win may not indicate what’s coming down the tunnel Thursday. Arizona and UCLA face unheralded and underrated opponents in the first round.
Both present some unique challenges that may not be as easy to overcome as some might think.
And on Friday, USC faces a tough challenge at Michigan State, while Arizona State faces a dangerous TCU team.
I’m previewing all four games here, and my picks, along with Steven Vilardo’s, appear below.
15-seed Princeton v. 2-seed Arizona
Thursday, March 16
1:10 p.m. PT, TNT
T:he Wildcats will face Ivy League Tournament champion Princeton in a first-round game.
The Tigers run a respectable offense, averaging 76.0 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting. KenPom ranks their system 103rd in the nation in average pass rush, 172nd out of 363 teams.
Led by forward Tosan Evbuomwan, Princeton is fairly balanced in scoring with five players averaging 8 or more points. The Ivy League program is also a strong rebounding group, entering the game No. 10 in the nation in rebounds per game.
There’s a reason why Princeton made the NCAA Tournament, and this game may have been closer than some expected.
The Tigers have some size inside, including the type of players that historically challenge Azuolas Tubelis. Offensive lineman Zach Martini is 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, and tackle Keyshawn Kelman is 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds.
Those body types are within the limits that have traditionally been able to counteract the Lithuanian’s graceful game. However, Martini and Kelman are role players who average 20 minutes per game.
The bulk of the Tigers’ minutes come from four individual players, the tallest of which is Evbuomwan, 6-foot-8 and 219 pounds. And while they may have some options to counter Tubeliss, Princeton has no one to slow down Umar Ballou.
At 7-foot-2 and 260 pounds, Balo dwarfs anyone the Tigers can throw at him.
UA’s center production, particularly the efficiency of finishing around the rim, could be the difference.
Princeton’s defense isn’t stellar either, ranked No. 138 by KenPom despite weak Ivy League competition and an underwhelming non-conference slate.
Look for Arizona to run the ball throughout the game and score consistently on the fast break and in transition. As long as UA’s guards and wings don’t turn the ball over consistently, Arizona should advance to the Second Round.
15-seed UNC Asheville v. 2-seed UCLA
Thursday, March 16
7:05 p.m. PT, TruTV
T:he Bruins begin their March Madness road trip against Big South Tournament champions UNC Asheville.
The Bulldogs went on a four-game winning streak in their regular season and are 18-1 since Jan. 4.
Not to be overlooked is one of the nation’s most elite three-point shooting teams, UNC Asheville. The Bulldogs enter the game with the No. 7 three-point percentage in the nation and are the best three-point shooting team UCLA has faced all year.
Led by forward Drew Pember, the Big South team is a two-man show. Pember is averaging 21.2 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, while guard Tajion Jones is averaging 15.0 points a night on 51.4 percent shooting, including 45.6 percent from deep.
Mick Cronin’s game plan begins and ends with the closing of the duo.
With the No. 1 defense in the nation, according to KenPom, UCLA should be able to silence the Bulldogs’ two leading scorers.
Cronin’s group is 41st in the nation in three-point defense, adding some confidence to the defensive game plan.
Still, there’s nothing more dangerous in the Big Dance than a three-point shooting team. Everyone remembers what happened to Virginia a few years ago, and Cronin’s group will need to play with high defensive intensity.
That shouldn’t be a problem given UNC Asheville’s propensity for turnovers.
The Bulldogs are 309th in turnovers per game and number of sacks against UCLA’s defense. With plenty of extra possessions expected, as long as the Bruins don’t freeze from the field, they should skate into the Round of 32.
10-seed USC v. 7-seed Michigan State
Friday, March 17
9:15 a.m. PT, CBS
In:In another classic Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup in the NCAA Tournament, USC takes on Michigan State on CBS.
Analytical interpretation of the game produces mixed signals. The Trojans are averaging more points per game, rebounding slightly better and shooting a better percentage from the field.
Still, the Spartans are a stronger three-point shooting team, share the rock at a higher rate and turn the ball over less times per game.
With no clear winner on paper, the game is a proverbial toss.
But the key to beating Michigan State is defending the perimeter. Tom Izzo’s team is the No. 4 three-point shooting team in the nation. If the Spartans are hot from deep, the Trojans probably won’t get the job done.
Andy Enfield’s team isn’t a strong three-point defensive unit either. Entering the game at 155 for three-point defense, USC could be in trouble.
The X-Factor, however, is Boogie Ellis.
The Pac-12’s second-leading scorer struggled through injury in last year’s NCAA Tournament and has the numbers to prove it.
If Ellis has one of his legendary high-scoring performances, the Trojans will be tough to beat.
Enfield will also need a strong night from Drew Peterson and productive production from Tre White, Kobe Johnson and Reese Dixon-Waters.
The deciding factor could come down to USC’s defense.
Michigan State has five players averaging 9.0 points or more, and three starters averaging double figures. Izzo’s group is highly effective at taking care of the ball, committing 40 turnovers per game.
If the Trojans don’t have answers on the defensive end, MSU likely ends up being promoted.
11 seed Arizona State vs. 6 seed TCU
Friday, March 17
7:05 p.m. PT, TruTV
B:Obie Hurley’s team could be the team of destiny.
When adversity hit his roster, his players thrived.
Matched up against Big 12 opponent TCU, the Sun Devils should have a strong offensive game. Arizona State couldn’t afford to miss out on a top-four showdown against Nevada and might need a similar performance in Denver.
The Horned Frogs may not have powerhouse Eddie Lempkin Jr., but TCU has three players averaging double figures and a pretty deep rotation.
Mike Miles Jr. leads the way, averaging 17.3 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting. Those are impressive efficiency numbers for a guard, and he’s adding 2.6 assists per game.
Miles will be contained at the top of Hurley’s defensive game plan.
Jamie Dixon’s offense emphasizes sharing the ball, and his team is a strong rebounding group. Arizona State, near the top in the nation in assists per game, needs to disrupt passing lanes and collapse when the ball is moved inside.
The Horned Frogs are not a good three-point shooting team, however, creating some breathing room for Hurley’s defense to play aggressively. However, ASU must overcome the turnover and turnover margin to have a chance to advance.
Assuming Arizona State’s defense plays up to its potential, the game could lead to offensive efficiency.
TCU has the No. 21 defense according to KenPom, which would be the No. 2 defense in the Pac-12 behind UCLA.
Desmond Cambridge Jr. and DJ Horn should have strong days from the field. However, without similarly effective games from Jamiya Neal, Alonzo Gaffney, Devan Cambridge and Luther Muhammad, the Sun Devils may have struggled to score enough points to win.
Basketball is the ultimate team sport, and magical runs always require unexpected contributions from players coming off the bench. If Arizona State is this year’s Cinderella, Hurley may need a legendary performance from one of his players.