Predictions, dark horses, players to watch – Daily News

On Wednesday, the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament will tip off in Las Vegas as teams vie for the conference title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, it was Oregon State who surprised the field by taking home the trophy.

It has been eight years since UCLA won the sudden-death tournament, and 13 for USC. Is this their year? Or will Arizona add to its record seven championships?

UCLA reporter Tarek Fattal and USC reporter Adam Grosbard preview the tournament and make their predictions below.

Team to watch

Fattal: Arizona. The Wildcats are the No. 1 seed and are playing for a regional No. 1 seed, too. Picking the top-seeded team ‘to watch’ might be obvious, but that’s because I think they’ll win the tournament and be hard to beat in the national tournament. The Wildcats have a go-to player in Bennedict Mathurin, someone that protects the rim in Christian Koloko, and can shoot the 3 (third-best FG% in conference). Look for Wildcats fans to pack T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Grosbard: If there is a dark horse that can go deep in the tournament, it’s No. 6 seed Washington. Sometimes all you need is a high-octane scoring guard who hits another level in March. Pac-12 leading scorer Terrell Brown Jr. fits that mold for the Huskies, especially after averaging 23.5 in the final four games of the regular season.

Player to watch

Fattal: There’s only one player in the Pac-12 Conference that is top five in points per game and rebounds per game: Jabari Walker. The sophomore averaging 14.7 points per game and leads the conference with 9.4 rebounds per contest. He’s played in all 30 Colorado games this season. He’s the son of former Laker Samari Walker and also a Los Angeles native.

Grosbard: Aside from Brown, I’m curious to see which version of UCLA guard Johnny Juzang shows up in Las Vegas. Juzang was hampered by an ankle injury late in the season, but it’s hard not to think about his electric NCAA Tournament run from a year ago as the postseason starts up again. If Juzang is right, it greatly increases UCLA’s odds this week.

Day 1 upset

Fattal: No. 9 seed Stanford over No. 8 seed ASU. The two split during the season. The Cardinal won the first 79-76 on Jan. 22, but the Sun Devils won the most recent on March 5 65-56. I think Harrison Ingram, the conference’s best freshman, is going to have a big game.

Grosbard: I’m still trying to wrap my head around how Oregon State only won three games this season after making the Elite Eight a season ago. That said, the 12th-seeded Beavers are the defending Pac-12 Tournament champs and drew rival Oregon on Day 1. The fifth-seeded Ducks have been far from sharp lately, losing three straight and six out of eight to close the regular season. An Oregon State win to pop Oregon’s bubble would go a long way to redeeming the Beavers’ lost season.

Day 2 upset

Fattal: No. 5 seed Oregon over No. 4 seed Colorado. The Ducks have lost five of their past six games, including three straight to USC, Washington and Washington State, yet still snagged fifth place in the conference. Dana Altman is going to inspire Oregon to make a stink in this tournament, and it’s going to happen when the Ducks take down Colorado.

Grosbard: As you’ll see in a moment, I’m not predicting this outcome, but No. 6 seed Washington over No. 3 seed USC is the biggest potential upset of this day. The Trojans have been vulnerable to guards like Brown this season and aren’t playing their best basketball of the year entering the tournament.

Final four

Fattal: UCLA vs. USC. What good is a conference tournament without a rivalry rubber match? UCLA and USC shouldn’t have a problem getting through their first-round byes (that was a joke), and should be able to put away whichever team meets them at the quarterfinals (most likely the Washington schools). The Trojans were winners of five straight over the Bruins before UCLA finally got over the hump Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. This semifinal will be a great appetizer for the championship game. And then Arizona vs. Oregon. Unless Oregon’s shocker over Colorado comes easy, I don’t think the Ducks will have enough left in the tank to take down No. 1 Arizona, unless they reach into the reserve tank of Madness here in March. It could happen, but I’m not seeing it. Look to hear (and feel) a strong presence from Arizona fans this weekend.

Grosbard: It’s boring, but I see all top-four seeds advancing, setting up a rubber match between UCLA and USC and Colorado-Arizona in the other half of the bracket. These are clearly the top four teams in the conference, and I don’t think the bottom eight are capable of upsetting the established order.

Title game

Fattal: Arizona vs. UCLA. Jaime Jaquez Jr. is back, and has a Pac-12 Player of the Week Award to prove it. That’s a good sign for the Bruins. But the way UCLA beat Arizona earlier this season was due to an anomaly that even coach Mick Cronin couldn’t argue when Kerr Kriisa and Dalen Terry combined to go 0 of 17 from the field. Mathurin went 5 of 22.

Grosbard: Arizona vs. UCLA. The Wildcats are the clear class of the conference and should handle Colorado easily, while the Bruins played much better in Saturday’s 75-68 win over the Trojans than the final score indicated. Now that the Bruins have gotten over the hump against USC, they should have more confidence closing out this semifinal matchup.

Pac-12 champion

Fattal: Arizona. Crown the Wildcats and give them the No. 1 seed they deserve, which is probably going to happen whether they win the conference tournament or not. Give first-year coach Tommy Lloyd Pac-12 Coach of the year, too.

Grosbard: Can it be anyone other than Arizona? Yes, Colorado and UCLA have beaten the Wildcats this year, so it’s possible Arizona stumbles. But when this team is really rolling, there’s no Pac-12 opponent that can counteract its perimeter scoring, playmaking and size and athleticism in the post.

Who’s dancing?

Fattal: Arizona. UCLA. USC. Unless another Pac-12 team wins the tournament, I think the conference gets only three teams in. Colorado or Oregon might get a sniff if either one can make it to the final. Obviously winning the whole thing punches a ticket, but I think the Wildcats, Bruins and Trojans are the only ones practicing their dance moves in the mirror on Selection Sunday.

Grosbard: Unless there’s a dark horse who wins the tournament, only Arizona, UCLA and USC will make the NCAA Tournament out of the Pac-12. Oregon’s late-season collapse has left it on the wrong side of the bubble. Colorado is hamstrung by a weak nonconference résumé and a late-season loss to Arizona State. That said, the Buffs are probably the only team that could sneak into the NCAA Tournament without walking away with the trophy in Vegas this week. But that would require beating Arizona in the semifinals before losing in the championship game to either USC or UCLA.

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