Was it T-Mobile Arena, or was it McKale Memorial Center?
That’s what it felt like when first-seeded Arizona cut down the nets in Las Vegas after rallying against second-seeded UCLA to secure the Pac-12 tournament crown. An 18,000-capacity arena largely donned red and blue, and between the raucous crowd and performances of standout players such as Christian Koloko and Bennedict Mathurin, the show lived up to its pretournament moniker of “Arizona versus everyone else.”
That’s not to say that the Wildcats’ road to the championship didn’t feature some nail-biting play. In the second round, they went toe-to-toe in an 84-80 win against Stanford, who never trailed by more than 7. Arizona also had to exorcize its demons against Colorado by overcoming an early 18-11 deficit.
In the championship game, it was Arizona who trailed UCLA by as many as 12 before rediscovering its physicality en route to an 84-76 win. In something that could help them fare well during March Madness, the Wildcats used a multitude of backdoor cuts that the Bruins were unable to defend. Arizona finished with 40 points in the paint and upped its field goal percentage in the second half by 28% despite the absence of an injured Kerr Kriisa and foul-troubled Justin Kier.
“Tired: Three games in three days is a tough deal,” said Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd when asked how he felt after the win. “And I’m just so proud of this group. I mean, honestly, I haven’t even taken a minute to figure out how we did it; UCLA is a very good team. For us to come in here — we beat them straight up — that’s saying enough.”
The tournament may have been tiring for teams such as Arizona, UCLA and USC — programs whose places in the NCAA tournament were solidified during Selection Sunday — but certain players were able to rise above the rest. While Mathurin was named the tournament MVP, Koloko joined him on the All-Tournament team, which also included a pair of UCLA standouts in Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jules Bernard, in addition to USC’s Boogie Ellis.
Jaquez and Bernard averaged 20 and 17.67 points per game in the tourney, respectively. Their contributions were sorely needed by UCLA after junior standout Johnny Juzang struggled during the Bruins’ run to the championship game. Ellis, meanwhile, was fourth among players with 22 points per game in the two contests USC played. He notably showed up in the Trojans’ semifinal match against the Bruins, going for 27 points during a night where his team shot a collective 39.6% from the field.
While the Pac-12 tournament, held in Las Vegas for the ninth consecutive year, showcased the three teams who got bids for the NCAA tournament, it was actually a decrease from the five Pac-12 squads who were sent to March Madness last year. Notably, the Pac-12 trails the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, SEC and ACC.
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve not had the depth we’ve usually had this year,” said Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich during a March 10 press conference. “That’s a little bit a factor of the fact that we do have top teams that have done very well in conference play, but I also think we need to recognize it was a challenging season: We had nine nonconference games that didn’t get played.”
Despite the lack of depth for the conference this year, it’s clear that the teams participating in March Madness represent some of the best programs in the nation. Arizona and UCLA were locked into the No. 2 and No. 11 seeds overall, respectively, and USC checked in at No. 22 in the final poll from The Associated Press. As March Madness kicks off with the First Four on March 15, eyes will be on the Pac-12 to see if it can replicate its success from last year.
Ali Fazal covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].