Arizona Wildcats are favorites to 3-peat in Pac-12 Tournament

Mar 12, 2024, 6:30 PM

Oumar Ballo of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after being fouled...

Oumar Ballo #11 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after being fouled during the first half against the California Golden Bears at McKale Center on February 01, 2024 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Sixth-ranked Arizona not only enters the Pac-12 Tournament as the clear favorite, coach Tommy Lloyd has been unbeaten in this event at T-Mobile Arena.

The Wildcats won the conference tournament the past two seasons, going through UCLA each time.

The Bruins were on Arizona’s level, but there is no real equivalent to the Wildcats (24-7) this season with the conference tournament opening Wednesday.

No. 22 Washington State (23-8) is the only other ranked Pac-12 team.

“We’re thankful,” Lloyd said. “The guys had a great regular season. To win a Pac-12 regular-season conference championship is not something to be taken lightly.”

Arizona will try to become the first team to win three Pac-12 Tournaments in a row since the Wildcats won four straight in 1988-90 and 2002. There were no conference tournaments between 1991-2001.

The Pac-12 announced Tuesday that Arizona senior guard Caleb Love was named player of the year after he averaged 18.7 points. Against Pac-12 teams, he averaged 20 points with a conference-high 59 3-pointers.

Lloyd has a couple of motivational tricks at his disposal. Arizona’s last visit to this arena resulted in a 96-95 double-overtime loss to then-No. 14 Florida Atlantic two days before Christmas. That loss gave Lloyd a 9-1 record in Las Vegas. The Owls, coming off a Final Four appearance, have since dropped out of the rankings.

Also, the Wildcats enter the league tournament — the last one for the Pac-12 before 10 teams leave for other conferences — after falling 78-65 to USC on Saturday, ending a stretch in which they had won 10 of 11 games.

“We knew we were given a gift by SC and we can really learn from this,” Lloyd said. “That’s going to be our focus.”

Arizona opens its tournament play in Thursday’s quarterfinals against the winner of Wednesday’s opening-round game between Washington (17-14) and USC (14-17).

Oumar Ballo, who averages 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds, pointed out that Arizona hasn’t lost back-to-back games.

“We’re going to respond,” Ballo said. “This was a wake-up call for us. This is going to make us better for a deep run in the postseason.”

Cronin sounds off

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi forecasts three Pac-12 teams making the NCAA Tournament — Arizona, Washington State and Colorado. Lunardi projects the Buffaloes (22-9) to make the field as a First Four team in Dayton, Ohio.

All three teams are ranked in the top 45 of the NCAA’s NET rankings, which the tournament committee uses as a guide, as well as Kenpom. Utah (18-13) is next at No. 52 in the NET and 51st in Kenpom.

Lunardi predicts six other conferences to send more teams to the tournament than the Pac-12, including the mid-major Mountain West, which has five teams in ESPN’s projection.

Four Pac-12 teams made the tournament last season.

“We’re all too tired to go into this and pound the podium to say, ‘Our league’s been disrespected,’” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “There’s so much manipulation of the NET and so many things that go on in November that have been a massive disadvantage for the Pac-12 in my five years that have caused the disrespect or really the legitimate problems of the Pac-12.”

Cronin said too many Pac-12 schools don’t schedule early season games properly, taking losses against mid-major conferences that hurt them in the computer rankings. Those same Pac-12 schools, Cronin said, develop into good teams when conference play begins, but it’s too late to affect the rankings.

“You’ve got teams playing road games against (West Coast Conference) teams,” Cronin said. “The Big 12 teams don’t play those games.”

Cronin won’t have to worry about that next season with the Bruins heading to the Big Ten Conference, which ESPN projects this season to send five teams to the tournament.

“What other teams do in your league affects everybody, and that’s been an issue for five years in this league,” Cronin said. “That I will not miss.”

Surprise run

The usual suspects were favored in preseason to win the Pac-12.

Washington State?

Not so much. The Cougars were picked 10th.

They enter the Pac-12 Tournament as the second seed. Washington State plays Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Bay Area rivals California (13-18) and Stanford (13-17).

But the Cougars are coming off a loss to their big rival, Washington, falling 74-68 on Thursday. It’s their second loss in four games.

“We’re playing with real pressure,” said Washington State’s Kyle Smith, the Pac-12 coach of the year. “We’re ranked. It’s a different space, a different altitude. So maybe that (Washington loss) humbles us a little bit and we’re hungrier going down there (to Las Vegas).”

Rice honored for comeback

Washington State guard Myles Rice was named conference freshman of the year after finally getting his chance to play following a two-year absence.

Rice redshirted two years ago and didn’t play last season because he was receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

When given the chance to finally play, Rice averaged 15.3 points, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals. His 35 points against Stanford on Jan. 18 set the school’s freshman single-game scoring record and was the highest total for a conference first-year player since 2017.

Odds are…

Arizona is the only team that has minus odds to win the conference tournament, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The Wildcats are minus-150 favorites, meaning a $150 bet pays $100 if it comes in.

Colorado is the next closest at plus-480, which equates to a $100 bet cashing at $480. Washington State is third at plus-700.

UCLA, which has played in the past two tournament championship games, is plus-4,000.

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