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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

March 26, 2014 at 2:21 PM

Arizona, Stanford and UCLA prospects in the Sweet 16 . . .

It’s on to the Sweet 16 for two Pac-12 teams that seemed destined all along to make it (Arizona and UCLA), and one that nobody gave any shot (Stanford). Here, we take a look at their three matchups, all Thursday evening — and by the way, the UCLA-Florida and Arizona-San Diego State games will conflict with each other, the Bruins’ game scheduled to start at 6:45 p.m. (PDT) and the Arizona game at 7:17 p.m. (Who’s scheduling these, the Pac-12 TV partners?)

Arizona (32-4) vs. San Diego State (31-4) at Anaheim — I don’t see any way this will be anything other than a gear-grinder, a clash of defense-oriented teams in a game of limited possessions.  Arizona leads the country in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive numbers, allowing 87.2 points per 100 possessions, but San Diego State is close behind at No. 7 (90.3). It’s unrealistic to think the Wildcats can turn this into the steal-fest they created against Gonzaga (when they had 15); SDSU commits only 9.9 turnovers a game, and the Aztecs have 120 steals more than opponents. Everywhere you look, there are stingy numbers in this game: Arizona allows opponents to shoot only .380, SDSU .383. Xavier Thames, leading the Aztecs in scoring at 17.4 a game, gives them a chance, and forward Josh Davis will be more effective against the bouncy Arizona forwards, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, than outmanned Gonzaga was. But Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year, played out of his mind against the Zags, and it’s difficult to go against the superior physical team. Arizona wins a trip-to-the-dentist kind of game.

Dayton (25-10) vs. Stanford (23-12) at Memphis — Back about Feb. 1, if you’d forecast this game for the Sweet 16, you would have gotten funny looks. Dayton didn’t win the last two weeks of January, and Stanford was mucking through the midsection of the Pac-12, not at all a certainty to make the tournament. How do you like them now? One of these two outliers is (somehow) going to be in the Elite Eight. Dayton is an athletic group with balanced scoring but otherwise undistinguished numbers. Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert, a 6-4 guard, shoots .429 from distance, and Devin Oliver is second at 11.9. The Flyers have a tendency to foul (they’re among the worst 50 nationally), which could be a problem with the bigger Stanford front line; Dayton’s top four scorers are all 6-7 or shorter. Stanford, meanwhile, has been defending well, allowing New Mexico 38 percent and Kansas only 33. It’s been very good defending the three, giving up just nine in 37 attempts in the NCAA. Chasson Randle has played all 80 minutes for the Cardinal, which, as usual, isn’t using much bench, and big guy Stefan Nastic has been quietly efficient inside. Cardinal can’t afford a no-show from Dwight Powell as happened in the New Mexico game (0 for 8 from the floor; he rebounded to play well against Kansas).  Stanford has enough floor balance here to continue its unlikely run.

UCLA (28-8) vs. Florida (34-2) at Memphis — Indeed, both Stanford and UCLA are in Memphis, and wouldn’t it be strange if they advance to the Elite Eight to play each other? For now, the Bruins have had a primrose path to the Sweet 16, avoiding Virginia Commonwealth and a treacherous matchup when the Rams fouled a Stephen F. Austin three-point shooter for a late four-point play and fell in overtime. So now we find out what the Bruins are made of. They played very well in San Diego, particularly Jordan Adams, who had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists. Kyle Anderson is probably the key, however, modulating the pace and giving defenders trouble with his unusual length out on top. The Bruins were crazy-efficient against Stephen F. Austin, with 22 assists and a mere three turnovers. They’re second in the country in assist-turnover ratio at 1.68. Meanwhile, Florida just hums along, not having lost since Dec. 2, while Arizona, Michigan State and Louisville hog more than their share of the recent publicity. UCLA’s offensive chops will be tested by the Gators’ excellent defense, which surrenders only 57.5 points a game, has allowed 70 only once since Jan. 11, and is second only to Arizona in adjusted efficiency. Casey Prather, a .607 shooter, leads balanced scoring. I think this might come down to whether the Bruins can speed up the Gators and get some baskets in transition. And a second key: Tony Parker, who played well in San Diego, needs to continue that against Patric Young. I expect Florida to prevail, but it won’t be easy.

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