SPORTS DIGEST: USC, UCLA hope Pac 12 tourney opens NCAA door


West / California 7 Views

This is one of the worst times of the year to be a sports fan.

The football season ended a month ago. Baseball season is still three weeks away. The NBA playoffs don’t start for another five weeks.

The biggest story last weekend might have been the expansion Los Angeles Football Club winning its first game in Major League Soccer, 1-0 over the Seattle Sounders. (The Galaxy started their season with a victory, too.)

This week we have the Pac 12 basketball tournament in Las Vegas with USC and UCLA trying to play their way into the NCAA basketball tournament.

The Trojans finished Pac 12 play in second place behind Arizona. In any other major conference, the No. 2 team in the conference would be guaranteed a spot in the tournament already, but according to the people who pay a lot more attention to these things than I do, USC is on the bubble to make March Madness with is 21-10 overall record, 12-6 in conference.

UCLA is in a similar position. The Bruins are seeded fourth in the Pac 12 Tournament with a 20-10 overall record, 11-7 in conference.

Both teams probably need to win twice in the tournament to be assured a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 15.

Both teams were supposed to be much better than this, but that was before both teams were hit by suspensions of key players.

USC lost De’Anthony Melton after he was linked to a possible bribery and corruption scandal that also ensnared assistant coach Tony Bland. Melton would have given the Trojans one more solid player to run coach Andy Enfield’s up-tempo system. The Trojans never found anyone to replace him in the lineup.

UCLA’s Chris Smith puts up a shot over USC’s Chimezie Metu March 3 at Galen Center. UCLA defeated USC, 83-72, to sweep both games between the crosstown rivals this season. (Photo by Mario Villegas)

The Bruins lost three prized freshmen when they were arrested for shoplifting on the team’s trip to China in November. No one knows what impact LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill would have had on the Bruins’ season, but their loss left the Bruins with essentially an eight-man rotation all season and the lack of depth contributed to the Bruins’ lackluster season.

This is a weird era for college basketball. The regular season is rendered meaningless when every conference holds a season-ending tournament to determine who will represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament.

That, coupled by too many players who are attending college for one season before they bolt to the NBA, makes it harder for teams to develop a following and makes it harder for coaches to mold teams into championship units.

Villanova did not have the best overall basketball team in the country when it won the NCAA Tournament in 2016, but their players had been together for three or four years and played the best TEAM basketball and that enabled them to win the title.

The Pac 12 gets little credit outside the Pacific Coast for the brand of basketball it plays. Arizona is always one of the top programs in the country and USC and UCLA were supposed to be in the same class this year.

Arizona State got off to a 12-0 start to the season and for one brief week was the No. 1 team in the country. Then conference play started and the Sun Devils went 8-10 in the conference. They, too, are on the bubble, their spot in the NCAA Tournament depending on how they play in the Pac 12 Tournament.

UCLA faces the winner of the March 7 Cal-Stanford game March 8 at 2:30 p.m. USC follows at 6 p.m., playing the winner of the Oregon State-Washington game.

The Bruins beat USC twice this season already. The only way they can see each other again is if they meet in the Pac 12 title game March 10 at 7 p.m.

If they each make it that far, they may have already played their way into the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA Coach Chip Kelly

SPRING BALL: Shouldn’t they at least wait until spring to start spring football? Both UCLA and USC began spring football practice this week.

New UCLA coach Chip Kelly will get a chance to see what kind of team Jim Mora left him with. Mora came in six years ago with enough good players from the Rick Neuheisel era left over that he won 29 games his first three years.

It was only when he started playing his own recruits that Mora had trouble winning games. We will see what Kelly gets out of Mora’s players.

With Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold jumping to the NFL, both the Bruins and the Trojans will be looking at new quarterbacks this spring.

Unfortunately, the new quarterbacks they really want to see aren’t on campus yet.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson is UCLA’s prized quarterback recruit for next year but he is still attending classes at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.

J.T. Daniels is USC’s prized recruit from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, but he is trying to cram two years of high school classes into this one so he can compete finish high school a year early and play for the Trojans next fall.

Until then, Matt Fink and Jack Sears are competing for the Trojans’ job.

Devon Modster played four games last season when Josh Rosen was injured so the Bruins have a quarterback with some experience in the spring. Whether Modster can use that experience to keep the job remains to be seen. Redshirt sophomore Matt Lynch and redshirt freshman Austin Burton are also in the mix.

K.T. Carta-Samuels, a graduate transfer from the University of Washington, is supposed to join the mix by the time spring ends.

Lou Williams drives to the basket against the New Orleans Pelicans March 6. The Pelicans won 121-116, despite 27 points by Williams.
(Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Clippers)

PLAYOFF STRETCH: When the season ends next month, the Clippers might wish they had the March 6 game against the New Orleans Pelicans back.

After falling behind by 20 points in the third quarter, the Clippers rallied to lead by two with less than two minutes to play. But the Pelicans outscored the Clippers 10-3 the rest of the way to win 121-116.

A win would have lifted the Clippers past the Denver Nuggets into the eighth and final playoff seat in the NBA Western Conference. Instead, the Clippers remain a half-game behind Denver and just a half game ahead of the Utah Jazz.

The Western Conference is so tight that Portland, currently the third seed, is only four games ahead of the Jazz, who are in 10th place. That race will go down to the wire. The Clippers have as good a chance as anyone to get to the playoffs, but I don’t see them getting past Golden State or Houston.

Still, Doc Rivers has done a great job of keeping his team in the hunt.

OUT OF IT: Mathematically speaking, the Lakers still have a chance to make the playoffs. Realisticly, not so much.

The Lakers gave the March 5 game to Portland in the last several minutes after playing the Trailblazers tough the whole game. The Lakers didn’t have anyone to stop Damian Lillard and that turned out to be the difference in the 108-103 loss that ended the Lakers five-game winning streak.

The Lakers have surpassed last year’s win total and could end up with 35 wins or more. Anyway you look at this season, it has to be successful for the Lakers. They got three real good rookies — Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart —out of last year’s draft and two rookies from the year before, Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac.

Zubac has spent most of the year on the G League roster but is playing more lately and continues show the promise he showed last season in spurts.

Don’t look for Isaiah Thomas sticking with the team next season. He and Lonzo Ball both need the ball n their hands to be effective and Ball is a better distributor. Thomas looks to score first as a point guard, which is fine unless you are only shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from three-point range.

At 5-8, Thomas struggles to play defense when he even bothers to try, which isn’t often enough for me.