PAC-12 MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The Pacific-12 Conference, back in early January, boasted two teams that appeared to be better and more resourceful than anyone else in the league. Those two schools are the ones that have made their way to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
You remember early January, right? Two and a half months ago, the college basketball world felt very different. Arizona had not yet been roughed up by the Pac-12, stumbling against USC and getting whacked at home by California. The Wildcats hadn’t yet been swept by UCLA or outplayed twice by Colorado. As 2013 began, Arizona was ranked in the top five of the nation, due to wins over elite teams from the ACC (Miami) and the SEC (Florida). Arizona defeated a San Diego State team that turned out to be the last Mountain West Conference team remaining in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats accumulated the high-value wins that were consistent with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. January and February eroded the team’s overall resume, but it’s instructive to note that coach Sean Miller’s club was always capable of doing big things on the court.
There was another club that radiated promise and potential in the Pac-12. Oregon won its first seven Pac-12 games of the season. Unlike Arizona, Oregon maintained its status as a top-tier team through the month of January, but then disaster struck. Freshman point guard Dominic Artis, a lightning-quick penetrator with top-shelf ballhandling skills, suffered a foot injury that kept him on the sidelines for all of February. Without Artis, Oregon didn’t just lose its quickest player and its best safeguard against turnovers; the Ducks lost the ability to play an up-tempo game and had to reshuffle their entire rotation in ways that put players out of their normal comfort zones. Oregon proceeded to lose six conference games, enough to lose even a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship, which UCLA plucked from the Ducks’ grasp in the final week of the regular season.
Oregon, like Arizona, had to wonder if March was going to offer anything of value. Two seasons that seemed to be headed for greatness had turned so conspicuously sour, albeit for different sets of reasons.
There’s nothing sour about the outlook for the Ducks and Wildcats right now. Both schools are headed for the Sweet 16, their futures as basketball programs very much bathed in sunshine. Arizona and Oregon both received a certain measure of luck this past weekend, but good teams do something with luck in the NCAA tournament, while second-rate teams throw it away. Arizona and Oregon didn’t merely win their first two games of the Big Dance; they throttled their opponents and are breathing nothing but confidence as they prepare for the regional semifinal round of America’s favorite bracketed sporting event.
Arizona benefited from the 14-over-3 seed upset in this tournament, Harvard’s takedown of New Mexico last Thursday in Salt Lake City. However, Arizona – a popular pick to get knocked off in a 6-versus-11 seed game against the Belmont Bruins – had to reach the round of 32 in order to benefit from New Mexico’s loss. Sure enough, the Wildcats clocked Belmont by 17 points in a game that was frankly more lopsided than the final margin would suggest. Bolstered by that confident performance, Arizona played even better against Harvard, crushing the Crimson by 23. The Wildcats now go to the West Regionals in Los Angeles, where their sizable alumni base will give them a partisan crowd advantage against regional favorite Ohio State.
Speaking of partisan crowd advantages, that’s the break Oregon received in the first two rounds, even though coach Dana Altman’s club was the single most underseeded team in the whole field of 68. Oregon should have been a No. 6 seed, but was instead made a 12 seed to the bafflement of every college basketball pundit. Yet, Oregon was kept close to home, in San Jose, Calif., and Ducks fans made a lot of noise in HP Pavilion.
They had good reason to.
The Ducks simply flourished on Thursday and Saturday in dominant wins over Oklahoma State and Saint Louis, two top-5 seeds who looked more like 12 seeds, in a piece of rich irony. Oregon’s quickness and energy overwhelmed the Cowboys and Billikens, who both fell to the Ducks by margins of at least 13 points. (SLU dropped a 17-point decision in Saturday’s round of 32.) Artis was back in full flight at the point, while Carlos Emory dunked to his heart’s content and Arsalan Kazemi pounded the boards at both ends of the floor. Damyean Dotson hit 5 of 6 threes for 23 points against Saint Louis, and Oregon’s helpside team defense was simply spectacular in both games. Oregon now gets to play the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Louisville Cardinals, this Friday, a rich reward for a program that is unanimously seen as being well ahead of schedule.
Elsewhere in March Madness, California gained one additional win for the Pac-12 in the NCAAs, taking down fifth-seeded UNLV in San Jose last Thursday. However, the Bears weren’t able to fight past Syracuse on Saturday, losing a close contest on a night when their two best players, Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, combined to hit just 5 of 18 field goal attempts. Colorado and UCLA made the Big Dance, but they didn’t dance for long, bowing out in the round of 64 on Friday in Austin, Tex. Colorado was plagued by long scoring droughts in a loss to Illinois, while UCLA fell to Minnesota in a game that pitted two head coaches who both lost their jobs over the next four days (Ben Howland for UCLA and Tubby Smith for Minnesota).
In the NIT, Stanford – the defending NIT champion – fell in the second round to Alabama after beating Stephen F. Austin in the first round. Arizona State lost to Baylor in the second round after beating Detroit in the first round. Washington fell to BYU in the first round of the NIT.