From one angle, it’s the Pac-12 Invitational. Four teams — 25 percent of the surviving field — come from the conference that skeptics have loved to doubt and pollsters have hesitated to vote for. If the past few days are any indication, they not planning to just show up, either. The four advancing members — USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Oregon State — won their second games by 34, 20, 15 and 10 points. The league is 9-1 so far counting wins, loses and walkovers.
USC coach Andy Enfield was saying that proving the skeptics wrong has been a fine way to pass the time in the COVID bubble. “That’s how we keep ourselves entertained,” he said. “We’re locked in our rooms, we just turn the tournament on, watch the Pac-12 do well.”
And it has. But past questions of the league’s tournament performance were not without any basis. Now might be the time to mention the Pac-12 hasn’t produced a national champion since Arizona in 1997, and has sent only one team — Oregon in 2017 — to the Final Four in the past 11 tournaments. That might be about to change.
From another angle, it’s Act II of Gonzaga Goes for History. The unbeaten Zags have won their two tournament games by 43 and 16 points and their only single-digit decision of the season was more than three months ago. Now coach Mark Few is doing celebratory headstands in the locker room to keep the lads loose. Through any pressure from their quest, or any distraction from their fame, or any disruptions from the pandemic, they haven’t veered off course. Not so far by a yard.
“I think the one thing when you’re on our bench, there’s a comfort in knowing that eventually we’re going to get going,” Few said. “I literally think they could handle anything, probably even being shipwrecked on a deserted island. They’d figure it out.”
From another angle, it’s a new chance to get some drama flowing again. Not much of that in the second round. There were only five of the 16 games settled by single digits, and the average winning margin in Monday’s eight contests was 18.
From yet another, it’s just really an unusual assortment of teams, many of whom have been waiting a long time for this chance.
Creighton hasn’t been this far since 1974.
Oregon State hasn’t been since 1982. The Beavers hadn’t won a tournament game since then before last weekend.
USC hasn’t been in 14 years.
Oral Roberts has never been.
Until the past weekend, Alabama had won one game in the past 13 tournaments.
There are as many 11 seeds as there are 2 seeds.
There are as many 15 seeds as there are 3 seeds.
There are as many teams from the Summit League as there are from the Big Ten. The most vaunted conference in the land went into the tournament with nine bids and lost eight the first weekend. Three were beaten in overtime but among the highest seeded, Illinois lost by 13 and Iowa by 15. “It’s March Madness for a reason,” said Eli Brooks of Michigan, the last Big Ten team standing.
Add all the seeds together and you get a total of 94. That’s the highest ever. Does that reflect an historic wave of capable underdogs? The imperfect data the selection committee had from this tumultuous season, making its seedings not quite as precise? Or how some teams handled the rigors of Indianapolis bubble life better than others? Maybe all of the above. But whatever the cause, some of the results have been undeniably odd. Consider the Midwest region semifinal of Loyola vs. Oregon State. Nothing says Sweet 16 like a No. 8 seed vs. a No. 12.
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Gonzaga is in its sixth consecutive Sweet 16, which a lot of people know. Florida State is in its third in a row, which a lot of people don’t. “We kind of coined our own phrase, we’re new bloods,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We’re new on the block. We didn’t get invited to the blue blood party.”
Seven of the 16 schools have won national championships, but only two — Villanova and Syracuse — have done it this century.
Oregon, because of the first round wave-through when VCU had to go home, is the first team in 37 years to get this far with just one victory.
Arkansas was picked to finish sixth in the SEC.
Michigan was picked in most polls to finish seventh in the Big Ten.
Oregon State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12.
USC lost its five top scorers from last season.
UCLA lost star Chris Smith to injury this season. So did Villanova with Collin Gillespie. Michigan is without veteran leader Isaiah Livers, but made it through the first two rounds averaging 84 points.
The surviving group is filled with stat kings.
Gonzaga leads the nation in most points scored and field goal shooting.
Loyola leads the nation in fewest points allowed.
Houston leads the nation in field goal percentage defense.
Oral Roberts leads the nation in free throw percentage.
They’re all trying to stay even another week in Indianapolis, bubble and all, because that would mean the Final Four. And the Final Four has been a distant dream for many of them.
Baylor hasn’t been since 1950.
USC hasn’t been since 1954.
Oregon State hasn’t been since 1963.
Florida State has been once, and that was 1972.
Houston went three consecutive years from 1982-84 and hasn’t been back in the 35 tournaments since.
Arkansas hasn’t been back since it lost the 1995 national championship game.
Alabama has never been. For that matter, the Tide have been in only one regional championship game ever.
Creighton hasn’t been in the Elite Eight since 1941, and that’s all they invited back then.
This Sweet 16 has the tale of two brothers. Evan and Isaiah Mobley at USC. “(This) is what any kid would dream of,” Isaiah said. “Especially one with a brother that plays at such a high level.”
There is a saga of father and son. Senior Buddy Boeheim is down to his last chance to get his 76-year-old dad Jim to another Final Four. “When he was in ninth grade on his AAU team, he didn’t start and the guys ahead of him weren’t very good,” Jim said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be good, you’re going to be better than these guys someday.’ Fortunately, he not only listened to me but he went to work and made it happen.” The past four games, Buddy Boeheim has scored 25, 30, 31 and 27 points.
There are injuries to note. Michigan will probably be without Livers. Villanova will certainly be without Collin Gillespie. Hamilton is coaching on a ruptured Achilles, suffered when he stepped off a team bus.
There are second round feats to recognize. Oregon had 11 3-pointers against Iowa, but also 10 dunks. That’s called shredding a defense. Oregon State made 32 of 35 free throws in beating Oklahoma State. Baylor had only four turnovers against Wisconsin, UCLA only eight against Abilene Christian, the most adept turnover-forcers in the land. Kansas had never lost a game by more than 18 points before, not in 48 NCAA tournaments. USC crushed the Jayhawks by 34.
Michigan was missing Livers but still outscored LSU 26-2 in bench points. Creighton’s starters scored 68 of 72 points against Ohio. The Syracuse zone has allowed 37 and 35.8 percent shooting the first two games. Loyola took on the conference tournament champions from the ACC and Big Ten back-to-back and won by 11 and 13. Oral Roberts’ dynamic duo of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor have scored 113 points in two games. The rest of the team has scored 43.
There are two rematches in the Sweet 16. One that’s obvious: Oregon vs. USC, with the Trojans winning the first meeting by 14 points in February. One that isn’t. Arkansas vs. Oral Roberts, with the Razorbacks beat the Golden Eagles by 11 in December.
As for some of the other games, Creighton is up next to face the Gonzaga music, Arkansas tries to rain on the Oral Roberts parade, UCLA meets Alabama in a matchup between the school with the most basketball national championships in the NCAA Tournament and the school with the most football national championships in the poll era.
There is the clear sign of a geographical swaying of power, at least for one March. The Eastern time zone has accounted for 21 of the past 22 national champions, with 2008 Kansas as the lone exception. But only four EST teams — Michigan, Florida State, Villanova and Syracuse — are still alive.
It seems quite the collection. The No. 1 team with a perfect record. A nun from Loyola and a school from Tulsa named after an evangelist. And a conference with a chip on its shoulder.
“We’re obviously putting everybody on notice,” Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said. “I’m very happy for our program but I’m extremely happy for the Pac-12 conference. Maybe now we’ll get some damn respect.”