INDIANAPOLIS — We bow down today before our new overlords from the West Coast, who have come to the Heartland to assert their domination over all things college hardwood. Commander Bill Walton, we are at the service of your tie-dyed army.
It was a stunning turn of events when the Pac-12 grabbed four spots in the men’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16. Now the league has three of the Elite Eight, but wait—there is more to the Westward lean of this tourney than that. Seven of the eight teams still dancing are from west of the Mississippi River. That’s never happened before.
Gonzaga, the true Pacific Time Zone titan, marches on with the Pac-12 trio in tow. So do two teams from Texas, in Baylor and Houston. And don’t forget Arkansas. There is an unmistakable old Southwest Conference vibe at play here with the Bears, Cougars and Razorbacks. Raise a glass to the late Guy Lewis.
The only team still standing from the Eastern time zone is Michigan. The Wolverines have impressively circled the wagons after the season-ending injury to mainstay Isaiah Livers, further testament to the coaching chops of second-year leader Juwan Howard. But the departure of all their geographic brethren is startling.
The Midwest and the East—long known as the power base of college hoops—has been routed. Most of the teams from those areas were dismissed in the first two rounds, and the weekend served as the rest of the mop-up mission. On Saturday, Villanova and Syracuse were taken out by Baylor and Houston in a Texas two-step. On Sunday, No. 2 seed Alabama exited after fainting at the foul line against No. 11 seed UCLA, in what was the most exciting game of the tourney. (Thank you to Alabama senior Alex Reese for delivering the first true buzzer beater of the tournament to get the game into overtime.) The Atlantic Coast Conference is gone after Florida State simply had no answers for the Wolverines.
The Pac-12 usually is a quality basketball league. But it doesn’t often show a lot of staying power in this tournament. Its last national champion was in 1997, and just one Pac-12 team (Oregon in 2017) has made the Final Four since 2008. For comparison’s sake, the mid-major Missouri Valley has put two in the Final Four in that span (Wichita State and Loyola Chicago).
Monday and Tuesday, the Pac-12 will try to take three out of four spots in the final weekend. It would seem extremely unlikely—the league reps will be considerable underdogs in all three games—but we’ve seen a barrage of upsets to get to this point. What’s a few more? —Pat Forde
In It to Win It
For each of the programs in the women’s Elite Eight, SI’s Emma Baccellieri makes a prediction that if they win it all, this will be the reason why:
No. 1 Stanford: Its balance. It’s hard to draw up a game plan to defend the Cardinal—Stanford doesn’t have anyone who averages more than 15 points per game but does have four players who average more than 10. They work as a cohesive unit in a way that showcases just how good they are at, well, everything—this was the top overall seed for a reason.
No. 1 South Carolina: Its defense. It leads the nation in blocks and consistently out-rebounds its opponents, too, led by star Aliyah Boston. Also? The Gamecocks are battle-tested. They played the toughest schedule in the country this season according to RPI.
No. 1 UConn: Yes, Paige Bueckers. But UConn thrives on the strength of the ensemble around her—Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Aaliyah Edwards, and Christyn Williams can all be forces in their own right. The fact that this team doesn’t need to rely on its freshman star is part of why it’s so damn good.
No. 2 Baylor: It’s just about unstoppable on the boards. Its 62.3% rebound rate is the best in the country; Baylor averages almost 50 rebounds a game while its opponents average fewer than 30.
No. 2 Louisville: It gets big performances from Dana Evans. After opening the tournament with two fairly quiet games—by her standards, at least—Evans broke out with 29 points against Oregon in the Sweet 16. If Louisville goes all the way, it’ll almost certainly be with some standout work from the first-team All-American.
No. 3 Arizona: It manages to control the tempo. The Wildcats are much stronger defensively than offensively—though don’t overlook the scoring ability of Aari McDonald—and they’ll be in a good position if they can set the pace of these upcoming games accordingly.
No. 4 Indiana: Its ability to protect the ball. The Hoosiers finished in the 99th percentile in turnover rate, which should serve them especially well in the Elite Eight, where they’ll face steal-happy Arizona.
No. 6 Texas: So there’s no single stat indicating that Texas should go all the way. But it proved in its stunning upset win over No. 2 Maryland that it can take over a game, make it fit its speed, and dominate from there. (Not to mention that Charli Collier is a beast—but we didn’t need that game to prove that.) If the Longhorns can repeat what they did in the Sweet 16, they can win it all.
Gonzaga’s offense put on a clinic vs. Creighton, and so far, it’s performing like an all-time great team in this tournament. (By Pat Forde)
The FSU game was supposed to be when Michigan felt Isaiah Livers’s absence. Instead, it was the story of Juwan Howard and a near-perfect gameplan. (By Jeremy Woo)
In what may be Hinkle Fieldhouse’s NCAA tournament swan song, we were gifted a buzzer beater and an epic overtime thriller. (By Ross Dellenger)
Best Thing We Saw
Alabama lost in overtime in the end, but this Alex Reese buzzer beater was sweet.
Pick ‘Em: Elite Eight
SI’s Pat Forde makes picks for Monday’s men’s games:
No. 12 Oregon State over No. 2 Houston: I’m sorry but picking against the Pac-12 at this point is bad for your health. The Beavers are believers.
No. 1 Baylor over No. 3 Arkansas: Eric Musselman’s team has been living on a Razor’s edge for two games. Baylor specializes in taking out those kind of teams.
SI’s Molly Geary makes picks for Monday’s women’s games:
No. 1 UConn over No. 2 Baylor: This should be an extremely good game—and one worthy of a Final Four or national title game spotlight, yet we’re getting it in the Elite Eight. Give us the Huskies in a barnburner.
No. 4 Indiana over No. 3 Arizona: One of these teams will make the program’s first Final Four. On paper, the Hoosiers have the edge on offense, and it’ll give them the push they need.
Indiana’s hiring of Mike Woodson as its men’s basketball coach will be comfort food for older segments of the Hoosier Faithful, who still have fealty to the Bob Knight Era and all with an attachment to it. But if Indiana thinks the hire will resonate with those who matter most—teenage recruits—guess again. The school is on a Michigan copycat path, hiring a renowned alum with an NBA pedigree and pairing him with a veteran former head coach (Phil Martelli at Michigan, now Thad Matta at Indiana). It seems like an improbable formula to successfully repeat.
But know this: people comparing Indiana basketball with Nebraska football in terms of toxic nostalgia are overlooking a massive difference between the two. Indiana sits on perpetually fertile recruiting soil, while Nebraska sits on corn. With the right leader, Indiana can win big again. —P.F.
At the Buzzer
Twenty-nine years ago today, March 29, 1992, sixth-seeded Michigan defeated No, 1 seed Ohio State in overtime in Rupp Arena to win the South Region and advance to the Final Four. It was the validating victory for a brash freshman group known as the Fab Five. Current Wolverines coach Juwan Howard had 10 points in the victory.