Here we are — the fans, followers and media of the Pac-12 — staring at a relatively sour Sweet 16, wondering how exactly we got here.
It all started so grand. Seven teams drew bids for the NCAA Tournament, tied with three other conferences for most in the country, with none seeded lower than a No. 8. The conference’s RPI ranked second, behind the Big 12, according to Jerry Palm of CBS Sports. While the league didn’t have the lofty array of the Kansas-led Big 12 — which had teams earn seeds at Nos. 1-6 and No. 8 — the Pac-12 still boasted a top seed in Oregon, a No. 3 in Utah, a No. 4 in Cal, a No. 6 in Arizona, a No. 7 in Oregon State and two eighth seeds in USC and Colorado.
Arizona? Adios. Cal? Curtailed. Colorado? Call for help. Oregon State? State of denial. USC? See ya later. Utah? Ta-ta.
One team, Oregon, remains, and it plays Duke on Thursday at Honda Center in Anaheim, California. If the Ducks lose to the defending national champions and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, the conference will be without an Elite 8 representative for the fifth time in eight years.
By every account, it’s been a massive disappointment.
How, again, did we get here?
Well, here are three reasons:
1. Head honch-woes. Pop quiz, hotshot: You’ve got to take one head coach, to win one NCAA Tournament game, on one day. Are you going to take Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak, and his two career March Madness upsets (including a No. 5 over No. 4 win), or Gonzaga’s Mark Few, and his seven? You’re going to take Few in that game, and you’re not going to think twice about it.
Ask yourself this, and throw away hometown loyalty: Gregg Marshall, and his six lower-seed upsets, or Sean Miller, and his three – one coming at Xavier in a two-point win as a No. 9 over eighth-seeded BYU in 2007 and two coming during the Derrick Williams-led run in 2011? You may not take Marshall 10 times out of 10, but you’re going to take that bet a fair amount of time.
The brass tacks of it is this: The Pac-12 just doesn’t boast great tournament coaches. The 11 who remain – Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins was jettisoned after a disappointing season — have pulled off a combined 19 NCAA Tournament wins as lower seeds.
Dana Altman has four, benefiting from perennial under-seeding at Creighton and an improbable Sweet 16 run as a No. 12 seed with the Ducks in 2013. Miller has the three, and he’s tied with UCLA’s Steve Alford, who took 12th-seeded Southwest Missouri State to a Sweet 16 in 1999, and who isn’t even in the postseason this season. Washington’s Lorenzo Romar also has three, but he hasn’t sniffed the tournament since 2011, and Krystowiak and USC’s Andy Enfield each have two. Colorado’s Tad Boyle and Cal’s Cuonzo Martin each have one upset, and ASU’s Bobby Hurley, Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle and Washington State’s Ernie Kent are shut out.
That isn’t a ton of March magic to go around.
2. Blame the ADs: Aside from Altman, Enfield and (maybe) Tinkle, each of the above named was an Above Name. Romar had UCLA assistant cachet; Krystowiak was an NBA player and head coach; Martin toiled for Purdue for years and came from Tennessee; Kent was a Pac-12 mainstay at Oregon; Miller was perhaps the hottest coach on the market when he came west from Xavier; and Alford and Hurley were, well, Alford and Hurley.
It takes a brave face to hitch a wagon to a one-month wonder — like Enfield — but sometimes it pays off.
3. The need for seed. Standing in the bowels of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Arizona, assistant coach Book Richardson couldn’t do more than shake his head.
“That wasn’t an 11 seed,” he said, again and again, incredulously.
And he was right.
Arizona drawing Wichita State and Marshall in the first round was like a tiger drawing a gorilla in a jungle fight. At least give the Wildcats a squirrel or something, or a bat.
The Shockers mauled Arizona from the opening tip, putting a vice grip on the Wildcats’ backcourt, and it was clear to everyone in the building that they deserved a higher nod.
So, too, did 11th-seeded Gonzaga, which easily dispatched of No. 3 seed Utah in the Round of 32. You could argue that the Pac-12 was over-seeded itself: Who would’ve been offended had No. 8 seeds USC and Colorado been given 11s?
4. Them’s the breaks. For all of the gloom and sadness, people forget just how close the league was to respectability.
Even before its matchup with Big West upstart Hawaii, Cal was dealt a blow it wouldn’t recover from: Tyrone Wallace, star senior point guard, was lost for the entire tournament with a fractured hand. When the Bears lost as a No. 4 seed to the Warriors, it barely registered as an upset.
Colorado led Connecticut by six points at halftime before crumbling to the Huskies’ ball pressure. Oregon State was up two on VCU with less than 10 minutes to go, and USC lost to Providence by one point after the Friars scored with less two seconds left on the clock.
Flip even two of those games, and the Pac-12 isn’t a punchline.
But it is, and we have to live with it.