The Elite Eight marks the halfway point of the NCAA Tournament, but don’t blink. It has the shelf life of chicken nuggets.
By the time your head hits the pillow tomorrow night, we’ll be down to a Final Four and find out whether the selection committee is any better at seeding teams than the cooks at your local McDonalds.
Three of the four teams handed No. 1s — Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan — are still in the field, which is average. But so are three Pac-12 Conference teams — No. 6 USC, No. 11 UCLA and No. 12 Oregon State — which definitely is not. Needless to say, the road would have been a lot smoother for the Pac-12 entries if their league got anywhere near the respect the Big Ten and Big 12 carried inside the room where it (seeding) happens.
USC and UCLA were the last two teams to claim their seats Sunday. The Trojans handily beat fellow Pac-12 member and seventh-seeded Oregon, while the Bruins needed overtime — after a last-second hiccup — to put away No. 2 Alabama 88-78.
“I’ll never live that one down,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said afterward. “The kids bailed me out.”
In the two other games, Gonzaga looked unbeatable one more time while steamrolling No. 5 Creighton 83-65, while Michigan had surprisingly little trouble shaking No. 4 Florida State 76-58, once again displaying the kind of balance and depth to upend the Zags’ (29-0) quest for a title and the first perfect season since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.
“They just play so fast, so efficient with everything they do,” said Marcus Zegarowski, who led Creighton with 19 points. “There are no lapses. You just can’t take, not even a play, you can’t take a second off or they’re going to make you pay.”
UCLA essentially took the last four seconds off, and the Tide made them pay. Leading by three with Alabama in-bounding the ball, Cronin chose not to have his players commit a quick foul and give up two free throws. Two passes later, Alex Reese canned a long 3-pointer — the tournament’s first buzzer-beater — and you could have fried an egg on the top of Cronin’s pate.
Fortunately, his players saw it otherwise. That nonchalance has paid dividends for these Bruins, who had to beat Michigan State in the First Four just to get into the big-boy bracket. UCLA is the first play-in team to get this far since VCU in 2011, the year the brackets were expanded to 68 teams.
“We knew we had nothing to worry about,” UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “This is March. It happens all the time.”
The Bruins opened the extra period with a 3-pointer by David Singleton, then a steal and layup by Tyger Campbell and never looked book.
Speaking of hindsight, no matter how the Pac-12 trio fares from here on out, the selection committee still has some explaining to do. Nine Big Ten teams began the tournament — including four teams among the top eight overall seeds — and only Michigan is left. The Big 12 got seven entries and all but Baylor are home now watching on TV.
Monday’s games pit Baylor against No. 3 Arkansas, which banished this year’s real Cinderella, 15th-seeded Oral Roberts, in the Sweet 16. In the day’s other game, Oregon State faces No. 2 Houston.
For all that, the real question hanging over the tournament since it began is whether the Bulldogs can be beat. Their three tournament victories have come by 43, 16 and 18 points. They boast three finalists for the national player of the year award in Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and freshman Jalen Suggs, and a fourth player, Joel Ayayi, who would be a star almost anywhere else.
But their best player against Creighton might actually have been point guard Andrew Nembhard, a transfer from Florida who scored 17 points, collected eight assists and reminded some folks why he was the first freshman for the Gators to start every game since Bradley Beal.
In fact, Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s toughest job might not be preparing his team for USC come Tuesday. Instead, it could be managing expectations. This is his fourth trip to the Elite Eight in the last six years — all of which ended before their expiration date.
“I’m just telling you: We’re not hung up on the undefeated thing at all,” Few said. “We’ve got to go undefeated from here on out. We’ve got to go 3-0 if we want to win the championship, which that’s been our goal all along. But nobody’s talking about the overall undefeated thing at all.”
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