The West Region, won by Oklahoma over Oregon in Saturday’s final, offered an enduring reminder of a central NCAA tournament bracket truth: A well-placed 2 seed often trumps a 1 seed.
A review of the final appears here.
Oklahoma could have been a 2 seed in the Midwest with Virginia. It could have been a 1 instead of Virginia’s 2, and Michigan State could have been the 1 seed in the West with Oregon as the 2. Those seedings would have been debatable, less so had Oklahoma beaten West Virginia in the Big 12 semis. At any rate, Oklahoma has to think that being the 2 with Oregon represented a very favorable placement.
What Oregon beat writers and columnists are saying only reaffirms this.
Here’s the UO beat writer from Portland’s main newspaper, The Oregonian:
Oregon hasn't seen a team remotely close to this quality all season.
— Tyson Alger (@tysonalger) March 26, 2016
Here’s The Oregonian’s lead sports columnist:
I know. I know. This was the first time Oregon saw anything like Oklahoma… Why it shouldn’t have been: https://t.co/DV4A2sOqUR
— John Canzano (@johncanzanobft) March 27, 2016
The idea that “the rest of the conference must catch up to Oregon” is not really accurate. Arizona’s done a fine job of carrying the Pac-12 over time, thank you very much. Yet, I get what John Canzano is saying, and in its broader contours, it’s not wrong: The Pac-12 needs to become a league in which three or four strong Final Four contenders exist.
This used to be the case in the past — the 2007 and 2008 seasons had UCLA as the heavyweight No. 1 team in the league; Oregon (2007) and Stanford (2008) as top-3 seeds; and Washington State as a top-4 seed. A few years earlier, in 2001, Arizona was a 2, Stanford a 1, and UCLA was a 4. USC made the Elite Eight as a 6 — the Pac-10 had three Elite Eight teams that season.
Lute Olson at Arizona and Mike Montgomery at Stanford remained on top for many years in the Pac-12, forcing the rest of the conference to catch up. Oregon poked its way into the Elite Eight under Ernie Kent. Washington and Lorenzo Romar became a 1 seed (a weak 1 seed, but still a 1 seed) in 2005. Competition lifted other schools; what hurt the league was that when Arizona and Stanford reigned supreme, UCLA didn’t quite keep up, and when Ben Howland led UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006 through 2008, Arizona declined as Lute Olson’s health became a problem.
The larger point remains: Yes, the Pac-12 needs to get back to the point where three teams can be taken seriously when the brackets are revealed on Selection Sunday. Utah had its bracket path opened by Michigan State’s upset, and while losing to Gonzaga in itself was not a shameful result, getting trounced most certainly was. Oregon was the only Pac-12 team with national chops this season. California didn’t do very much away from Berkeley, a fact magnified in the NCAA tournament.
The idea that Oregon wasn’t sufficiently prepared for Oklahoma in the West final is — on balance — an accurate one.
An overlooked part of the West Region’s denouement is that the Big 12 helped Oklahoma in a counterintuitive manner.
The moment shown above — Northern Iowa stunning Texas on a halfcourt heave at the (Long-)horn — might have been the most important moment in the West Region.
That moment is part of a series of events which prevented the Big 12 from loading up the West Regional in Anaheim with member schools.
Consider: This could have been a West Regional with an Oregon-Baylor semifinal and a Texas-Oklahoma semifinal. Yale’s upset of Baylor smashed the first scenario, UNI’s buzzer-beater smothering the second.
When one reaffirms the point above about Oregon not being prepared for Oklahoma, it should be noted that the Ducks did beat Baylor… but at home, and very early in the season. A reunion with Baylor probably would not have been easy — it DEFINITELY would not have been easy on the eyes — but it might have prepped the Ducks for Oklahoma had Oregon been able to survive.
Then go to the lower half of the West bracket. Texas took Oklahoma to the wire on the road in Norman, coming within an eyelash of winning that game. The Longhorns later returned to Austin and slapped a 22-0 run on the Sooners late in the second half. Texas was an inconsistent team — as power-conference 6 seeds almost invariably are — but it treated OU with expected holy-war contempt. A 6-2 West semifinal with Texas was the last thing Oklahoma needed… even if the Sooners would have relished, to a man, the prospect of being able to beat Bevo again. The Longhorns’ other rivals from Texas A&M offered a much smoother ride into the Elite Eight.
As said in the linked OU-UO recap above (at the start of this piece), Buddy Hield didn’t need to play well against A&M. He was able to drift through that game and save the heavy artillery for Oregon. The economy of Hield’s performances in these past four NCAA tournament games was made possible, in part, by the Big 12’s first-round failures. Similarly, Oregon’s bad day against OU — while indeed a bad day and defined by an undeniable measure of randomness — could have been a lot more successful had Baylor not crashed out against Yale.
The Big 12’s quality over and against the Pac-12 was made clear in this regional… and yet the Big 12’s awful first round is part of what helped Oklahoma to become the league’s one representative at the Final Four.
Sports. They’re dumb… and great.