The 2014 NCAA basketball tournament has a wide-open look to it, unless Florida just decides to prove it was a superior team, even if it was playing in a “down” league.
Herewith, thoughts on the outlook for the six from the Pac-12 that made it, tying the league’s highest yield ever. We’ll go from the top down:
Arizona — ‘Zona, a top seed, seems to have gotten a fairly favorable road to the Final Four in the West, with No. 2 seed Wisconsin prospectively in the way in the regional final. A lot of people are projecting Arizona to have a struggle in a second game with Oklahoma State (but it’s interesting that for all the broadcast assumptions, etc., about Oke State moving on, the Cowboys are a mere two-point favorite over Gonzaga). If Arizona does get Oklahoma State, it would have a big rebounding edge against the Cowboys, who are shy up front. The Wildcats could face San Diego State in the regional semis in what would be a defensive grinder, and a regional-final game against Wisconsin would put their outstanding defense against an efficient offensive team. For now, Arizona has to beat Weber State, a good-shooting team (.481 and .392 on threes) keyed by 6-4 senior guard Davion Berry. But Weber’s minus-3.1 turnover margin doesn’t bode well. The prognosis — ‘Zona looks like a good bet to get to the Final Four.
UCLA — Thought it was interesting to hear what ESPN’s Jay Bilas said the other night, something I’d felt about the Bruins going back to the Steve Lavin days and even beyond. They’re probably more vulnerable early than they are farther in the tournament, more likely to overlook Tulsa but to take seriously what comes later. The Golden Hurricane ranks 28th in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive stats, but I figure its struggles to score (.325 three-point shooting) would make it hard to beat the Bruins. If UCLA advances, it would face either frenetic Virginia Commonwealth or Stephen F. Austin, a team that takes care of the ball. Prognosis — Bruins can be a handful offensively, if they just maintain focus. They look Sweet 16-good to me.
Colorado — It’s difficult sorting out stereotype versus reality here. Tad Boyle is a cagey coach, and Pitt is a team that seems to struggle in the tournament — witness its first-game disappearance against Wichita State last year. Pitt is good offensively (but it was last year as well), and its 1.48 team assist-turnover ratio is commendable. Talib Zanna is a 6-9 horse who had 21 rebounds in one game of the ACC tournament, and 6-5 senior Lamar Patterson leads in scoring at 17.6. I just don’t like Pitt in near-tossup games. Prognosis — We’ll side with a win here for the Buffs, but beating Florida in the next round is asking too much.
Oregon — I’m more flummoxed by what’s ahead for the Ducks than I am any other Pac-12 team (not that I’ll be right, just that I think I will be). They’ve had the ultimate in peaks-and-valleys seasons, and they definitely finished on a roll, at least until they ran up against UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament. Now they get BYU in a rematch of a December game in Eugene that went overtime, and which BYU probably should have won. It’ll be up-and-down, as the Cougars really like to get out and go, but they’ll have to do it without guard Kyle Collinsworth, who suffered a knee injury in the WCC tournament. BYU’s Eric Mika is only a freshman but could hurt the Ducks inside. Fasten your seat belts; Ducks are 12th in KenPom.com’s offense at 117.1, while BYU plays the eighth-fastest tempo in the country. Prognosis — I could see this going either way, with maybe a slight lean toward Oregon. In any case, I think Wisconsin’s precision would be hard for Oregon to beat in the next round. But if the threes are falling, the Ducks can be dangerous.
Stanford — The Cardinal gets seventh-seeded New Mexico first, and consensus is that the Lobos were underseeded. To me, the signs are ominous here for Stanford — it hasn’t been in the tournament under Johnny Dawkins, and it’s not a deep or tough team. New Mexico defends at a .389 clip (11th nationally), and it’s 38th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Lobos are led inside by seven-foot Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow (20.3 ppg) and guard Kendall Williams (16.4). They also may be motivated by a fairly ugly first-game pratfall against Harvard last year in the NCAAs. New Mexico tries to foil a really stunning number — at a school where the basketball interest is huge, the Lobos haven’t been to the Sweet 16 in 40 years. Prognosis — I’d be surprised if Stanford isn’t one-and-done.
Arizona State — Sun Devils face Texas, which discovered chemistry this year and unexpectedly put together a nice season. Longhorns get 15 rebounds a game combined from Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes, and have a big 7.2 rebound margin in addition to defending at the sub-40-percent level. It isn’t a great shooting team (.431), and I’d imagine a lot of this one will depend on whether ASU’s shot-blocking center, Jordan Bachynski, can exert himself on the Longhorn offense. Rick Barnes made the 2003 Final Four with the Longhorns, but he’s also had some untimely exits, including a second-round one with Kevin Durant in 2007. Prognosis — Longhorns look like the better bet, but if Jahii Carson (who hasn’t had the most consistent season) controls things, ASU can win a game.