NCAA first round games

#5 Oregon vs. #12 Belmont (Wichita)

Pac-12 at-large
NET: 12
Neutral floors: 2-3
Best win: 19 Arizona
Worst loss: 53 Oregon St.
What I know: I said the Ducks have looked vulnerable when they don’t play together. Coach Graves said the team has been up and down, so I reckon we’re in some agreement. They’re big and strong, but they look play with finesse; paradoxically, opponents can disrupt the Ducks by beating them up. The Ducks don’t have a deep bench; I couldn’t name their #7.

Pay attention to: Junior forward Sedona Prince. Prince is getting headlines this week because it was her reporting that broke last year’s news about the inequity of the conditions between men’s and women’s teams. It’s an unusual spotlight she’s under.

Ohio Valley tournament
NET: 50
Neutral floors: 2-0
Best win: 24 Ole Miss
Worst loss: 182 Austin Peay
What I know: They mussed my bracket last year by beating 5-seed Gonzaga in the first round. Arkansas, Utah’s first-round opponent this year, crushed the Bruins while taking good care of the ball.

#7 Colorado vs. #10 Creighton (Greensboro)

Pac-12 at large
NET: 29
Neutral floors: 4-2
Best win: 19 Arizona
Worst loss: 53 Oregon St.
What I know: Colorado is one of those odd teams that gets better with early substitutions, junior forward Quay Miller is sixth man of the year, while freshman guard Kindyll Miller made the all-defense team. Oregon and Colorado have a lot in common: best wins were vs. Arizona; worst losses vs. Oregon St.; both teams were up and down (Colorado won a bunch, lost some, resumed winning). At conference tournament time, I labeled the Buffaloes “the team no one wanted to play”, and they got as far as Stanford (where the irresistable force met the immovable object). I think Colorado could beat almost anyone, but their first opponent and the likely-next opponent are among the highest-scoring in the land.

Pay attention to: Kindyll Wetta. She usually seems to be in the right place, and she makes fewer mistakes than the average freshman.

Big East at large
NET: 32
Neutral floors: 0-1
Best win: 47 Arizona St.
Worst loss: 91 Seton Hall
What I know: The Blue Jays were 2nd in the Big East standings almost all the way, but lost to DePaul on senior night. Then they lost to Seton Hall in the first round of the tournament (the superstition about heavy odds against beating the same team three times was in effect). Creighton is capable of huge offense, but Colorado is equally capable on defense.

#1 Stanford vs. #16 Montana St. (Spokane)

Pac-12 season and tournament
NET: 3
Neutral floors: 5-1
Best win: 14 Maryland
Worst loss: 40 South Florida
What I know: They’re Stanford, winners of 20 in a row. Last year, they had a store of magic pixie dust to help them win the national championship; this year, they look determined to win most convincingly, without supernatural assistance. Curse the selection committee for putting them in the same region as Utah; naturally, I was hoping for that as the national final rather than the round of eight.

Pay attention to: Sophomore forward Cameron Brink. The player of the year voting might be one of those cases where two teammates (Brink and Haley Jones) steal votes from each other, while South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston wins it. Brink sort of reminds me of Kareem; like a spindly Gulliver stepping around Lilliputians before laying hers up or swatting theirs away. The difference is that Kareem kept his emotions well hidden, whereas Brink lets it fly. I didn’t think Stanford could find a forward I like more than Jayne Appel or Brooke Smith.

Montana St.
Big Sky tournament
NET: 164
Neutral floors: 2-1
Best win: 141 Montana
Worst loss: 229 Weber St.
What I know: One of the reasons to be glad about Stanford winning last year was that it buries 1998’s loss as #1 to #16 Harvard deeper in the past, and the thought of such happening again shan’t cross anyone’s mind. In junior guard Darian White, the Bobcats have a first-team Big Sky all-conference player who shared the defensive player of the year award. Montana St. also has a senior forward named Kola Bad Bear, and I applaud everyone in her family tree who didn’t think to change their name.

#7 Utah vs. #10 Arkansas (Spokane)

Pac-12 at large
NET: 27
Neutral floors: 4-2
Best win: 12 Oregon
Worst loss: 74 Southern California
What I know: For improving by 15 wins over last year, reaching the conference tournament final for the first time, and returning to the NCAA tournament after more than 10 years, Utah might’ve said ‘We’re just happy to be here’, but in fact, the Utes are only now finding out what they can do. In November, I watched them play fast enough to drop 211 points on 291 Lipscomb and 246 Xavier. They’ve learned from a tournament record 29-point quarter against 58 Washington State that they can do it against other NCAA tourney teams.

Pay attention to: Senior guard Dru Gylten. Unselfish to a fault. In Utah’s three wins during the Pac-12 tournament, she scored 0, 0, and 3 points. Those three were vital to make up a 10-point deficit vs. Oregon; otherwise I think 0 0 0 (when chessplayers see 0 0 0, they reflexively think “castled queenside”) would’ve suited her. Utah coach Roberts told me when Gylten came in as a freshman that she’d become my favorite player. Sum Gylten’s leadership, character, and temperament — not found in the boxscore — with uncanny court vision plus passing ability, and you get a player whose career I do not wish to see end 16 hours from now.

Southeast Conference at large
NET: 30
Neutral floors: 2-1
Best win: 21 LSU
Worst loss: 77 Vanderbilt

Arkansas is in their second straight NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks are plenty responsible for putting Missouri (the only team to beat South Carolina) in the WNIT, beating the Tigers three times (overtime in round one of the SEC tournament). Like Utah, Arkansas placed three representatives on the postseason honor rolls, including the freshman of the year. Like Utah, Arkansas led their conference in scoring. Arkansas’ halfcourt is five-out, zero-in while Utah is four-out, one-in. The only five-out system to which I can compare Arkansas is UC Davis in the Big West; the Razorbacks run longer pass routes, if that makes sense.

This could be the highest-scoring game of the first round, and it’s important as far as each conference’s bragging rights go. The Pac=12 sent six teams, the SEC sent eight. Until the games are played, the ACC is winning that contest, with eight teams in, two of which are #1 seeds.

WNIT begins today

USA Today named the Pacific-12 one of the losers on Selection Sunday for sending merely six teams to the NCAA tournament, only one of which seeded higher than #4. The Pac-12’s bubble teams — UCLA and Oregon State — play today in the WNIT.

UCLA vs. UC Irvine

UC Irvine
Big West automatic bid
NET: 136
Neutral floors: 3-1
Best win: 119 Illinois St.
Worst loss: 195 Grand Canyon

The Anteaters received an automatic bid as the highest-placing Big West team (that isn’t the tournament champion Hawaii). My friend Justin Wilson was an assistant coach at Pacific when I started loitering there, and most recently at UC Irvine. Coach Wilson is gone, so there goes my last link to UCI. I wrote to Cal Poly coach Mimnaugh a few weeks ago, then learned the Mustangs were 3-22, signaling the right time for Mimnaugh to retire after 25 years in paradise (Seriously, San Luis Obispo is one of the most pleasant places I’ve ever visited. It’s a little college town hidden in the valley between two mountains, and it’s kept some bohemian character despite the modernization of its downtown.).

The only friends I have left in the Big West are on the coaching staff at UC Davis, which feels odd. Years ago, while the Big West preseason media poll was circulating, one of my coaching friends asked her media relations fellow if I received a ballot. “He knows more about this conference than anybody,” she said, and that might’ve been true… 13 or 14 years ago.

Pac-12 automatic bid
NET: 41
Neutral floors: 2-4
Best win: 19 Arizona
Worst loss: 102 Kent State

It was a season of what-could-have-been for the Bruins, who lost around 100 player games to injury and illness (the total was 70 at the end of November, so I reckon 100 is a conservative estimate), and had to cancel one game for not having five healthy bodies. UCLA has eight seniors or graduate students on their roster, an exceptional amount of experience. During the Pac-12 championship tournament, Coach Close was talking about finally getting to coach her team recently, rather than struggle to keep the ship afloat.

Pay attention to: Forward Ilmar’l Thomas.

Two doubles in February. Big, graceful and smart (among forwards, 2nd in the conference in assist-to-turnover rate). When I saw Thomas with Sacred Heart Cathedral HS, I said ‘wow, can we get her’, to which Coach replied she’s already committed to Cincinnati. Cincinnati?! She looked like a player who could’ve gone wherever she liked, and she opted for Cincinnati. The story goes that she decided as an upperclassman that she wanted to compete with the strongest competitors, which brought her back to California. Thank goodness for that.

Oregon State vs. Long Beach State

Long Beach State
Big West at large
NET: 130
Neutral floors: 2-1
Best win: 61 Rhode Island
Worst loss: 259 Cal State Northridge

Like I said, I’ve become a stranger to the Big West (LBSU was one of my favorite stops, while their coach was a record-setting guard for UCLA; and their gym is architectured, strikingly, as a pyramid, ). I don’t know anything about this Long Beach St. team. They lost at Oregon in December while Oregon was without Nyara Sabally.

Oregon State
NET: 53
Neutral floors: 3-3
Best win: 12 Oregon
Worst loss: 47 Arizona St.

The Beavers lost 13 games this season, and 12 of those losses were to teams in the NCAA tournament. Oregon St. lost three of four at the end, and that was while seven teams were jockeying for 3rd and 4th places, and that sweet first-round bye. The Pac-12 is brutal. Say you’ve got a 20-game in-conference schedule, with four against last season’s national finalists. No one will hate you for losing those, but to reach .500, you’ve gotta go 8-4. The Beavers will be as tough as usual next year; four starters (one freshman on the all-conference first team) return.

Pay attention to: Forward Jelena Mitrovic.

I wrote one year ago: My favorite basketball players are oddballs, the top-of-the-circle distributing post players. Conventionally, the big people are placed nearest the basket because they’re closest to the goal vertically. But in my view, if you’ve got a tall person who can pass the ball, put them near the middle of the court where they can see everyone else moving.

The best example of this type was ill-fated 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school because every college in the nation wanted him. Ralph’s problem was that in high school, he was still encouraged to play like a growing boy, but in college and the NBA, they wanted him to play like a guy who’s 7-foot-4. Someone hit the 88-inch nail on the head when he said: “Ralph is a 6-foot-2 guard in a 7-foot-4 post player’s body”.

These days there are two such players in the region (U San Francisco has one in forward Lucija Kostic). Oregon State has a girl who’s 6-foot-9, and her greatest skill is passing: Jelena Mitrovic.

I wrote that a year ago, and what puzzles me now is that I saw Mitrovic four or five times this season, and not once did she remind me why I thought so highly of her passing ability.