- Covers college basketball
- Joined ESPN.com in 2011
- Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato
With just one more win, four teams on this list will say they’ve reached the Final Four. For some, it will be their first trip in years. Others might not view it as a grand accomplishment at all since they started the season with real national title hopes. The remaining field has been unpredictable. Sixty percent of the Pac-12 teams that secured a spot in the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday are still alive. Just one Big Ten team remains.
At this point, the way a team is currently playing and whether we think it can advance again carry the most weight on this ranking. Sure, you can judge Oregon State on its 14-12 regular-season record — I have, and I wouldn’t recommend it — or you can focus on its 9-1 record in its past 10 games. The only thing that seems clear right now is Gonzaga is the best team in America and Michigan and Baylor would put up a hell of a fight against the Bulldogs if they get their chance. The rest? Who knows? Certainly not the guy who ranked Oregon State 14th and UCLA 15th on a reseeded list of the Sweet 16 teams.
Without further ado — because Pac-12 fans have been anxiously awaiting its arrival — we present our reseeding of the Elite Eight:
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1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (Original seed: No. 1. Reseed: No. 1)
Winning a national title with an undefeated record in the state of Indiana would offer Gonzaga a symbolic backdrop to a rare achievement. The 1975-76 Hoosiers are the last team to complete a perfect season, and Gonzaga would be the first to do it since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That chance at history has lingered all season for Mark Few’s team. Rather than just focus on the great teams that couldn’t win a title after a perfect regular season, however, it’s also important to note the great teams in recent years that didn’t even get to the Final Four. Zion Williamson and Duke in 2019. Kentucky had Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox and couldn’t get there in 2017. A year prior to that run, Denzel Valentine, the Wooden Award winner in 2016, and Michigan State lost in the first round. Aaron Gordon, T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight in 2014.
This annual, single-elimination affair swallows excellent teams every season. But the squads that fell short hadn’t created the separation between themselves and their competition that Gonzaga appears to possess right now. The team’s 83-65 win over Creighton on Sunday was a microcosm of its season. Sure, you know Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert are the anchors. But Joel Ayayi (13 points on Sunday) and Andrew Nembhard (17 points) can hurt you, too. USC can make Tuesday’s game interesting — or just act as another stepping stone toward a historic achievement for the Bulldogs.
2. Baylor Bears (Original seed: No. 1. Reseed: No. 1)
After Baylor’s 83-74 loss to Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, the Bears didn’t appear to be on the same page. Cade Cunningham had just scored 25 points and Baylor, the top 3-point-shooting team in America, had finished 6-for-28 from beyond the arc. MaCio Teague said then his team had “bigger problems than shooting.” Mark Vital said he wanted Davion Mitchell to guard Cunningham throughout the game. Since then, however, the Bears have reminded us why they’ve been the most impressive team over the past two years in college basketball.
They beat Hartford by 24 points in the opening round. They recorded 119 points per 100 possessions against a Wisconsin team with a top-15 mark in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. On Saturday, the Bears were struggling against Villanova in the first half, but they showed their versatility after the break. Mitchell led the way as Baylor attacked the basket and beat a good Villanova team by double digits — despite missing six of seven 3-point attempts after halftime.
America’s best 3-point-shooting team isn’t making those shots the way it did in the regular season. But it also seems like this Baylor squad has regrouped. The Bears are getting better. And, entering their matchup against Arkansas on Monday, they look dominant again. They have three players — Jared Butler, Mitchell and Teague — who can take anyone off the dribble and drive or come off high screens and hit deep 3-pointers. A team without three incredible one-on-one defenders will struggle against this Baylor squad. You can’t focus on one player the way Eric Musselman focused on stopping Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas on Saturday and beat this team.
3. Michigan Wolverines (Original seed: No. 1. Reseed: No. 1)
Leonard Hamilton has been coaching college basketball since the early 1970s. He’s seen it all. After Florida State’s 76-58 loss to Michigan on Sunday, he admitted that the Wolverines presented a unique set of problems with 7-foot-1 center Hunter Dickinson operating in the post. “This team executed so well,” Hamilton said. “Their spacing was unbelievable. They were extremely patient. We had a hard time turning them over. They really, really played off of their big guy. We spent so much time trying to defend Hunter, and they get to their perimeter shooters when the clock would run down to about 10 seconds left on the shot clock. They continue to keep staying in their system and they executed and made plays right toward the end. That’s what a good team will do.”
Juwan Howard has turned Dickinson into a space-gobbling paint monster who demands attention and makes life so much easier for a Michigan team that’s stacked with capable scorers. In three NCAA tournament wins, five different players (Dickinson, Mike Smith, Eli Brooks, Chaundee Brown, and Brandon Johns) have either led the team in scoring outright or shared the lead with a teammate. And you could make the case that Franz Wagner (13 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block) was Michigan’s MVP on Sunday.
The anticipated offensive slide without injured standout Isaiah Livers has not arrived. Here are Michigan’s points per 100 possessions in its three wins: 114 (Texas Southern), 119 (LSU) and 112 (Florida State). All of that without the services of a player averaging 13.1 PPG and connecting on 43% of his 3-point attempts. The Michigan offense has kept rolling because the team’s head coach is already one of the best in college basketball. If the Wolverines can get past UCLA in the Elite Eight, they might complicate Gonzaga’s path to the national championship.
4. USC Trojans (Original seed: No. 6. Reseed: No. 1)
The Trojans really know how to pounce on an opponent. On Dec. 1, they beat BYU by 26 points, a larger margin of victory than Gonzaga had in its three wins over the Cougars this season. They beat UCLA by 18 points on Feb. 6. They held Oregon to 58 points in a 14-point win on Feb. 22. Their combined margin of victory in three wins over Drake, Kansas and Oregon in the NCAA tournament? 64 points. For some Pac-12 fans, this might feel like déjà vu. The Pac-12 now has three teams in the Elite Eight for the second time, and first since 2001.
Andy Enfield’s squad will enter Tuesday’s matchup against Gonzaga as an underdog — a fiery underdog with a projected top-three pick (Evan Mobley) leading the way. On Sunday, USC smashed an Oregon team — for the second time this season — that had just smashed Iowa in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Trojans have manufactured two of the NCAA tournament’s most incredible efforts. They shot 61% from the 3-point line in their 85-51 win over Kansas in the second round. The Trojans followed that effort with their second double-digit win of the season over Oregon, 82-68, in the Sweet 16 on Sunday. They made 59 percent of their 3-point attempts in that victory, and Isaiah Mobley and Evan Mobley combined to score 23 points against the Ducks. But it was Tahj Eaddy (20 points, 3-for-6 from the 3-point line) and Isaiah White (22 points, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc) who exploited the space Oregon offered in its attempt to stall the Mobleys. Tuesday should be fun.
5. Oregon State Beavers (Original seed: No. 12. Reseed: No. 2)
Wayne Tinkle knows this late-season feeling. He was a first-year assistant — following a professional career as a player overseas — at his alma mater, Montana, during the 2001-02 season when the Grizzlies struggled in a 13-14 season that included a 7-7 record in league play. Then, Montana won the Big Sky tournament to secure a trip to the NCAA tournament. That team lost in the first round to Oregon. His current Oregon State team, however, is still enjoying this magical journey that — much like that Montana squad’s run to a conference title nearly 20 years ago — doesn’t respect logic.
The truth is that Oregon State is playing its best basketball at the most important juncture of the season. Its three wins thus far have been a statistical anomaly. No team in at least 36 years has won three games in the NCAA tournament as an underdog of six points or more, per ESPN Stats & Information research. On paper, however, it makes sense. Ethan Thompson is a star and OSU’s 3-pointers are falling at a rate that would have been unimaginable during the regular season. Plus, the Beavers have built a dam around the basket. (Sorry.) All three of their NCAA tournament opponents have failed to score at a clip higher than .97 points per possession, which was the average offensive output for a South Carolina team that finished 6-15 this season.
Now, the Beavers will face a Houston squad that needs Quentin Grimes to put up big numbers to avoid the struggles it endured when he was on the bench early against Syracuse on Saturday. Can Oregon State advance again? We probably shouldn’t be asking that question anymore.
6. Houston Cougars (Original seed: No. 2. Reseed: No. 2)
On Saturday, Kelvin Sampson said he hadn’t reflected on the historic meaning of his team’s 62-46 win over Syracuse, sealing the school’s first trip to the Elite Eight in 37 years. In 1984, the last time it happened, Hakeem Olajuwon was a consensus first-team All-American for a Houston team that lost to Georgetown in the national championship game. “I think you should honor the past,” Sampson said after Saturday’s game. “I think you should live in the present. [Thirty-seven] years ago is irrelevant to our team. Our team is now.”
That’s not exactly true. Prior to this season, Houston had made only six trips to the NCAA tournament after the run in 1984. But the recent investment that has given the school some of America’s top facilities is a testament to what those around the program believe it can be. That doesn’t happen without 1984. Without that run and its impact on the program’s image, Quentin Grimes, Houston’s first member of an Associated Press All-America squad since Olajuwon, might not have considered going back home to Texas after leaving Kansas.
But the “now” Sampson referenced is impressive. Grimes is averaging 18.0 PPG while connecting on 41% of his 3-point attempts. Houston’s three opponents in the NCAA tournament have combined to make just 39% of their shots inside the arc. Its offense needs Grimes, though. It stalled when he went to the bench with his second foul in the first half of Saturday’s win over the Orange. Yet, the Cougars know how to win ugly, too. Their path has been fortuitous. Oregon State will be the fourth consecutive double-digit seed this team has faced in the NCAA tournament.
7. UCLA Bruins (Original seed: No. 11. Reseed: No. 2)
A few months after he accepted the job in 2019, Mick Cronin walked across the UCLA campus without causing a stir, something that would have been unlikely at his former stop in Cincinnati. It was safe to wonder then how a Midwest guy like Cronin would adapt to the West Coast and a sports culture that mostly celebrates, and expects, greatness from its local teams. This surprising Elite Eight run might not meet the standard (yet) for a program with UCLA’s legacy, but it’s an undeniable sign that Cronin belongs. It’s also the last step in one of the most memorable Pac-12 runs in recent NCAA tournament history.
The Bruins’ 88-78 win over SEC regular-season and conference tournament champion Alabama — the Crimson Tide shot 11-for-25 from the free throw line — sealed this piece of history: It’s the first time in NCAA tournament history that two teams seeded 11th or lower have both made the Elite Eight in the same postseason, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Three of UCLA’s four wins have been by double digits. Johnny Juzang is averaging 20.0 PPG. The Bruins won in overtime even though he fouled out with just under two minutes to go in regulation.
And now Cronin gets a shot at Michigan. Ignore the odds in this one. Yes, winning their fifth game in this tournament would be a monumental task for the Bruins, but Sunday’s win over Alabama was impressive. Nate Oats’ squad has been in the top three in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom all season, yet UCLA recorded 111 points per 100 possessions against Alabama. The free throw problems were an undeniable factor in the loss for Alabama. But the game also marked the fourth consecutive offensive barrage from Cronin’s team, which is averaging 78.5 points per game in the NCAA tournament.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks (Original seed: No. 3. Reseed: No. 2)
In 2003, Eric Musselman finished second in the NBA Coach of the Year race after leading the Golden State Warriors to a 38-44 record — the team had won 21 games in the previous season — in his first year with the franchise. That season, he tapped a 5-foot-5 athlete named Earl Boykins, an undrafted afterthought at the time who’d been bouncing around the league, to log 19.4 minutes per game and boost his bench. Boykins, now the director of student-athlete development at Arkansas, averaged 8.8 PPG that season and spent the next chapter of his career as a coveted role player in the NBA. That’s Musselman’s strength. He just seems to know when to elevate a player.
It happened this season with Davonte Davis, who hit the game-winning shot in the Razorbacks’ 72-70 win over Oral Roberts on Saturday. Davis didn’t get that confidence overnight. The freshman and former top-100 prospect wasn’t even a consistent starter until Musselman promoted him against Mississippi State on Feb. 2. Arkansas has lost just one game (LSU in the SEC tournament) with Davis, who is averaging 14.3 PPG in the NCAA tournament, becoming a starter during this stretch. The Razorbacks have also averaged 105 points per possession with Davis on the floor — and just 90 points per possession without him — during this 12-1 run for Musselman’s team, per hooplens.com. The game against Baylor in the Elite Eight will be his team’s toughest matchup this season.
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