West Coast Woes, and other tourney high jinks

So how many of us expert Bracketonomists knew that by the end of the first weekend of play, powerhouse Nevada would be the last team standing west of the Rockies? The best and often most frustrating week in sports has come to an end.

After a rather lackluster first round, things really started to kick into gear on Saturday and Sunday's play in the NCAA tournament. Two No. 1s, a pair of No. 2s and three mighty ACC teams (two of which were higher seeds) got bounced. In the end, thank goodness for Sunday, because it took a lot of heat off the West Coast, which had been verbally abused in college basketball circles all year long. You just knew the Stanford loss to Alabama would seal the fate of the Pac-10, admittedly down all year. And when Nevada cruised by Gonzaga, the hecklers had their material all in hand.

This season the Pac-10 was down. There's just no other way to slice it. But it's a conference of youth that should be much more representative next year. In the tournament, Washington played well. With another big man, UW could make a lot of noise next year. For me, it was the conference's most enjoyable team.

Down the stretch in the Alabama game, Stanford just forgot how to shoot. Sadly, it will view this season as a failure because of the second-round exit, but the Cardinal was outstanding all year long and deserves a great deal of praise for its two-loss campaign. To me, Stanford looks a lot like Arizona 12 years ago. Good, sometimes great, regular season, but somewhere along the line athleticism catches up. This was probably the most physically gifted of the Stanford units, but it still needs to close that gap in that capacity. Despite the rigorous requirements to get accepted, I think that's a step the Cardinal can make, largely by virtue of its notoriety in terms of consecutive 20-win seasons.

Pac-10 powers have been here before. Arizona struggled with Alabama in the tournament in the early 90s, as a higher seed in the second round. It's easy to predict a bit of a Cardinal slip, but I suspect this program will be even better long-term as a result.

Arizona was simply frustrating all season long. Whereas Stanford might need an influx of athleticism, the UA could use an influx of attitude and desire. Depth was unquestionably a major issue, but this team never filled the Jason Gardner/Luke Walton/Rick Anderson find-a-way-to-win void, and it showed in difficult times. The only thing Arizona accomplished as a team all year was its collective meltdown against Seton Hall.

The UA will be loaded with talent next season, whether Andre Iguodala or Salim Stoudamire test the pro waters or not. But it must find someone willing to carry the burden when bumps in the road occur.

This year, the Wildcats were all about perception. Had they not pouted on the floor, had they not gone into bizarre mental funks, had they played hard defense, we'd be talking in much different terms. Not because they won more games, but because they somehow still managed to win 20 games while playing with a depleted interior and a 6-4 power forward.

Arizona has its share of issues in the off-season. On the court, it must play better defense. Off the court, it has to get its head straight.

This weekend was tough for Gonzaga, which like Stanford, will endure much criticism despite concluding a two-loss regular season. Nevada was to Gonzaga what Utah was to Arizona, a game that just got away from it on a day when the opponent answered every challenge and just didn't seem capable of missing.

After the Gonzaga loss, CBS had a stat ready. You see, the Zags have missed the Sweet 16 three straight years. They lost as a six seed to No. 11 Wisconsin, and of course, to the 10 Nevada. In between, they lost the double-overtime thriller as a 9 seed against No. 1 Arizona in Salt Lake City. Um, at what point was it a shame to lose to a top seed? I think I missed that memo.

What we'll hear is how Gonzaga was terribly overrated. What I'd prefer to reflect on is that in Spokane, Mark Few is coaching one of the best mid-major programs in the modern annals of college basketball. Gonzaga takes some big hits with the loss of important seniors, but there's a good core in place and the promise of a strong recruiting class. This is not the last we've heard of the Zags.

As a result of the Gonzaga loss, the place to be this week is Reno. I actually know someone who lives there, and he confirms the community's craziness. Reno is experiencing the same jubilation Tucson went through when Arizona advanced to the Final Four in 1988. Remember these days. You can never duplicate the first time. This acquaintance insists Nevada has a chance against Georgia Tech. Hey, it's already beaten Kansas, Gonzaga and UTEP, so I think talent-wise it could hang. But what Nevada has to get used to is four days of constant media scrutiny and a fan base that treats you like a God at every turn. Sure, I might have Georgia Tech in the Final Four in my lone bracket, but if I lose that only costs me lunch. I'd gladly sacrifice that for a storybook Wolfpack run.

Even storybooks have some weird chapters. Though it won going away, Nevada benefited big-time from odd officiating. Ronny Turiaf seemingly couldn't take a step without getting called for a foul in the game's first couple minutes. He would have been tough for Nevada to stop. As a team, Gonzaga was blown for 10 whistles in six minutes.

UAB also benefited from officiating, not once but twice. It got the benefit of a charge on Washington's Nate Robinson in a situation that should have been a no-call, and then received a phantom call late on a breakaway against Kentucky. When you advance by two and one point, those kinds of things can be pivotal.

Even so, UAB is awesome. That team gets after it. The only question I could muster while watching them this weekend was how in the world the Blazers lost nine games this season. Next up Kansas. Daunting indeed, especially on the inside, where Jeff Graves is playing great yet again, but Aaron Miles could have his hands full on the perimeter.

Speaking of brutal officiating, Vanderbilt is probably in the round of 16 because of it. The intentional foul late against North Carolina State is the glaring bumble of the tournament. A foul yes. Intentional. No way. The resulting extra possession, Vandy buried a three that cut the lead to one.

Television announcers appear to have taken the role of officiating apologists in broadcasts, siding with the officials after some pretty questionable replays, but even they couldn't bite their tongues in the Gonzaga and NC State encounters.

Apparently, throughout the first two rounds, you can draw a charge while standing directly under the basket, or even under the basket while toeing the baseline. We've seen more of our share of those in this tourney.

The tourney's best so far:

1. UConn: Dominant to this point. I bought into the whole injury uncertainty thing, but UConn looks great and is playing as if it has a mission.

2. Duke: It benefited from the first-round rout and a team in round two scared of the name on the jersey across the court. Things could get a lot more difficult from here on out.

3. Illinois: And this is why. This is not the Illinois team that thugged it out with Arizona three years ago. This is an Illinois that looks more like Arizona. It has three outside gunners who can absolutely cause havoc. Murray State was no challenge, and Cincinnati was outclassed once the Illini drained nine of its first 11 three-pointers. All of a sudden, I am Illinois' biggest fan. Here's hoping this Big Ten entry does to Duke in this round what Indiana did two seasons ago. Or at least wears it down enough so that a team like Texas can exact some revenge.

4. Oklahoma State: The team I jinxed to win it all has played very well so far. It rolled in the opener and blasted Memphis from the opening tip. It has a grind-it-out matchup with less-than-inspiring Pitt on the horizon.

Rising from the Dead:

1. Nevada: Looked flat for 25 minutes against Michigan State in the first round, but rallied from 10 to win going away. The Wolfpack played with a different level of confidence against Gonzaga.

2. Xavier: A season microcosm in one game. Xavier was getting blown out against Louisville in round one, then rallied strong in the second half. It always looked like the better team in the matchup with Mississippi State, the team Schu picked to lose to Oklahoma State in the NCAA title game.

Didn't give them enough respect:

1. Vanderbilt: As far as upsets were concerned, I didn't even blink when Vandy drew Western Michigan. To me, that was the 11/6 gimmee. Despite benefiting from the aforementioned call in the NC State matchup, the Commodores played tough and did what they had to do to earn the date with UConn.

2. Kansas: Had the Jayhawks losing to Providence in round two. Of the nation's three major name headcases: North Carolina, Arizona and Kansas, KU is the only one still standing, and with a region that features UAB and Nevada, the possibilities of reaching a third straight Final Four are not so outlandish anymore.

Teams with fans engaging in the exact same conversation

Arizona, Michigan State and Louisville.

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