Pac 12 teams make a statement in NCAA Tournament

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Maybe now the Pac 12 Conference will get treated with the respect it deserves.

After going most of the season without a team in the upper echelon of the rankings that help determine what 68 teams make the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Pac 12 waited until the tournament started to make a statement.

They made that statement on the basketball court. And the gist of the statement was “we’re better than you think.”

After the opening weekend of March Madness, the Pac 12 had a record of 9-1. The vaunted Big 10 Conference, which sent nine teams to the tournament, went 6-7 and is down to two teams.

The Big 12 sent seven teams. They have one team left after going 7-6 in the first two rounds.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, home of Duke and North Carolina, also sent seven teams. Only Syracuse and Florida State remain.

The Southeastern Conference sent six teams and went 6-4. Two teams remain.

Four of the five Pac 12 schools invited to the tournament are still there, quarantining in their Indianapolis hotel rooms, leaving only to practice and play.

One-quarter of the 16 teams remaining are from the Pac 12. The only one that didn’t advance, Colorado, which lost to Florida State 71-53 in the second round, was the highest seeded team from the conference, but they were only seeded fifth in their bracket.

USC was a sixth seed. Oregon was seeded seventh. UCLA was an 11th seed that had to win a play-in game to make the regular 64-team tournament.

Oregon State, which swept through the Pac 12 Tournament just to qualify for the NCAA, is a 12th seed.

But that’s why they call it March Madness. Something crazy happens every year. This year there is a lot of crazy. Four teams seeded higher than 10th are in the Sweet 16, including Oral Roberts University, which was seeded 15th.

The Pac 12 is the only conference that is guaranteed a spot in the Elite 8. That’s because Oregon and USC face each other March 28.

Don’t be surprised if UCLA knocks off Alabama, a second seed, or if Oregon State stays on its hot streak and beats this year’s Cinderella team, Loyola of Chicago (who can resist a cheering nun).

Or, this could be the weekend the Pac 12 crumbles right before our eyes. But for one weekend, they showed the rest of the NCAA that while people back east are sleeping, the Pac 12 still plays basketball real well.

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Essential to the success of the USC Trojans in the NCAA Tournament has been the play of the Mobley brothers.

USC Coach Andy Enfield knew what he was doing when he offered Eric Mobley an assistant coaching job three years ago. That brought Isaiah Mobley to the Trojans in 2019 and Evan this year.

Isaiah, 6-10, 235 pounds, was no slouch as a high school player, earning McDonald’s All American status as a senior at Rancho Christian High School in Temecula. As a freshman at USC, he played in all 31 games, averaging 6.2 points and 5.3 rebounds, mostly off the bench.

At 7-0 and 215 pounds, Evan is a taller, more slender version of big brother. A two-time Gatorade California Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All American in high school, he came to USC as a rarity — a one and done player. He is projected to be a high lottery choice in the upcoming NBA Draft.

After his showing in the tournament so far, Isaiah may be headed for the NBA, too. The Ball brothers have nothing on the Mobleys.

The Mobley brothers were more than Drake or Kansas could handle in the NCAA Tournament.

Against Drake, Isaiah scored 15 points and hauled down 5 rebounds. Evan scored 17 and had 11 rebounds.

Two nights later, Isaiah was hot from three-point range early, ending up with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Evan had 10 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists as the Trojans embarrassed Kansas, one of the Blue Bloods of the NCAA.

The 85-51 loss was the worst Kansas has ever suffered in the tournament. The previous low point was an 18-point loss to Indiana in the 1940 championship game.

Because of a coronavirus outbreak, the Trojans only played Oregon once this season, winning that game in convincing fashion 72-58 Feb. 22.

Evan Mobley scored 11 points in that game. Isaiah didn’t play.

Point guard Tahj Eaddy led the Trojans with 24 points and Drew Peterson added 15.

These were the two best teams in the Pac 12 most of the season. It’s fitting that they will face each other in the NCAA Tournament, after they both lost in the Pac 12 Tournament semifinals.

BRUINS BONANZA: The fact that the UCLA Bruins are still standing in the NCAA Tournament is a testament to their head coach as much as it is his players.

Mitch Cronin was extremely disappointed last year when the Pac 12 and NCAA tournaments were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak because he thought his team had a chance to make a statement.

This year’s team wasn’t as good as last year’s team going in to the season and that was before Chris Smith hurt his knee in late December, ending his season, and then Jalen Hill, the Bruins’ best big man, left the team for personal reasons in January. He never came back.

But Cronin, who stresses teamwork and defense above all else, used the remaining players he had and here they are, the first team with three wins in this year’s tournament.

That’s because the Bruins, with their 11 national championships (although only one since 1975), had the embarrassing proposition of being placed in one of the four play-in games this year.

The tournament selection committee did a good job matching the Bruins against another team with a good basketball tradition, Michigan State. The Bruins knocked off the Spartans, 86-80 in overtime, after spotting them a 14-point lead in the first half.

They then eliminated BYU, 73-62, March 20 and won their third game in five nights March 22 with a win over Abilene Christian, a 14th-seed which upset Texas in the first round.

The Bruins now face Alabama, a second seed out of the Southeastern Conference, March 28 in the Sweet 16. The Crimson Tide is a six-point favorite, but the Bruins are playing hard-nosed defense and unselfish offense right now and that can be a tough combination in the tournament.

Johnny Juzang, a Southern California native who went to Kentucky for a year, and Jaime Jaquez Jr., a sophomore from Camarillo, have been leading the Bruins offense all year and have continued to do so in the tournament.

They combined for 50 against Michigan State, 40 against BYU and 27 against Abilene Christian.

Center Cody Riley helped out with 11 against Michigan State and 12 against Abilene Christian and swingman Jules Bernard was in double figures against both Michigan State and BYU.

No one expected the Bruins to still be in Indianapolis. They might have enough magic to pull off one more surprise.

RIP, ELGIN: Elgin Baylor was Dr. J before Julius Irving. Who knows what he would have accomplished in the NBA if he hadn’t blown out his knee in 1966, eight years into his NBA career?

Baylor, who teamed with Jerry West to get the Lakers into the NBA Finals six times in the 1960s, only to lose to the Boston Celtics every time, was better than West, who was so good he is now the NBA logo.

Prior to his knee injury, he averaged 24.9, 29.6, 34.8, 38.3, 25.4 and 27.1 points a game. A 6-5 forward, he averaged 15, 16.4, 19.8, 18.6, 14.3, 12 and 12.8 rebounds a game during that stretch.

His 61 points against the Celtics in a NBA Finals game in 1962, 59 years later, is still the most points ever scored in the finals.

He played above the rim and had an amazing ability to hang in the air longer than the person defending him.

The story below tells more about his life, but Baylor, who died March 23, was the first Lakers superstar in Los Angeles and should always be remembered as such.

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