Q&A: Fixing Pac-12 Basketball; Purdue’s Final Four Chances


Every March, the NCAA Tournament serves up both the hardcore hoop head and casual fan the most loaded buffet anywhere outside of the Rio in Vegas. The expansion of the Big Dance from 64 teams to 65 in 2001 begot the introduction of the First Four in 2011, giving us all a two-night appetizer before we dig into the true Madness.

The First Four begins today with LIU Brooklyn against Radford, conveniently previewed here at The Open Man. In the meantime — or, if you’re reading after that game’s tipped — enjoy this pre-NCAA Tournament edition of Q&A.

As always, if you have topics to submit to The Open Man Q&A, tweet @kensing45 or @the_open_man. You can also email kyle@theopenman.com.

When Purdue was flirting with the No. 1 ranking about a month ago, I expressed doubts about the Boilermakers’ dominance. This is a great team without question, and the apparent lack of an overwhelming favorite in this Tournament bodes well for Purdue, despite its flaws.

Carsen Edwards and Vince Edwards can both get hot shooting from behind the 3-point line, and Isaac Haas’ play in the middle is a perfect complement. Defenses that choose to keep a defender close to any of Purdue’s perimeter players risk death by hook shots; the perfect example is late in the Boilers’ game at Michigan State, where Haas’ soft touch in the paint nearly won it singlehandedly.

In fact, offense is this team’s calling card. Purdue comes in with the No. 2 offense in adjusted efficiency per KenPom. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting this is the Purdue team that does what no other has in my lifetime: reach the Final Four. And that means the Boilers are prime to lose to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16.

Tech strikes me as a horrible matchup for this Purdue team, able to clamp down defensively while getting just enough offense from Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver to keep the Boilers at bay.

My first thought is that both Arizona and Kentucky were 1. underseeded and 2. hosed by drawing one another in a potential Second Round matchup. The committee loves to package storyline second-round matchups, almost always using Kentucky as the draw: It had the 1-8 game with Wichita State in 2014, the Indiana game a few years ago, and Wichita State again last season.

However, I’ll cop to recency bias in this instance. Arizona and Kentucky both looked great in their conference tournaments, but were wildly up-and-down in the regular season. Although Arizona went 27-7, it played too many tight games with some middling-to-bad teams. With a KenPom of 21, Arizona’s four seed might even be somewhat inflated.

2017 national runner-up Gonzaga strikes me as the committee’s biggest seeding whiff. The Zags rank No. 8 in KenPom; every other team in the Top 10 is either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, save three-seeds Michigan and Michigan State. Gonzaga’s made the Elite Eight in two of the past three seasons, and the Sweet 16 in three straight seasons, and I believe anyone who has followed the Zags closely sees a team capable of returning to the Final Four.

For what it’s worth, Gonzaga’s No. 4 seed is in a weak West Region, where No. 1 seed Xavier is the KenPom No. 14 team; No. 3 is a Michigan bunch that underachieved for a good chunk of the regular season; and No. 2 North Carolina (STORYLINE SEEDING!) looks vulnerable against great defensive teams.

The Pac-10 may have had a realistic claim in the 1990s that it was the premier college basketball conference.

When Arizona won the Pac-12’s last national championship in 1997, it marked a stretch in which the conference claimed two-of-three titles; UCLA won the last of its 11 in 1995. Extending the window a little bit further, the Pac had a Final Four team in 4-of-5: Arizona in 1994 and 1997, UCLA in 1995 and Stanford in 1998. Though it didn’t happen under the Pac-10 umbrella, and thus doesn’t count toward the point of the conference’s 1990s strength, it does speak to the potential for the Pac-12 in this era: Current member Utah reached the 1998 Final Four, and very nearly claimed that season’s national championship.

The next-best era for the conference came in that late 2000s stretch, specifically the 2007 season. UCLA reached its second of three straight Final Fours, Oregon made the Elite Eight, USC bounced a Kevin Durant-led Texas team en route to the Sweet 16, Washington State was one of three Pac-10 teams sporting a No. 3 seed or better — and this all happened while current standard-bearer Arizona was in a decided down stretch.

The unifying factor in those two eras? UCLA was excellent.

I know some folks immediately point to the Pac-12 Network as their default reaction to any on-court or on-field woes the conference might experience, but I don’t buy it. The Pac typically had one late-night Thursday game on ESPN, and one Saturday afternoon game on ABC during the Golden Age of the 1990s. In the latter half of the decade into the 2000s, most games had far less market penetration than they do now, airing on regional Fox Sports Network channels.

No, I attribute more to the inconsistency that’s plagued UCLA from the end of the three Final Four runs to now.

While it’s perhaps unfair to put the fortunes of an entire conference on a single program, UCLA seems to dictate the climate around the Pac. Arizona faithful get chesty about the Wildcats’ place in the league — and Arizona has indeed been the most consistent program since the late 1980s — but UA doesn’t seem to provide the same rising tide as UCLA.

That depends. Can anyone who isn’t either a Syracuse fan or an encyclopedic college basketball junkie name the Orange’s placement in the 2015-16 ACC standings? Probably not, since Syracuse’s season ended in the Final Four.

Likewise, if the Orange go on a run in this NCAA Tournament — and it’s possible, with as much talent as this team has — their mediocre ACC season ultimately won’t matter.

That’s both the blessing and curse of March. While the Tournament is an endlessly entertaining spectacle that captivates us for almost an entire month, it has somewhat sacrificed the regular season. Obviously, a team must still perform well enough to land an invitation to the Big Dance — and with only 20 percent of teams reaching the field, compared to 38 percent of the NFL, or more than 50 percent in the NBA or NHL, it’s still one of the more meaningful regular seasons — but the Tournament isn’t always an accurate reflection of the best overall team.

This is something I hope college football decision-makers never lose sight of. Fans clamored for a Playoff for as long as I can remember. Now that they have it, I feel as though much of what I hear or read focuses on everything wrong with the system. The Playoff is also marketed as the be-all, end-all of the sport. Commercials airing months out promote the College Football Playoff, not college football, and pundits shout about WHO’S IN during the summertime.

College football now, after those many years of shouting for the Playoff, feels like the finally scene of The Graduate. The reality of getting what they wanted sets in on Mrs. Robinson and Ben after they board the bus.

College basketball did the same in the 2000s, emphasizing March as the only meaningful part of the season. I’d argue that, along with other ways in which the sport was presented over the past decade or so, marginalized its popularity.

So the answer to your question: No, but it doesn’t really matter.

I am going to confess that my knowledge of NAIA basketball is lacking. Based on the research I conducted for the purpose of this column, I am taking Georgetown. Not only did I once work with a Georgetown graduate, but I am counting on Texas Tech transfer and All-Name Team contender Shadell Millinghaus to light it up. Millinghaus is the leading scorer among all players in the NAIA Tournament.

I’m also giddy about the prospect of another team in Kentucky winning a national championship, imagining a swath of Big Blue Nation invading Georgetown players’ Twitter accounts to trash talk.