If it seems that the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee tries really hard to create certain themes or tension points at the NCAA Tournament every year, you are not alone in thinking that. Surely it can’t be random that the guys in the room just HAPPENED to put Richard Pitino against Louisville, right? Come on. That’s too perfect, and you see at least one of those matchups in the first round every year.
The committee is full of merry pranksters, or at least, if it claims to be innocent, it does a TERRIBLE job of giving the appearance of innocence.
You might have seen or heard about the various patterns or connections between this NCAA Tournament and the 2018 edition. Guess what? You haven’t heard or seen the full list of comparisons.
The First Four in 2019 is also like the 2018 edition. When people tune into Wednesday night’s First Four bubble-team game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the St. John’s Red Storm, a pattern from the 2018 First Four in Dayton will be replicated.
Very simply: The Pac-12 will play New York State in the Heartland of America.
In 2018, both First Four matchups had this dynamic. In 2019, only one of the two bubble-team tournament games has it, but the reality is as clear as day: Pac-12 versus New York, coast versus coast, meeting in Flyover Country, or more precisely, the home of the Dayton Flyers.
The stakes could not be higher for the participating teams, and the need to save face is acute for the conferences involved.
This was a ROUGH season for the Big East, with only four teams making the field and St. John’s falling all the way to the First Four. The highest seed in the Big East: Marquette as a 5. Yuck. After exceeding national expectations in the previous few years following the exoduses of Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Notre Dame, Big East basketball finally regressed and encountered the kind of season some people (I say some because I am one of those people) feared would be more commonplace in the smaller iteration of this storied basketball conference.
And yet, as bad as the Big East was in 2019, the Pac-12 was CLEARLY and SUBSTANTIALLY worse.
The Pac-12 got three bids, which is a miracle considering how atrocious this league was from November through early March. The bigger miracle is that this league received two at-large bids, which is two more than anyone was ready to expect after Oregon blowtorched Arizona State by more than 20 points on the final night of February. On that same night, Washington lost at California, one of the worst Power Five conference teams in college basketball history.
Washington beat only ONE NCAA Tournament team this season: Oregon, and that’s only because Oregon beat Washington in the Pac-12 Tournament final. Had U-Dub beaten Oregon, the Ducks wouldn’t have gotten in, meaning Washington would have beaten ZERO NCAA Tournament teams. The Huskies did not beat any teams which gained at-large bids to this tournament.
Arizona State did get an at-large bid, though, and it snuck in above the cut line because unlike Washington, it did at least beat a few NCAA Tournament at-large teams this season: Kansas (a 4 seed), and Mississippi State (a 5 seed). ASU also beat Mountain West automatic qualifier Utah State (an 8 seed), which would have gotten an at-large had it lost the MWC Tournament.
The extent to which the Mississippi State and Utah State wins aged well over the course of the season was a crucial factor in getting ASU to Dayton, as opposed to the NIT. Arizona State lost seven games (six in the regular season, one in the conference tournament) against this version of the Pac-12, with none of those losses coming against Washington. That’s seven bad losses as far as I’m concerned, plus Princeton at home and Vanderbilt on the road. Arizona State never did sweep one of the two-game road swings in Pac-12 play — not even the San Francisco Bay Area road swing to California and Stanford.
The Sun Devils were a lot like last season’s team: able to beat high-level opponents at their best, but maddeningly inconsistent and prone to play to the level of the competition. That’s a First Four team. That’s exactly what you would expect of a team which has to play in Dayton and win a game to make the round of 64 at the NCAA Tournament.
St. John’s is the same way. The Red Storm beat Marquette twice and Villanova once. They probably needed all three of those wins to make the NCAAs. Yet, for all the times the Johnnies flourished, they also faltered, getting smacked by Providence and Xavier and finishing 8-10 in a Big East which, as mentioned, largely struggled this season. Saint John’s is in many ways a lot like Arizona State not just in its inconsistency, but in a comparison with the 2018 ASU team even more than the 2019 ASU bunch.
The 2018 Arizona State team also went 8-10 in its conference and did not make a deep run in its conference tournament… but went to Dayton. When ASU and the Johnnies look at each other, they will be staring into a mirror, or you could also use the “dueling Spider-man” meme if you prefer.
If this all feels familiar, though, it should… in ways which go beyond the specific identities of the Sun Devils and the Red Storm.
What is also familiar about this First Four meeting on Wednesday is that it replicates the Pac-12 being placed against a team based in New York State.
In 2018, UCLA played St. Bonaventure (Olean, New York) and Arizona State played Syracuse. The Pac-12 went 0-2, meaning that with only three teams in the field, only one team — Arizona — even made the round of 64 in 2018. When Arizona lost, zero Pac-12 teams made the round of 32.
Guess what: This year’s Pac-12 is objectively and profoundly worse than last year’s Pac-12.
Ya think Arizona State needs to prove something in this game against St. John’s?
Ya think Chris Mullin needs to smack down an inconsistent Pac-12 program to feel he has achieved something meaningful this season?
No pressure, guys. Pac-12 versus New York in the Heartland, take three… AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND, ACTION!
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