Turns out, the most important shot of the Pac-12 season was a miss. A missed free throw, actually.
Think back two weeks ago, to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament in Las Vegas …
Oregon State leads UCLA 70-69 with three seconds remaining, and Bruins guard Jules Bernard is at the line, shooting two.
If Bernard makes both, UCLA takes a one-point lead and, absent a miracle shot, the Beavers lose.
They lose, their season is over, and we don’t hear another peep from them.
But Bernard only made one, sending the game into overtime.
The Beavers escaped, then beat Oregon and Colorado to win the tournament and clinch a berth in the NCAAs.
They’re still playing.
Without that missed free throw, Oregon State doesn’t set foot in the Madness.
Without that missed free throw, the Pac-12 sends four teams to the tournament, instead of five.
Without that missed free throw, Oregon State doesn’t advance to the Sweet 16, securing three NCAA units for the conference that will be worth about $5.4 million over the six-year payout period.
The lesson: March Madness giveth and March Madness taketh, and it usually happens on the margins.
Even the smallest plays — like a free throw in the quarterfinals of a conference tournament — can set in motion much larger forces that ripple through the tournament.
And the Pac-12, for the first time in a long time, is a prime beneficiary.
To the winners and losers from the first weekend …
Winner: Pac-12. The conference emerged from three years in the wilderness to dominate the opening weekend, placing four teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years. (No other league has more than two teams still standing.) Eight of the nine victories have come by double digits and five have come against higher seeds. The collective performance was nothing short of masterful from a conference that sent one team to the Sweet 16 in the two previous tournaments.
Loser: The Big Ten. The antithesis of the Pac-12 in every way, with a dominant regular season, nine teams invited to the NCAAs … and then a complete face plant. Of the nine teams in the field, only Michigan remains. Spring football, anyone?
Winner: Pac-12 campuses. The conference has secured 16 NCAA units (one unit per game played) that will carry a total value of approximately $29 million over the six-year payout period that begins next spring — that’s $2.4 million per school. The Pac-12’s all-time record for units earned in a single tournament is 17, set in 2001.
Loser: Pac-12 opponents. One reason for the conference’s dominance: Perimeter defense. Opponents are shooting 27 percent from 3-point range, with no team faring better than 33 percent.
Winner: Oregon State. Two weeks ago, the Beavers were coming off a decisive home loss to Oregon and 25-to-1 to win the Pac-12 tournament. Now, they’re in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1982.
Loser: Oregon State’s budget. We foresee a raise in coach Wayne Tinkle’s future. A big raise. In his immediate future.
Winner: The state of Oregon. For the first time ever, the Ducks and Beavers have advanced to the Sweet 16 in the same year. Number of teams left from North Carolina: Zero. Number of teams left from Kentucky: Zero.
Loser: Washington fans. Because Oregon.
Winner: UCLA. The Bruins entered the tournament on a four-game losing streak and trailed Michigan State by 14 points in the first half of the First Four. They rallied past the Spartans in overtime, thumped BYU and Abilene Christian and are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017. What a difference an elite coach makes.
Loser: Pac-12 doubters. For those who put their money where their mindset is, the NCAAs have been a losing proposition: Pac-12 teams are 8-1 against the spread.
Winner: USC. The Trojans sent Kansas packing with a tour de force on both ends of the court as the Mobley brothers combined for 27 points and 21 rebounds. What a difference an assistant coach with 7-foot sons makes.
Loser: Pac-12 pairings. The Oregon-USC matchup in the Sweet 16 limits the number of teams that could reach the Elite Eight (and thus the Final Four). Then again, it guarantees the conference will send a team to the regional finals.
Winner: Colorado. The Buffaloes had a terrific season and McKinley Wright a stellar career. Our thoughts are with CU and the Boulder community.
Loser: Power Five. The richest football-playing conferences accounted for half the 68 slots when play began last week. There are only 10 left, and four are from the Pac-12.
Winner: Double-digit seeds. Nine advanced to the round of 32 and four are in the Sweet 16. And that doesn’t include Loyola Chicago, which is a double-digit seed in resources but a top-four seed in quality.
Loser: TV networks. The Hotline will be glued to the screen, but it’s fair to say the Saturday pairings won’t drive ratings for CBS and Turner: Oregon State vs. Loyola Chicago, Villanova vs. Baylor, Syracuse vs. Houston and Oral Roberts vs. Arkansas.
Winner: Little guys. Five schools that don’t play major college football (FBS) have reached the Sweet 16.
Loser: Selection committee. Several decisions on seeds look bad with hindsight, especially the Pac-12 and Loyola Chicago. But the paucity of non-conference games limited the availability of data, making whiffs unavoidable. Also, not every upset is the result of erroneous seeding.
Winner: Gonzaga. Goodness, gracious.
Loser: The Larry Scott narrative. We’ve seen suggestions on social media that Scott’s departure as commissioner has somehow helped the teams’ on-court performance, removing a collective weight and allowing them to play better. I don’t even know where to begin with that.
Winner: Bill Walton. He picked five Pac-12 teams to reach the Final Four (because of course he did). Otherwise, the conference’s biggest champion was smarter than everyone else.