Thoughts (and a few facts) on the Pac-12's performance thus far.
The league is out of the gutter but not yet where it was five or six years ago, either in the number of elite teams, the quality of its depth or its high-end talent.
Two or three more years of roster stocking is required before it can be considered one of the very best in the land, but it's clearly headed in the right direction.
The units are worth approximately $250,000 apiece.
That's $2.5 million to league, per year, for six years.
That's $15 million, which is distributed to all the schools, not just the participating/winning teams.
In the past, the ultra-tight officiating in league play has left teams at a disadvantage during the NCAAs, which are typically more physical.
But this year, for whatever reason, Pac-12 refs let 'em play to a far greater extent, perhaps resulting in teams being better prepared for what they face in March Madness.
I ran the theory past Cal coach Mike Montgomery on Friday and he didn't disagree:
"The Pac-12 was way more physical this year. Will it help us in the tournament? . . . Hopefully. I mean, we've gotten three wins so far and maybe it does get you accustomed to it."
The Wildcats are a terrific example of the long season masking a team's true ability.
Think back to last spring, after NBA draft decisions were set: The Wildcats were viewed as a top-10/15 team.
Think back to Oct./Nov.: The Wildcats were No. 12 in the AP preseason poll and picked to win the Pac-12.
And they played like that -- for about six weeks. But Arizona seemed to lose focus during the grind of league play and beat just one tournament-caliber team from Jan. 1 -- Mar. 17 (Colorado, twice).
Then the Madness begins and the Wildcats are locked in. It's not like Belmont and Harvard are anything close to heavyweights. But Arizona appears to be the team everyone expected it to be.
I do wonder, however, if Mark Lyons' performance against Harvard (8 of 15, 23 points) could end up backfiring, and here's why:
Lyons isn't good enough to beat Ohio State by himself. But after carving up the Crimson, he might think he is, which could lead to poor decisions with the ball, bad shots and an inefficient offense.
Lyons could shoot the 'Cats into the Elite Eight. He could also shoot them out of the tournament.
I've never been one to believe that a team's performance in the NCAAs justifies or refutes its inclusion and seed -- the selection process isn't supposed to be predictive. You get in and are seeded based on what's on your resume.
Oregon was a No. 11 seed before moving down one level to accommodate bracketing issues. The Ducks should not have been an 11, much less a 12. But they shouldn't have been a No. 4-5, either, and that's how they're playing.
I was particularly impressed with their ability to adjust to Saint Louis' pressure defense, which clearly threw the Ducks off their game for a few minutes Saturday.
Then Oregon figured things out and the rest was, well, dominance. As point guard Jonathan Loyd told me: "We want to prove we can play with anybody in the nation."
I'm not surprised the Ducks are alive. I picked them to reach the Sweet 16. I also picked them to lose to Louisville.
Good as they have been, the run ends in the Sweet 16; they won't beat the Cardinals in Indianapolis. The 'Ville is on an entirely different level. Its relentless pressure on both ends -- you cannot relax for a second -- actually reminds me of Oregon.
(Again: Arizona did not play like a top-four seed after Christmas -- for two-thirds of its season.)
But I'd argue that Dana Altman and Mike Montgomery would much preferred to be No. 12s in San Jose than No. 9s/10s/11s in Auburn Hills, Lexington or Philadelphia.
Rather than showing the Pac-12 the back of the hand, the committee, in some respects, was quite generous.
The final score Saturday (66-60) was a tad deceiving. In the arena, it felt like Syracuse could have gone to another gear any time it wanted. I never . . . not from the first minute to the last . . . got the sense that Cal had a chance to win.
The Bears had to work twice as hard for everything, on both ends of the court, every possession.
The argument that Cal would have won if Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe had been their usual selves doesn't hold up because Syracuse was the cause of their problems with its terrific zone defense.
(One day is not enough time to properly prepare for the 2-3.)
In fact, I'd argue this was about the best they could have hoped for considering the roster: Two good guards, a mediocre (at best) frontcourt, not much depth, not overly athletic . . . Yep, the Bears reached their ceiling.
Whether the third round should be their ceiling is a different topic altogether. I'm skeptical that Montgomery, whether he coaches two more years or eight more years, will ever compile a roster good enough to reach the Sweet 16.
That requires wading deep into the pandering cesspool of recruiting, which he refuses to do.
Instead, Montgomery will keep putting together decent rosters -- one or two all-conference players and a solid supporting cast -- and making the most of them. That's what he does.