Billikens, Ducks not lacking tourney motivation
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) One is a mid-major that has been carrying on the memory of its late coach. The other is a Pac-12 tournament champion that feels slighted by its No. 12 seed.
When fourth-seeded Saint Louis and Oregon meet Saturday for a spot in the round of 16, neither side will be lacking motivation.
The Billikens (28-6) already have eclipsed the 1988-89 team’s school record of 27 victories, staying on the path Rick Majerus set before he died in December. Now they’re going for consecutive wins in the same tournament for the first time after overwhelming New Mexico State 64-44 in their opening game.
The Ducks (27-8) sent a strong statement to the selection committee in upsetting No. 5 seed Oklahoma State 68-55. They haven’t advanced past the first weekend since going to the regional final in 2007, when they lost to eventual repeat champion Florida – a game coincidentally played in Saint Louis.
With a chance to earn a spot in the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis next week, one more win could do wonders for each program’s profile.
“I think it would be the biggest accomplishment we could make,” said Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans, who had 24 points and six rebounds against New Mexico State. “Saint Louis teams haven’t really been there before, and basing off where we’ve come from, especially our freshman year, being Coach Majerus’ only sub .500 team, it would just be a great accolade. And really just proving you can really change things around in a matter of years.”
Or even a week.
The selection committee turned some heads for seeding Oregon so low Sunday night. All the Ducks did was tie for second place in the Pac-12 in the regular season, win the conference tournament and go 21-4 with Dominic Artis in the lineup.
Oregon earned high praise – and a viral rant about its seeding – from Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford after crushing the Cowboys. Another win could end the debate once and for all.
“We have confidence in ourselves that we can do it,” Oregon guard Johnathan Loyd said. “So I think we’ll just get a little more respect around the country knowing that Oregon basketball can really play with anybody.”
That’s about where the similarities end.
The size, speed and style of each team couldn’t be more different. Even any familiarity the two coaches have with each other from their meetings in the Missouri Valley Conference is gone.
Oregon’s Dana Altman, who coached at Creighton from 1994 to 2010, said Jim Crews’ style has evolved since Crews led Evansville from 1985 to 2002.
“It’s not his typical team,” Altman said. “I think Coach Majerus had a great influence on him and the team, and so they’re doing a lot of things that Coach Majerus did. But Jim has done a great job of keeping them together and bringing them along and the tremendous progress they’ve shown throughout the year is a real tribute to him and his staff.”
A scrappy style and defensive dominance has become Saint Louis’ staple.
Even though they may not always match the physical prowess and natural abilities of their opponents, the Billikens bully and bruise teams all over the floor. The Atlantic 10 champions have held 22 of 34 opponents under 60 points this season, including the last five, and prefer to play more of a half-court game.
That give-it-all-every-game style has propelled Saint Louis back to where it was a year ago in the round of 32 – when the Billikens lost 65-61 to No. 1 seed Michigan State – and ready to make its mark for more than Majerus’ memory. The only other time the school advanced this deep was when it made the quarterfinals in 1952, when there were only 16 teams in the tournament.
Not bad for a team that finished 12-19 three years ago and snapped a 12-year NCAA tournament drought last spring.
“We’re not worried about history or setting records. The ultimate goal is to win championships,” said junior guard Jordair Jett. “Last year we were a sleeper. This year we have more of a target on our backs.”
Oregon has surged at the most important time of the season.
Those bright green-and-yellow uniforms blurred all over the court against Oklahoma State, and players seemed fueled by a strong Bay Area contingent. HP Pavilion could become an even bigger home-court environment if Oregon fans unite with California fans – as many on each side have called for across social media – to cheer for the Pac-12 teams. Cal, also a No. 12 seed, plays fourth-seeded Syracuse in the night session for a spot in the East Regional.
“I think we’re all in this together,” Altman said.
The attention has even started to go international.
Ducks senior forward Arsalan Kazemi said family and friends back home in Iran follow the NBA but weren’t always familiar with the fanfare around the NCAA tournament. Now they’re staying up at all hours to watch Oregon’s games.
“Somehow my mom finds the games on her computer and watches. I don’t know how she does it,” Kazemi said. “She doesn’t have a bracket. Well, I don’t know. I will have to ask her. If she does, it’s obviously Oregon all the way.”