SAN JOSE -- On Thursday, three teams playing second-round games in the NCAA tournament in HP Pavilion turned in poised, dominant efforts. They acted, so to speak, like they'd been there before. One of them, Syracuse, has. A lot. The other two, Saint Louis and Oregon, have not.
If Saint Louis, the fourth seed in the Midwest, beats No. 12 Oregon, it will play in the program's first Sweet 16. The Ducks' pedigree, despite winning the first NCAA tourney in 1939, isn't much better, at least not lately. The Ducks had an Elite Eight run in 2007 but hadn't won a tournament game since. Their regular-season record from 2009-10 and 2010-11 was 32-33.
So this is mostly unexplored territory for these players and programs.
Saint Louis junior Dwayne Evans, the Billikens' leading scorer and rebounder, took a leap of faith three years ago that Rick Majerus was going to lead the program away from prolonged mediocrity.
"Saint Louis basketball really wasn't on the map, even [in] Saint Louis," he said.
The compelling angle, of course, is that Saint Louis has posted its greatest season after tragedy, as Majerus took a medical leave from the program in August and then died of heart failure on Dec. 1. Jim Crews took over. After a meandering start, the Billikens got hot. Their 28 wins is the most in program history. They entered the tournament ranked 13th in both major polls, having been in the polls for four consecutive weeks, which hadn't happened since 1993-94.
Saint Louis beat Memphis in the second round last year before falling to Michigan State. And, unlike Oregon, this is a veteran team that's seen a lot of action together.
"Last year, we were kind of wide-eyed and just kind of there for the experience, and obviously we were taking on the No. 1 seed, Michigan State. I think there were some nerves there," Evans said. "But this year we're a confident, veteran team. We know how good we can be. And we have bigger goals than making it to the round of 32."
Of course, the Ducks played like a cohesive, veteran unit while upsetting Oklahoma State and All-American guard Marcus Smart. While the Ducks start a pair of freshmen and are transfer heavy, they're a hot, confident team, coming off an impressive run through the Pac-12 tournament.
The Ducks, notorious for their baffling 12th seed, still have something to prove. A Sweet 16 run would prove it.
"Yeah, that would be huge for us, to get more respect," senior center Tony Woods said. "A lot of people didn't predict us to win the game last night. That was big for us, getting respect. We never cared about the 12-seed, we're just happy to be here, happy to stay alive and keep playing."
In order to keep playing, one team will need to dictate the tempo. Oregon likes to run in transition. Saint Louis can run but prefers more half-court sets. Saint Louis isn't very good at rebounding but protects the ball. Oregon is prone to turnovers but is fantastic on the boards. Both teams play good defense. Neither team is terribly good behind the 3-point arc.
Saint Louis will like its chances if the Billikens keep the game low-scoring. Oregon would like to inject a bit of frenzy into the evening.
"They do not give up easy baskets. They know what they want from every possession," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "It's about as veteran a team as we played. The most veteran team we've played all year ... They have a little better idea what they want out of a possession. So we've got to try to get a few more possessions going. We've got to try to open the floor a little bit. I think at some positions our athletes can make a difference, if we can get them out in the open court."
Both teams are on the cusp of a special season for their program. But they need to win Saturday to make it happen.
SAN JOSE NEWS & NOTES
California point guard Justin Cobbs was asked about how the Bears can beat Syracuse's notorious zone defense: "Just try not to get stagnant. Usually in zone it's easy to get stagnant and just pass the ball around the perimeter, and not get in the interior of the defense. Just as a point guard, try to penetrate the zone. Obviously in their 2-2-1 or 2-3, whatever you want to call it, the middle is going to be open. They trap the corners and things like that. So try to just get in the interior, try to get the ball to the high post and find shooters like Allen [Crabbe], and try to break the zone from the inside out."
California coach Mike Montgomery has long been a coach who preferred man-to-man defense, but the Bears used a zone almost exclusively in their win over UNLV. He said, "Ours is more of a 3-2 zone. We started off trying to play a 2-3 zone. And I played 2-3 primarily for years and years and years. And we had the rules down, knew exactly who had what coverage. But we weren't able to get our forwards and center to do what we wanted to do. And a lot of times we weren't able to get our guards to continue to run out and switch the forward down and so forth and so on. So we decided to try the 3-2 zone because Crabbe at the top gave us a 6-6 long-arm guy that was able to do a little bit more than some others."
Suffice it to say, the subject of zone defense was a big one during the news conferences Friday, as was the friendship between Montgomery and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. That led to this when Boeheim was asked about Montgomery's newfound love of zone defenses: "Well, he once asked my wife if I was wearing a skirt [when playing zone defenses]," Boeheim said. "So when we were watching last year I think it was, we texted immediately when he was playing zone to see if he was wearing a skirt, as well. But I guess he was. He's a man-to-man coach, he always has been. But I think you see really almost everybody play some zone now, teams that coaches that have never played zone play zone."
Playing in San Jose means California is practically playing a home game. But Syracuse senior forward James Southerland downplayed that as an issue. He said, "This is California, so the team from the University of California are going to have about 90 percent of their fans here. I feel like it's not going to be much of a problem for us. It shouldn't be because we played in great games like Arkansas, and Louisville and pulled out a win with a No. 1 team. So we are just going to focus on what we need to do."
Syracuse is leaving the Big East for the ACC next season. Boeheim was asked if he felt like he was representing the Big East or the ACC. He said, "That's a good question. Yeah, you know, right now we're still members of the Big East, and we're representing the Big East right now. But it's kind of, it's a real gray area, there, I think, as well. I think really when we get to this stage that we're representing Syracuse at this stage."