After months of a weird season navigating through COVID-19 outbreaks and shutdowns, we’re down to the Elite Eight in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. A field consisting of three No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga, Michigan and Baylor), No. 2 Houston, No. 3 Arkansas, and the most-unlikely underdogs from the Pac-12 conference (No. 6 USC, No. 11 UCLA, and No. 12 Oregon State).
The top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs came into the tournament as the nation’s only undefeated at 29-0, and have looked better than some current NBA squads, outscoring their tournament opponents by an average of 25.7 points per game. Mark Few’s team meets the USC Trojans (25-7) Tuesday night at Lucas Oil Stadium (7:15 p.m. ET/ TV: TBS). As the highest-ranked remaining teams of the Pac-12, the No. 6 darlings make a second Elite Eight appearance in the past 60 years.
Dating back to 1939, seven teams have claimed an undefeated national championship in men’s basketball, but hasn’t been done in 45 years. That includes San Francisco (1955-56), North Carolina (1956-57), UCLA (1963-64, 1966-67, 1971-72, 1972-73), and Indiana (1975-76).
No. 1 Michigan (23-4) took a stroll through the regular season, winning 18 of their first 19 contests before hitting injuries and turbulence due COVID. They ended February by dropping two of three games before the Big Ten tournament, which ended after a one-point semifinal loss to 9th-ranked Ohio State.
What seemed like a let down at the time resulted in a top seed in the tournament, and the Wolverines being cast back into the Eight Eight for the first time since 2018. Juwan Howard’s second season in Ann Arbor has been a turnaround story for one of the best young coaches in the sport.
Another Pac-12 team stares down the improbable task of taking down a No. 1 on Tuesday night. Eleventh-seeded UCLA (21-9) has a rich history in the NCAA tournament but will face their biggest game of the season against Michigan (9:57 p.m. ET/ TV:TBS). A second-ever meeting in March for the powerhouse programs since 1998.
Outside of being a true top contender, No. 2 Houston Cougars (27-3) return to the national scene after a 37-year Elite Eight hiatus. The AAC Champions led by Kelvin Sampson have yet to face an opponent above a double-digit seed and square off against No. 12 Oregon State (20-12) on Monday night (7:15 p.m. ET/ TV:CBS).
The Beavers went on a once-in-a-lifetime run to win a Pac-12 championship— earning a spot in the tournament and have managed to survive against No. 4 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Tennessee, and No. 8 Loyola Chicago— winning the three games by an average of 10.8 points.
Perhaps the game that will gather the most attention features No. 1 Baylor (25-2) and No. 3 Arkansas (25-6) on Monday night (9:57 p.m. ET/ TV: CBS). Both teams have managed to equal each other in the win column with the Razorbacks rolling on a nine-game winning streak before losing to LSU in the SEC Championship to end the regular season. Arkansas stands alone representing the SEC with the second-best conference record behind No. 2 Alabama, who was knocked out of the tournament by UCLA on Sunday.
On the other hand, the Bears continue to have one of the best seasons in recent memory. An Elite Eight appearance for the fifth time in school history after earning wins over Hartford, Wisconsin, and Villanova. Baylor overcame a halftime deficit in the Sweet 16 against Villanova, to outscore the Wildcats in the second half on the way to a 62-51 win.
This is the fourth time that an ACC school has not reached at least the Elite Eight since the men’s NCAA Tournament was expanded in 1980 to a 48-team format (2003, 2014 and 2016 were the other years).