March Madness is asocciated with the NCAA tournament, but it’s also about conference championships, which begins with minor teams and goes on to the big boys. The first two champions from the five major conferences are UCLA, beating the favored Arizona to claim the Pac-12 title, and Iowa State, going through Baylor to win the tournament of the Big 12.
Not that the unranked UCLA had anything to fear – they would have made it into the NCAA tournament anyway, but it’s better to be on the safe side. The Bruins win the conference tournament for only the fourth time, including their first in six years. It’s been quite a few rough seasons in Westwood, with fans and media that are used to a lot more than chasing Arizona and Oregon, but it seems like things are heading in the right direction this season.
Kyle Anderson stood above the rest with a big game of 21 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists. He got plenty of help from Jordan Adams, scoring 19 points, and Norman Powell, scoring 15. Arizona got 22 points from Nick Johnson, while Aaron Gordon struggled with his shooting, finishing the game with 11 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
Not just the silverware, but the notion of beating one of the best defensive teams in the nation if not the best of them has to do a world of good to UCLA, under their first-year coach Steve Alford. They finished 12-6 in the conference this season, but being so strong in a finish against the #4 team in the nation has to be confidence building going into the tournament, beginning on March 20.
The Big 12 was probably the best conference this season, or at least with the biggest number of quality teams. While Kansas took the title in the regular season (again), the Cyclones got the best of the Jayhawks in the tournament, finishing it off with an impressive 74-65 win over Baylor, less than two weeks after losing to the Bears in Waco.
Iowa State win the conference tournament for only a third time, and their first since 2000. It makes their third consecutive enterance to the NCAA tournament, making it quite an upgrade through the successful tenure of Fred Hoiberg.
DeAndre Kane, as always, was the star for Iowa State, leading them with 17 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, joined by four other players in double figures as the Cyclones shot 53.3% from beyond the arc and 50% from the field. Naz Long hit four 3-pointers off the bench and both Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim grabbed 9 rebounds while scoring in double figures.
The #16 ranked Cyclones will surely be one of the hottest teams going into the tournament after beating Kansas State, Kansas, Baylor and Oklahooma State in the span of 8 days. Shooting teams tend to struggle in the tournament from a certain state, but they have the kind of defense that might be good enough to help them through some rough patches, and make a serious threat at the school’s first Final Four since 1944.