Originally Published: March 21, 2013

All's Not Quiet On The Western Front

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Before its season began, Harvard endured a surprising wound.

Its top two players, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, left the team last fall following the academic scandal that rocked the Ivy League campus. It was an odd predicament: a basketball team at one of the nation's most exclusive institutions of higher learning dealing with scholastic impurities.

And it created a sense of uncertainty within Tommy Amaker's program, months removed from its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946. So the coach turned to a freshman point guard (Siyani Chambers), a sophomore wing (Wesley Saunders) and a sharpshooting junior from Quebec (Laurent Rivard) in 2012-13.

That trio led the Crimson, a 14-seed, to its first NCAA tournament victory, a 68-62 win over New Mexico, a 3-seed, in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

The West was king as the 2013 NCAA tournament commenced. The day didn't feature many classics. But its most captivating drama was generated on the left side of the country.

Siyani Chambers
Harry How/Getty ImagesSiyani Chambers (1) and Harvard had every reason to be in a good mood on Thursday.

After their win, Harvard's players hugged each other, screamed and pumped their fists. Lobos coach Steve Alford's face conveyed confusion as he left the floor.

For months, Alford and his Mountain West colleagues had asked for more respect. Their Rodney Dangerfield routine echoed around the country.

"I'm amazed with the rankings," Alford told the Albuquerque Journal in January after the Lobos were the only Mountain West squad in that week's Associated Press poll. "Just looking at the rankings and we only have one team ranked. To be the third-best league in the country and only have one ranked team is bothersome, it really is."

The league's push for praise masked the most relevant fact about its prominence: The Mountain West had failed to make its mark during March Madness.

Colorado State was impressive as it cruised over Missouri, but with UNLV's loss to 12th-seeded Cal in the round of 64, the Mountain West is now 6-29 in the NCAA tournament against the "big six" conferences, per ESPN Stats & Information. Six wins. Twenty-nine losses.

New Mexico's loss to Harvard extended its individual and its conference's woes in the Big Dance. The Lobos were the patriarchs of a conference that earned five berths. They were Final Four sleepers to some. They were the team that would establish a new chapter in Mountain West postseason history.

But by the end of the night, they had simply preserved an old legacy.

The Pac-12, however, entered March Madness amid less optimism. In perception and seeding, it was little brother to the Mountain West. No team in the conference received anything above a 6-seed.

The selection committee's designations reflected the general assessment of the league: better than last year's Pac-12 but not on par with the Big East, Big Ten or MWC.

I even dared to predict that the conference would lose every matchup in the opening round of the Big Dance in my "10 bold predictions about the NCAA tournament" column. I've watched the Pac-12 all season. And its collective inconsistency and specific matchups in the tourney were not inspiring to me. All would lose, I figured.

So much for that.

The league ended Thursday with an unblemished record.

Damyean Dotson
AP Photo/Ben MargotOregon's Damyean Dotson shoots over Oklahoma State's Markel Brown during the Ducks' convincing win.

Its membership responded to its doubters and haters with the strongest showing of the day. Oregon's position was largely questioned on Selection Sunday, after it had finished second in the Pac-12 and won the conference tournament but received a 12-seed.

And then the Ducks went out and embarrassed an Oklahoma State squad that was a legitimate contender for the Big 12 championship for the majority of the season. Marcus Smart sputtered and the entire Pokes offense stumbled.

And then California equaled the performance of its Pac-12 peer when it too scored an upset over a No. 5 seed, UNLV. The Bears were also slotted as a 12-seed. And their opponent also unraveled when they made its best player, Anthony Bennett, uncomfortable. Bennett had his moments but he was 4-for-11 overall. UNLV shot a season-low 31.7 percent from the field.

Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, a pair of savvy veterans, gave Cal the edge against a team that had defeated the Bears in a nonconference matchup.

Arizona had been questioned, too. At one point this season, the Wildcats were discussed as a possible No. 1 seed. But a series of losses in conference play prompted their tumble to a 6-seed. Of all the Pac-12 squads competing, Sean Miller's program was viewed by some as the most vulnerable team in the league. Arizona's mishaps had ruined multiple matchups that it should have won during the regular season. So some figured the Wildcats would make one too many mistakes against Belmont, a potent mid-major.

But the Cats were dominant from tipoff as they secured the Pac-12's third tourney victory of the day. So the Pac-12's best were undeterred by seeding or upset possibilities or criticism. Arizona, Oregon and Cal just proved their worth on the floor.

The latter was the platform for a storyline that will probably remain for the duration of the NCAA tournament. The haves and have-nots appear to be much closer to one another than they've been in past renditions of the Big Dance.

Southern wasn't even the best team in the SWAC. The Jaguars rolled through their conference tournament, but it did not include Texas Southern (NCAA violations) or Arkansas-Pine Bluff (low APR scores). The two schools were disqualified from postseason play.

So No. 16 seed Southern entered Thursday's matchup against 1-seed Gonzaga as possibly the second- or third-best team in its low-major conference. And had the Jaguars found some way to limit Kelly Olynyk (21 points, 10 rebounds), they may have slayed Goliath. Not that the Zags resembled past tourney titans.

Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesKevin Pangos makes some noise for Gonzaga.

Their six-point victory over Southern was the smallest margin of victory for a No. 1 seed since 1996 (Western Carolina lost to Purdue by two). Even worse, no 1-seed that's beaten a 16 by 15 points or fewer has ever won a national title.

Sure a win is a win, but every naysayer that doubted Gonzaga's standing as a No. 1 seed was comforted by Southern's ability to give them trouble.

It was all a great setup for Friday's matchups.

Thursday did not offer the buzzer-beating, overtime nailbiters we all craved -- although Vander Blue's game winner for Marquette with a second to go certainly brought the drama.

When the smoke had cleared, however, teams from the western portion of the country were in the middle of the scrum that moved us closer to an answer for the ultimate question: Which is the best team in America?

The Mountain West will remain in that conversation if San Diego State wins its matchup against Oklahoma.

But the Pac-12 is already victorious. Colorado and UCLA can extend the league's success in their respective Friday games.

My inbox is filled with "I told you so" emails following my 0-5 prediction for the league. Multiple tweets, too. The memos confirmed that the conference's fans clearly felt slighted by the seeding of its top teams and the persistent doubt of its overall potential.

That's no longer the case now. The Pac-12 attracted believers Thursday night.

The Mountain West, however, lost a few.

And Gonzaga, well … Gonzaga didn't exactly quiet the doubters.

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