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March Madness for Californians – The New York Times

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(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)

Good morning.

OK, I’ll be real here: This year, we’ve been a little busy here at California Today and I didn’t have a chance to fill out a March Madness bracket.

I scarcely had time to register that the tournament was even happening before I started hearing about how U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. were both winning a lot — and their wins were surprising.

As something of a sports dilettante, this was intriguing news. (California has a lot of good teams and I enjoy rooting for them when appropriate!)

So I asked my colleague Alan Blinder, who covers college sports, to explain March Madness this year and why it’s significant for Californians. Here’s our conversation:

As a casual sports fan, I usually don’t pay a ton of attention to March Madness, in part because it seems as if relatively few California (men’s or women’s) teams tend to make it far into the tournament. Is this accurate? Why do I think that?

Part of the reason might be because California’s college basketball power plays in the women’s tournament, which draws a lot fewer resources and eyeballs than the men’s competition. Stanford, the No. 1 seed in this year’s women’s tournament, is back in the Elite Eight and will play Louisville on Tuesday night. But, unlike the men’s programs of U.C.L.A. and U.S.C., Stanford has been a staple of later tournament rounds: It made the Elite Eight in 2019 and has played in seven Final Fours since 2008.

But you’re right that it’s been a while on the men’s side. In fact, George W. Bush was president when a California school last reached the Elite Eight in the men’s tournament. U.C.L.A. went on to win that 2008 game against Xavier before the Bruins lost in the Final Four.

People are saying U.C.L.A. is having a “Cinderella run.” What’s so unexpected about the team’s wins?

Frankly, that they’re happening in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament — which the Bruins only barely made after losing their last four regular-season games. If you want to know how weird this college basketball season has been, look no further than the fact that mighty U.C.L.A., which has won 11 national titles in men’s basketball, has been seen as an underdog.

U.S.C. made it into the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years. Was that also unexpected?

People saw them as a formidable, quality team. Did I think they would hand Kansas its biggest N.C.A.A. tournament loss in history? No, I didn’t have that penciled in.

Is this the first time both teams have made it into the Elite Eight? Could they play each other? And, if so, when?

It’s the first time they’ve made the Elite Eight in the same men’s tournament. U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. are on the same side of the bracket, so they could meet in a Final Four game on Saturday. But there are two mighty impediments to that: The Trojans have to get past Gonzaga, which is trying to become the first undefeated team to win a national title since Indiana pulled it off in 1976, and U.C.L.A. will be contending with Michigan, the top seed in its region.

Who are some of the players to know from California teams, men’s or women’s? And are there story lines you’re paying particular attention to?

Jonathan Abrams, my colleague in Sports, wrote about the Mobley brothers of U.S.C.’s men’s team. They combined for 23 points in Sunday night’s victory over Oregon. And as Billy Witz, who also covers college sports for The Times, noted, one of the novelties of U.C.L.A. is simply its unexpected success this tournament, particularly under a coach, Mick Cronin, who is in his second season there.

The women’s tournament is stocked with formidable teams: In addition to Stanford, two No. 1 seeds, Connecticut and South Carolina, are still in the mix. Stanford has a deep roster, though, and a coach, Tara VanDerveer, who just this season surpassed Pat Summitt’s record for coaching wins in women’s college basketball.

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California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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