AUSTIN, Texas -- Ben Howland might be on the hot seat at UCLA, but the embattled Bruins head coach is still prideful about the Pac-12 this postseason.
Sixth-seeded UCLA is an underdog against No. 11 Minnesota in a South Region game in the NCAA Tournament here on Friday at the Erwin Center.
"Well, I'm really pleased to announce, as I walked out here, that Oregon's winning, who I thought would win," Howland said at a press conference on Thursday. "I think Cal's going to win (Thursday), I think Arizona's going to win. I think our league's really good."
Howland didn't mention Colorado, but the 10th-seeded Buffs will just assume he would like to see them defeat No. 7 Illinois in another Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup on Friday in Big 12 territory.
The Illini (22-12) are one of seven teams from the Big Ten that made the 68-team field.
Despite having a losing record (8-10) in conference play, Illinois has the better seed and is considered a slight favorite to beat the Pac-12's fifth-place finisher on a neutral court.
"I think you learn a lot playing against the competition that we played against, the venues where we played, different styles that we played, the different coaching philosophies and coaching styles as well," Illinois head coach John Groce said. "But we've moved on and now our focus is on Colorado."
The Buffs (21-11) were the only Pac-12 team to win an NCAA Tournament game last March. This time they're not carrying the conference banner alone.
"You have actually the best conference in the country and a conference that has been maligned very recently and has gained traction, I mean we want to prove that we're as good as a lot of people think we are and that we play good basketball on the West Coast," CU point guard Spencer Dinwiddie said. "Yeah, we're rooting for each other. I want UCLA to win their game, California, Oregon, Arizona to win theirs, even though we're conference foes.
"But in the NCAA Tournament you kind of root for your conference to do well."
The CU-Illinois survivor will advance to play the No. 2 Miami vs. No. 15 Pacific winner.
Bob Thomason, the winningest coach in Big West Conference history (436 wins in 25 seasons at Pacific), will retire after the Tigers' next loss.
"We're trying to make a better script," Thomason said. "I think our guys are pretty happy about going to the NCAA Tournament, and now we have to refocus on making sure that we are locked into Miami. Because if you don't get locked into the team you're playing, if you play an NCAA game, you have no chance."
Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga knows what it's like to star in a Cinderella story. His 2006 George Mason team made it to the Final Four.
"That George Mason team was not even supposed to make the NCAA Tournament, according to the experts," Larranaga said. "This Miami team won not only the regular season but the ACC Tournament and has got a high seed."
CU at UT
Athletic director Mike Bohn said the 25 most loyal members of the C-Unit will be flown to Austin on Friday to cheer on the Buffs.
Another 50 students are expected to make the trip on their own dimes and CU was on track to sell out its allotment of 500 tickets.
"It's not really driving distance like Albuquerque was. I'm not sure we'll have the same numbers," said CU head coach Tad Boyle, whose fans showed up at the Pit in droves for last year's NCAA Tournament. "But I do know this about Colorado fans, the ones that are here will be heard. They're very boisterous, they're very lively, and we're just trying to build every year.
"You never know where they're going to send you. Hopefully our fans, as we continue to develop this program, will start keeping this weekend open for travel."
With no Texas schools in this year's NCAA Tournament, all eight teams here are hoping Longhorns fans will jump on their bandwagon.
"I went out and took a bank loan out and went and bought a bunch of T-shirts," Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy said. "It might be me standing out passing them out (on Friday)."
No. 15 Northwestern State takes on No. 3 Florida in the UCLA-Minnesota bracket.
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