INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Walton was right all the time. The Pac-12 overblown man, the UCLA legend who can include “Conference of Champions” in every third sentence while calling a game, had his seemingly hollow boasts brilliantly backed up by his West Coast brethren.
The Pac-12, a football mat with dysfunctional leadership, has become the forefront of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Gloriously, emphatically, and unexpectedly, the league has secured 25% of the Sweet 16. In the order of least surprising to most: 7th seed Oregon, No. 6 USC, No. 11 UCLA and No. 12 Oregon State. Only Colorado, the top-ranked Pac-12 team of all at No. 5, has been fired.
No other league has more than two teams. The stately Big Ten, universally regarded as the nation’s premier conference, advanced exactly one of its nine teams in what has to be the most embarrassing league performance in NCAA history.
The Pac-12, which hasn’t produced a national champion since 1997, is 9-1 (plus one no contest). And it’s not a 9-1 fluke, in terms of how the games were played. Only one of those nine wins was by single digits, and five were by 15 or more. When USC capped off the first two rounds of the tournament by managing Kansas’ worst loss in the NCAA, an 85-51 gut, it was the culmination of a powerful five-day push-up.
Frankly, it’s good for sports and good for college sports in general. One of the great strengths of the NCAA tournament is its inclusion of the big top, a glittering national sporting event from sea to sea that generates interest everywhere, not just niches, as college football has done more and more recently. . While the pool of national title contenders in that sport is still boringly small, the pool of title contenders in men’s basketball could never be more diverse (in many ways) than this year.
“I’m not surprised at all,” says UCLA sophomore coach Mick Cronin, who previously worked at Cincinnati. “I coached at the Big East at the peak: 11 teams in the NCAA tournament. So I know good teams. And it’s not just because I’m a home run.
“The Pac-12, when I got the job, people would say, ‘Oh get out, your teams will play hard, you will win.’ I have news for you, the Pac-12 teams play hard. We have excellent training on the Pac-12, and I mean it. It is much more competitive physically than the rest of the country knows because most of the people sleep when we play and the training is really good ”.
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The fact is, the Pac-12 teams bloodied each other as much as anything else. The league winner, Oregon, lost four times in the conference. USC lost three times to Colorado. UCLA came into this tournament with a four-game losing streak that set off alarms at Westwood, but those four teams were still playing in this tournament as of Monday. And so is UCLA.
While the quality of the conference is undoubtedly underrated, this dominance is still a reversal of the regular season form. The Pac-12 was 4-8 against other Power 6 conferences, with a handful of poor losses to the older middle competition (Pepperdine, UC Riverside, Montana, UTEP, Wyoming, Portland).
But those losses were all early, and Cronin has a logical pandemic-related explanation for what was happening inside the Pac-12. “Six months without seeing his team,” he says, referring to the time when many campuses on the West Coast were completely closed. “When the teams from the south and east… had summer training and we didn’t see our players for six months. How does a boy’s body develop? … That’s what affected the Pac-12 at the beginning of the year, all of us. And you see that everyone has improved a lot throughout the year because none of us have had any kind of summer. “
They are having a great spring, after serving as a piñata for several years. Commissioner Larry Scott’s tenure started quickly and then dissolved in a flurry of income woes and poor athletic performance – the league is now in the process of finding his replacement. The soccer product has become a distanced fifth among the Power 5 conferences. The men’s basketball product has been fine, but the Pac-12 has only one Final Four entrant in the last 11 tournaments (Oregon 2017).
This year they still have a shot (albeit a remote one) of three Final Four offers. The league is guaranteed an Elite Eight team, with USC and Oregon facing off in the Sweet 16. UCLA must face fiery Alabama and Oregon State matches with super-tough Loyola Chicago. The Pac-12 could go from 25% of the Sweet 16 to 0% of the Final Four.
But the odds are in their favor compared to, say, the Big Ten and the Big 12, who cornered 16 offers between themselves and only have two teams playing (No. 1 seeds Michigan and Baylor). It has been a bloodbath in the heart of the country, and no place has taken a bigger beating than the Big Ten.
There were a few warning signs, most of which we all ignored. Ohio State, which lost to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, had turned into a mess late in the game. The Big Ten tournament finale, an overtime fight between the Buckeyes and Illinois that ended after 6 p.m. on Selection Sunday, was followed by the first NCAA games on Friday. Sometimes the cost of moving deep into a conference tournament outweighs the momentary glory.
Iowa’s defense had improved as the season progressed, but only from terrible to bad, and then fell back against Oregon. At a time when the Ducks were racing to 95 points at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday, Iowa fans began a chant of “defense deep.” It was a bit like the people of Phoenix started a chant of “White Christmas!” You want it, but you won’t get it
This was a five-day garbage dump fire, riddled with failures and redeemed only by Michigan.
The funny thing is, the Wolverines were considered the No. 1 most vulnerable seed after losing forward Isaiah Livers to injury just before the postseason. Give credit to coach Juwan Howard for spinning the wagons and scoring two strong wins, and then extend that same credit to Jay Wright and Villanova for avoiding guard Collin Gillespie’s injury to advance to the Sweet 16.
Wright is also one of two coaches still dancing to win a national championship. The other is Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, the local warlock who continues to drag double-digit seeds deep into the tournament. They are joined by four others who have made the Final Four: Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Oregon’s Dana Altman, Loyola’s Porter Moser and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson. Note that since 2008, only Tony Bennett (in 2019) and Kevin Ollie (in 2014) have won an award on their first trip to the sport’s final weekend.
While the crowd for Cinderella’s round of 32 was dense, it has now almost completely cleared. Oral Roberts, the second No. 15 seed to go this far, carries the hopes and dreams of true long shots – and more than a few Baptists. After defeating Florida on Sunday, the school’s president, William Wilson, declared, “We can’t wait to represent God and Oral Roberts at Sweet 16.”
To which the 101-year-old nun and chaplain of the Loyola team, Sister Jean, might say, “God has been represented on Sweet 16 for a while now.” She’s back for more after accompanying the Ramblers to the 2018 Final Four. There are four Catholic schools in Sweet 16, with Creighton, Villanova and Gonzaga joining Loyola.
There are also a large number of animal pets: three birds (Oral Roberts Eagles, Oregon Ducks, Creighton Bluejays) and eight mammals (Gonzaga Bulldogs, Michigan Wolverines, UCLA Bruins, Houston Cougars, Oregon State Beavers, Arkansas Razorbacks, Villanova Wildcats, and Baylor Bears ). There are two humans (USC Trojans, Florida State Seminoles) and three vague ideas (Alabama Crimson Tide, Syracuse Orange, Loyola Chicago Ramblers).
In terms of fan proximity to Indianapolis, the lead goes to Loyola and Michigan, with Creighton being the next closest campus. Everyone else is looking for a serious commute. It will be interesting to see which of the advancing fan bases take refuge here for the long haul, which go home for a few days and come back, and which pack it up entirely.
Judging from the seeding, not many expected to still be here. Using the NCAA yardstick of defining an upset as a win by a team five seeded less than its opponent, this is already a record tournament at 12. The average seed of the remaining teams is 5.88. Each region has at least one team in seventh place or worse, and only one region (the East) still has a chance to reach the No. 1 vs. No. 2.
So we have a lovingly bizarre Sweet 16, which was predictable and appropriate after a regular season of unprecedented rarities. This was never going to go as planned, and no one knows where it will go from here.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.