The Pac-12's Unexpected Dominance Highlights an Endearingly Weird Men’s Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS — Bill Walton was right all along. The Pac-12’s high-on-life hype man, the UCLA legend who can work “Conference of Champions” into every third sentence while calling a game, had his seemingly hollow boasts backed up brilliantly by his West Coast brethren.

The Pac-12, a football doormat with dysfunctional leadership, has surged to the forefront of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In glorious, emphatic and unexpected fashion, the league has locked down 25% of the Sweet 16. In order of least surprising to most: No. 7 seed Oregon, No. 6 USC, No. 11 UCLA and No. 12 Oregon State. Only Colorado, the highest-seeded Pac-12 team of them all at No. 5, has been dismissed.

No other league has more than two teams. The lordly Big Ten, universally considered the premier conference in the country, advanced exactly one of its nine teams, in what has to be the most embarrassing performance by a league in NCAA history.

The Pac-12, which hasn’t produced a national champion since 1997, has gone 9–1 (plus a no-contest). And it’s not a flukey 9–1, in terms of how the games were played. Only one of those nine victories was by single digits, and five were by 15 points or more. When USC capped the first two rounds of the tournament by administering Kansas’s worst NCAA loss ever, an 85–51 evisceration, it was the capper of a powerful five-day flex.

Frankly, it’s good for the sport and good for college sports as a whole. One of the great strengths of the NCAA tournament is its big-tent inclusiveness, a sea-to-shining-sea national sporting event that generates interest everywhere—not just in niches, as college football has done more and more recently. While the pool of national title contenders in that sport remains boringly small, the pool of title contenders in men’s basketball might never be more diverse (in many ways) than this year.

“Not surprised at all,” says second-year UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who previously worked at Cincinnati. “I coached in the Big East in the heyday—11 teams in the NCAA tournament. So I know good teams. And it's not just because I'm a homer.

“The Pac-12, when I got the job, people would say, ‘Oh, you go out there, your teams will play hard, you'll win’. I've got news for you, teams in the Pac-12 play hard. We have excellent coaching in the Pac-12, and I mean that. It’s way more competitive physically than the rest of the country knows because most people are sleeping when we play, and the coaching is really, really good.”

MORE: Five Things We Learned As the Men's Sweet 16 Is Set

Fact is, the Pac-12 teams bloodied each other as much as anything. League winner Oregon lost four times in conference. USC lost three times to Colorado. UCLA came into this tournament on a four-game losing streak that set off alarms in Westwood—but all four of those teams were still playing in this tourney as of Monday. And so is UCLA.

While the quality of the conference undoubtedly is under-appreciated, this domination still is a reversal of regular-season form. The Pac-12 was 4–8 against fellow Power 6 conferences, with a smattering of bad losses to mid-major 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 going on within the Pac-12. “Six months without seeing your team,” he says, referring to the time when many campuses on the West Coast were completely shut down. “When teams in the south and back east … had summer workouts, and we did not see our players for six months. How do you develop a guy's body? … That's what hurt the Pac-12 early in the year, all of us. And you see that everybody has gotten so much better as the year went on because none of us had any type of summer.”

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They’re having a hell of a spring, after serving as a piñata for several years. Commissioner Larry Scott’s tenure started fast and then dissolved in a flurry of revenue problems and revenue-sport underachievement—the league is now in the process of finding his replacement. The football product has become a distanced fifth among Power 5 conferences. The men's basketball product has been O.K., but the Pac-12 has just one Final Four participant in the last 11 tournaments (Oregon 2017).

This year they still have a shot (however remote) at three Final Four bids. The league is guaranteed one Elite Eight team, with USC and Oregon meeting in the Sweet 16. UCLA must face blazing Alabama and Oregon State matches up with super-tough Loyola Chicago. The Pac-12 might go from 25% of the Sweet 16 to 0% of the Final Four.

But the odds are in its favor compared with, say, the Big Ten and Big 12, which corralled 16 bids between them and have just two teams still playing (No. 1 seeds Michigan and Baylor). It’s been a bloodbath in the heartland, and no place has taken a bigger beating than the Big Ten.

There were some warning signs, most of which we all ignored. Ohio State, which lost to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, had become a late-game mess. The Big Ten tournament final, an overtime slugfest between the Buckeyes and Illinois that ended after 6 p.m. on Selection Sunday, was followed by early NCAA games on Friday. Sometimes the cost of advancing deep into a conference tournament outweighs the momentary glory.

Iowa’s defense had improved as the season went along, but only from terrible to bad—and then it regressed against Oregon. At one point as the Ducks were racing to 95 points in Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday, the Iowa fans started a “dee-fense!" chant. It was a bit like people in Phoenix starting a "White Christmas!" chant—you may want it, but you aren’t going to get it.

This was a five-day dumpster fire, rife with flops and redeemed only by Michigan.

Funny thing is, the Wolverines were considered the most vulnerable No. 1 seed after losing senior forward Isaiah Livers to an injury just prior to the postseason. Credit coach Juwan Howard with circling the wagons and coming through with two strong wins—and then extend that same credit to Jay Wright and Villanova for working around the injury to guard Collin Gillespie to advance to the Sweet 16.

Wright also is one of just two coaches still dancing who has won a national championship. The other is Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, the zone warlock who keeps dragging double-digit seeds deep into the tourney. They are joined by four others who have been to the Final Four: Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Oregon’s Dana Altman, Loyola’s Porter Moser, and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson. Keep in mind that since 2008, only Tony Bennett (in 2019) and Kevin Ollie (in 2014) have won a natty on their first trip to the sport's final weekend.

While the Round of 32 Cinderella crowd was thick, it has been almost entirely cleared out now. Oral Roberts, just the second No. 15 seed to make it this far, carries the hopes and dreams of the true long shots—and of more than a few Pentecostals. After defeating Florida on Sunday, school president William Wilson declared, “We can’t wait to represent God and Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16.”

To which 101-year-old nun and Loyola team chaplain Sister Jean might say, “God has been repped at the 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 the Sweet 16, with Creighton, Villanova and Gonzaga joining Loyola.

There also are a plethora of animal mascots: 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 edge goes to Loyola and Michigan, with Creighton the next-closest campus. Everyone else is looking at a serious commute. It will be interesting to see which of the advancing fan bases hunker down here for the long haul, which go home for a few days and come back, and which ones pack it in altogether.

Judging by seeding, not many expected to still be here. Using the NCAA’s measuring stick of defining an upset as a victory by a team five seeds lower than its opponent, this already is a record-setting tournament with 12. The average seed of the remaining teams is 5.88. Every region has at least one team left seeded seventh or worse, and only one region (the East) still has a chance at a No. 1 vs. No. 2 chalk final.

So we have an endearingly weird Sweet 16, which was foreseeable and fitting after a regular season of unprecedented weirdness. This was never going to go according to plan, and where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

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