Pac-12 Not Receiving the Credit It Deserves in NCAA Tournament

Conference's postseason dominance has been undeniable with four Sweet 16 teams
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This column will be provincial, regionally biased and locally defensive. But at least I admit it.

By any reasonable measure the Pac-12 has dominated the men’s NCAA tournament.

The Pac-12 has four teams in this weekend’s Sweet 16 (Oregon, Oregon State, USC, UCLA). No other conference has more than two.

Pac-12 teams have a 9-1 record in the tournament. No other conference is better than 6-4 or 4-2, depending how you measure.

The Pac-12 has been dominant in its victories.

USC beat Drake by 16 points and mighty Kansas by 34. Oregon topped Big Ten powerhouse by 15 (and it could have been worse) in its only game. UCLA topped BYU by 11 and Abilene Christian by 20. Pac-12 “weakling” Oregon State knocked off Tennessee by 14 points and Oklahoma State by 10.

Colorado beat Georgetown by 23 points before suffering the conference’s only loss, to Florida State.

There were no lucky last-second shots or panicky late-game collapses by the opponent. Every win was no-nonsense, solid domination.

If Big Ten teams had produced such dominance, it would be touted by every major media outlet as a sign of the conference’s college basketball superiority.

If the Southeastern Conference had done as well, we’d be hearing the chant of “S-E-C, S-E-C” that has made college football annoying.

But now that the Pac-12 has done this, despite having more disruptive COVID-19 restrictions than any other conference and despite having tougher early-round matchups than most of the other conferences, what do you hear?

You get stories about the Pac-12’s success in the tournament, but they have focused on how surprising the success is and how this tournament has produced unlikely results.

The reports remind us the 2018-19 version of the Pac-12 was considered one of the worst major college basketball conferences in history even though all three Pac-12 teams in the 2019 NCAA tournaments won their opening games, with Oregon, as a No. 12 seed, winning its first two games by margins of 18 and 19 points before losing by four points to eventual national champion Virginia in the Sweet 16.

No stories even hint that the Pac-12 might be the best college basketball conference this season, as would be the claim if the Big Ten, Big 12 or other conferences had similar first-weekend results.

A CBS Sports story called the fact that the Pac-12 has four teams in the Sweet 16 “a rather stunning reality,” and USA Today says this about the Pac-12's four berths:

Perhaps that is a surprise to observers of college basketball, where much of the season's attention has been paid to the three biggest leagues. Air time on ESPN focuses on those games or talking about those games.

It's created a burning desire for respect inside the Pac-12. The coaches have been asked repeatedly what their wins mean for the perception of the league. Each has been adamant that not enough attention is paid to the quality of play and depth of the conference. Its success this tournament provides some tangible evidence beyond the platitudes from coaches.

ESPN's Jay Bilas credits the achievements of the advancing Pac-12 teams and notes the struggles of Big Ten teams in the video below, but he does not declare that the nation's perception of the Pac-12 has been wrong, that the Pac-12 as a conference is a lot better than people are willing to admit. Bilas maintains that the Big Ten is still the best basketball conference.

ESPN's Scott Van Pelt seems to acknowledge what he is seeing, saying in the video the Pac-12 has been "demonstrably excellent," and later adds "there is a reason they've got a quarter of the field in the Sweet 16."

Now I don’t know if the Pac-12 actually is the best college basketball conference this season. I’ve always been one to put the brakes on any sweeping assessments of a conference based on a few postseason games.

And I also realize Pac-12 teams could go down in flames this weekend, allowing everyone east of the Rocky Mountains to claim the Pac-12’s early tournament success was just a fluke.

But you'd think someone would be be willing to suggest that the Pac-12 in 2020-21 might possibly be as good as the much-ballyhooed Big Ten, which is 7-8 in the NCAA tournament and has just one team in the Sweet 16. 

You can't take NCAA tournament results as being the determining factor in a conference's basketball status one season, then dismiss them as irrelevant in another.

Plucky Oregon State -- which was picked to finish last in the Pac-12, which has won two NCAA tournament games for the first time in 39 years, which has upset five NCAA tournament teams in succession, and which resides in the quiet town of Corvallis -- would seem to be in the running for fan favorite. But that role apparently belongs to the Beavers’ next opponent, Loyola-Chicago, as noted in the video atop the story.

One other aspect of the NCAA tournament bracketing screams anti-Pac-12 bias.

Oregon and USC, teams that finished first and second in the Pac-12 standings, must face each other in the Sweet 16, thereby eliminating one of them. Yes, I know, it also assures one will reach the Elite Eight, but no other conference faced such a guaranteed exit.

No NCAA tournament teams from the Big East or Big 12 could have met a conference foe in the Sweet 16, and the Big 12 had seven teams in the tournament. Among ACC teams, only Clemson and Syracuse could have faced each other in the Sweet 16, and they finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in the conference standings.

Florida, which finished fifth in the SEC standings, could have met second-place Arkansas in an all-SEC Sweet 16, but the Gators could not get past Oral Roberts.

The Big Ten had nine teams qualify for the NCAA tournament so it was impossible for every Big Ten team to avoid a conference foe in the Sweet 16. But the only two possibilities were Purdue and Wisconsin, which finished fourth and sixth in the Big Ten standings, and Michigan State and Maryland, which wound up tied for eighth.

Yet the NCAA opted to put the top two teams in the Pac-12 on a collision course in the third round. It is the only intra-conference matchup in the Sweet 16.

Surely, the Pac-12's performance has convinced people that in 2020-21 it is a quality basketball conference with quality basketball teams, right?

Well, sort of.

ESPN.com posted a story on how it would reseed the 16 remaining teams, and here is what it came up with:

1. Gonzaga

2. Baylor

3. Michigan

4. Alabama

5.  Loyola-Chicago

6. Villanova

7. Florida State

8. Syracuse

9. Houston

10. Arkansas

11. Oral Roberts

12. USC

13. Oregon

14. Oregon State

15. UCLA

16. Creighton

The four Pac-12 teams are reseeded 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th, behind Oral Roberts. That's right, the USC team that beat Kansas by 34 points and the Oregon squad that defeated Iowa by 15 points are reseeded behind Oral Roberts, which finished fourth in the Summit League and has losses this season to North Dakota (9-17) and UM Kansas City (11-13).

USA Today undertook the task of ranking the remaining 16 teams, and here is what it produced:

1. Gonzaga

2. Baylor

3. Alabama

4. Loyola-Chicago

5. Arkansas

6. Southern California

7. Florida State

8. Houston

9. Michigan

10. UCLA

11. Oregon

12. Syracuse

13. Oregon State

14. Creighton

15. Oral Roberts

16. Villanova

A little better, but no Pac-12 team is ranked above No. 6, with UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State ranked 10th, 11th and 13th

One final thought: All season long Stanford's 18-point win over Alabama back on Nov. 30 was characterized as an early-season anomaly to be dismissed as irrelevant.

Now?  Hmm. 

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Cover photo of USC-Oregon game by Jayne Kaim-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports

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Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53

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