After an 8-1 week to open the NCAA Tournament, there's been a lot of buzz at how the Pac-12 is back. But more accurately, was it ever gone to begin with?
While the last Pac-12 national champion was Arizona in 1997, three Pac-12 programs advanced to the Sweet 16 over the weekend, each for at least the third time in five years. Arizona, Oregon and UCLA all three seeds or higher each secured a ticket to the second weekend, where they'll match up with No. 11 Xavier, No. 7 Michigan and No. 2 Kentucky respectively. As an 11-seed that had to play in the First Four, USC came close but couldn't quite break through in its Sunday battle with Baylor.
The first-weekend slate included several incredible moments for the Pac-12 powers: Arizona gritted its teeth as two starters played through finger injuries to beat Saint Mary's. The Ducks got a star turn from Tyler Dorsey, who hit a late shot to seal a second-round win. UCLA piled up 21 assists to only three turnovers with Lonzo Ball directing the show, reminding fans that he's not just the son of a boastful loudmouth he's a transcendent player.
And yet, for the conference rated sixth-toughest by KenPom and struggling with RPI this year, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA surviving was merely the expectation. Validation will only come with further success, even though others in the Pac-12 feel the conference has been tough all along.
"It's our depth of experience of all that we've been through this year, the fight that we've had from start to finish has really prepared us well for a game like today in this tournament," Arizona coach Sean Miller said on Saturday. "Because nothing is easy in this tournament."
The Pac-12's toughness took a big hit last year when Oregon was the only team to make it out of the opening weekend, despite seven entrants. Arizona, Oregon State, Cal, USC and Colorado all were knocked out in their first game, while Utah was beaten by 11-seed Gonzaga in the second round. The Ducks made it to the Elite Eight before dropping short of the Final Four.
While the Pac-12 didn't prove itself elsewhere, with Utah, Cal and Colorado going 0-3 in the NIT, the league's coaches always had confidence that the best Pac-12 teams could compete with anyone. Last week, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said he thought public opinion was swayed by last year's weak NCAA performances, forgetting that the league had three Sweet 16 teams the year before.
"I know that the Pac-12 is a heck of a lot stronger than the rest of the country [thinks]; I don't think that's anything new for us," he said. "I'd like to think we deserve more teams."
But defeating East Coast bias should come easy if the Pac-12 can get back to the Final Four for the first time since UCLA made its third straight in 2008.
The Bruins, for one, hope it's their year to get back again.
"They deserve everything that they're getting because of how hard they've worked, the type of character they have, how well they get along, the chemistry we've have," coach Steve Alford said after Sunday's victory. "They've been a complete joy to coach."