There wasn’t much expected from the Pac-12 Conference this year when the men’s NCAA Tournament tipped off. The Conference of Champions hasn’t won a national title since 1997, representing the longest championship drought of any major conference. It didn’t appear that would change any time soon given that the Pac-12 didn’t boast a single team in the top 20 of the most recent AP poll and had only five entries to the Big Dance — one1 that was selected as a First Four participant and another2 that only qualified because it won the conference tournament. Colorado, the conference’s top-seeded team, checked in at No. 5 in the East region.
Compare that to the SEC, which had six entries, the Big 12 and ACC, which each had seven, and the Big Ten, which had nine — including two No. 1 seeds — and it seemed as if the tournament would be yet another opportunity for pundits3 to laugh at the misfortunes of one of college basketball’s top conferences.
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But through two rounds, no conference is laughing harder than the Pac-12, which accounts for a full quarter of the remaining teams in Indianapolis. This weekend’s Sweet 16 features two Pac-12 representatives from the state of Oregon alone, while the revered Big Ten has just one team total. There are so many Pac-12 teams remaining that two will play each other in this round for the first time in conference history.
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“You’re finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke,” said the ever-quotable UCLA head coach Mick Cronin. “And some people ought to be ashamed of themselves. Now, maybe people (in the East) can’t stay up late, and I don’t blame them because I can’t either. So maybe people can’t stay up for our games.”
FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness model didn’t give a single Pac-12 entry even coin-flip odds of advancing this far. Only twice before had the conference ever had five teams in the round of 32, and never without Arizona. With No. 12 seed Oregon State, No. 11 seed UCLA, No. 7 seed Oregon and No. 6 seed USC still dancing, we have to ask: What is going on?
“We’ve got some talented, talented teams in our league. We’re obviously putting everybody on notice,” said Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle. “I’m very happy for our program, but I’m extremely happy for the Pac-12 Conference. Maybe now we’ll get some damn respect.”
Added Oregon coach Dana Altman: “The Pac-12 has shown exactly how strong it was.”
Pac-12 teams seem comfortable with the rims in Indy. Of the nine best offensive teams remaining in the tournament according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metric, one-third come from the Pac-12, and each of those teams4 is shooting better than 42 percent from beyond the arc during the event.
Oregon advanced out of the opening round by default and proceeded to shellack No. 2 Iowa in the second round, in what ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg called “one of the more complete offensive performances in recent tournament history.” Behind nine uncontested dunks — the most in a game by any team in the past five men’s NCAA Tournaments, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group — the Ducks ran up a team-tournament-record 95 points. “We had a lot of fun out there,” senior guard Chris Duarte said in summation.
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Cronin has historically coached stronger defensive teams than offensive ones, but this season has been an exception. The Bruins entered the tournament on a four-game losing streak but have shot their way to the Sweet 16, and in the process they became the fifth First Four team to advance out of the second round. UCLA put up 86 points on Michigan State, 73 points on BYU and 67 points on Abilene Christian. “We couldn’t get stops,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said after his team’s loss. “They spaced us out, made it really difficult for us to help with them being excellent shooters,” senior Abilene Christian guard Reggie Miller said after his team fell to the Bruins. The lone exception to all the scoring, it seems, is Oregon State, which stunned Tennessee and downed title dark horse Oklahoma State to arrive in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1982.5 Tinkle’s group has the second-worst remaining offense, according to KenPom.6 Instead, the Beavers have advanced behind a stubborn defense, which held the Cowboys to 27.7 percent shooting, their worst shooting performance since 2014. Both Oregon State and USC have locked down the competition, with each holding opponents to an effective field-goal percentage below 36 percent, according to CBB Analytics.
Chaos hasn’t been exclusive to the Pac-12 and has been the lone constant in the opening two rounds. Two of the 10 teams with our model’s best odds to cut down the nets at the start of the tournament didn’t make it out of the first round, and two more were ousted in the second. Oral Roberts is still in the hunt, the second No. 15 seed ever to advance out of the second round.
Despite the Pac-12’s early round success, the FiveThirtyModel model still isn’t bullish on its chances to win a national championship. The Trojans’ 5 percent odds lead the remaining Pac-12 crop and represent the only conference team to have better than a 2 percent probability. But for a group that wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place, it’s all gravy. The Pac-12 has been roundly and understandably mocked in recent years when it came to its performance in primary revenue-generating sports, to say nothing of its overall leadership. But as its four remaining teams inch closer to cutting down the nets, fans are enjoying this opportunity for the Pac-12 to reintroduce itself as a power and not just another conference.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.