This is going to take some getting used to.
The Pac-12 not being demeaned, belittled or mocked in men’s basketball and/or football?
An enterprise overseen by Larry Scott getting lauded for its overachievement?
Our poor, forlorn little conference proving to be the biggest, baddest dudes in the NCAA tournament?
Who in the world saw it coming, other than the psychedelic sage of Westwood, Bill Walton? But when Walton revealed his Final Four prediction that included five Pac-12 schools — don’t sweat it; that’s just Bruin math — it was just Bill being Bill. No one would have ever guessed that his over-the-top reverence for the “Conference of Champions” would be prescient rather than puerile.
Yet here we are. The league that in 2019 inspired a Bleacher Report headline reading “Pac-12 Might Be The Worst Major Conference In Shot-Clock Era of Men’s Basketball” — with advanced statistical evidence to back the claim — is suddenly the toast of the town. And the town is Indianapolis, site of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Of the five Pac-12 men’s teams that qualified for the tourney, four have made it through to the Sweet 16. That’s more than any other conference, including the hyped Big Ten, which had nine teams qualify and only one make it through to the second weekend. The Big Ten lost three No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, while the Pac-12’s rogue band of misfit toys (including two double-digit seeds still alive) has produced a 10-1 record, the third-best of any conference with five teams since the expansion of the field in 1985.
This all means a lot of money for the conference. Based on the “unit” system in which conferences accumulate money via victories by its teams, the Pac-12 has racked up 15 units. At roughly $1.8 million per unit (paid out over six years), that’s a $27 million windfall for the conference to distribute. Because USC and Oregon face each other in the Sweet 16, at least one more win is guaranteed, and the payout will keep growing if the other teams keep winning.
Obviously, that’s a godsend to a conference that has been battered and bruised financially by the COVID-19 shutdown. But what the Pac-12 has gained over this past week is far more valuable.
Respect. Praise. Prestige. A reputation boost. All the things that the league receives regularly via its women’s hoops teams, which very well could have produced the champion last year in Oregon and possesses the No. 1 overall seed in Stanford among the three conference teams still alive this year. The league also is lauded regularly for its so-called Olympic sports, in which the Pac-12 still racks up championships like no other.
But in the sports that are the vital revenue producers — football and men’s basketball — the Pac-12 has become a (pick your favorite descriptor) laughing stock, punching bag, underachiever, perennial disappointment.
That’s one huge reason Scott is on the way out. But this kind of unqualified success, and the positive publicity it is engendering for the Pac-12, should be a huge boost in recruiting. And could even help in enticing a higher level of candidates for the vacant commissioner’s job.
What exactly is fueling this Pac-12 revival? You could go psychological and say the league is being driven by disgust over the lack of respect it has received. You could go practical and point out that the Pac-12, more than any other league, was hampered in its preparation for the season by COVID-19 and thus took longer to find its groove. Or you could go nuts and bolts and note that the coaching represented in the tournament from Pac-12 schools is first rate.
UCLA’s Mick Cronin makes the case that the league has been vastly underrated all along — though, to be fair, there was little that happened in the regular season to make people think otherwise.
“You’re finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke,” Cronin said to reporters after the Bruins’ win over BYU. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Back in 2011 I coached in a league where 11 teams made the NCAA tournament. And the national champion finished in a tie for ninth, 10th and 11th. So I know good teams. So Oregon State, Oregon, Colorado, SC, those teams winning is just not a surprise at all to me.”
But the Pac-12 got no breaks from the seeding committee. Oregon State, despite winning the Pac-12 men’s tournament, drew a 12 seed. UCLA is an 11, Oregon a 7, USC a 6. The league’s highest-seeded team, Colorado at No. 5, is the only one to lose, getting bounced by Florida State in the second round.
But the league has been on a roll from the very beginning. UCLA was down double digits in its First Four game with Michigan State but stormed back to win. The Pac-12 is 9-1 against the spread, with eight of its wins by double figures and an average victory margin of 13.1 points. That’s the fifth largest of any league with five or more teams since 1985.
Maybe the fun is about to run out. The USC-Oregon winner likely runs into mighty Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Oregon State has to face a more celebrated underdog in Loyola of Chicago, which took down No. 1 seeded Illinois and has Sister Jean on its side. UCLA meets a very tough No. 2 seed, Alabama.
It would take another upset for the Pac-12 to get just its second men’s Final Four representative in the past 14 years (the other being Oregon in 2017). It would take a minor miracle for it to get its first men’s team to the title game since UCLA in 2006, and a major miracle for its first men’s champion since Arizona in 1997.
But considering where the Pac-12 ranked on the stature scale going into March Madness, the men’s tournament has already been a smashing success for the conference. Just like Bill Walton and nobody else predicted.