With the actual “first” round of the NCAA Tournament set to begin Thursday morning, it’s put up or shut up time for college basketball teams across the country.
The Pac-12 is far from the class of the country in college hoops, as conferences like the Big Ten and Big East have dominated the public eye all season. But with five teams in the field of 68, basketball on the West Coast is looking to re-establish itself on the national stage.
And unbeknownst to all those back east who never stay up to watch our games, teams from the Pac-12 have an advantage that many of the other “Power 6″ conferences can’t claim.
Week-in and week-out in the Pac-12 this year, there was some stunning upset that shook up the standings, or a near-upset that had fans of the “favorites” wishing they were underdogs. In the last week of the regular season alone, conference bottom-feeders Utah (15-18), Oregon State (14-18) and Washington State (13-19) secured upsets of now-NCAA Tourney teams. The Utes got so hot they even made a nice run through the Pac-12 Tournament that included a 10-point upset of another March Madness squad, the Cal Bears.
Most casual viewers look at these weekly head-scratchers as a sign that the Pac-12 is weak and should be written off without further consideration. But for fans of the Conference of Champions, and for the few media outlets that actually spend resources covering the Pac-12, the trend has culminated into one highly-appropriate buzz-word: parity.
According to Merriam-Webster, parity is defined as “the quality or state of being equal or equivalent.” In the case of Pac-12 basketball, it means anyone can beat anyone on any given day. No matter if it was home or away, nationally-televised or broadcast via smoke signal, if your team didn’t show up to play, even against the worst teams in the league, you were going to lose.
Regular-season conference champion UCLA found this out the hard way on a number of occasions, dropping decisions in embarrassing fashion versus Arizona State, Southern Cal and WSU. And Pac-12 Tourney winner Oregon fell victim to the gauntlet too, coming out flat in huge losses to Stanford and Utah. Even Arizona, a team that hovered around the Top 10 in the country for most of the year, owns a bad loss against the USC Trojans.
It’s also important to note that almost every single game was a thriller. Sure, there were a few definitive victories sprinkled throughout the season. But more often than not, Pac-12 games came down to the wire, either ending in overtime or in the last few possessions. In addition to the upsets that were finished off, all of the conference’s top teams were tested in their wins, forcing some to evolve into epic escape artists.
As a means of comparison, consider the schedule of the SEC regular-season champion, Florida. The Gators won 14 conference games, 10 of which came by 20 or more points. And of those 10 wins, five came by 30 or more points. To put it simply, UF rolled through the SEC with ease, something that no Pac-12 team can say of its conference slate in 2013.
For those reasons, it’s no surprise that UCLA was able to nab the Pac-12 title despite suffering five losses in conference play, and that three other teams finished within a game of first place.
But what does that really mean come March Madness?
Well, in my opinion, it means that Pac-12 teams have a major ace in the hole, an advantage that will come in handy when their NCAA matchups inevitably turn to chaos. The fact that they were forced to show up for every single game will pay dividends for Pac-12 teams this weekend, especially in the win-or-go-home intensity of the tournament.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not predicting that any Pac-12 squad will catch fire and blaze its way to the Final Four (though that’s entirely possible). In fact, the Elite Eight on my personal bracket only includes teams from the Big Ten or Big East.
However, I am saying that the Pac-12 is liable to surprise some of the “experts” this weekend. Myron Medcalf, a well-known writer for ESPN, actually predicted that the Pac-12 would go 0-5 in the tourney. I know he was going for “bold predictions,” but assuming a victory for 11-seed Belmont over Arizona in Pac-12 territory is simply insulting. And while the slight of the Wildcats is certainly the most egregious, I would argue that every Pac-12 team has a legitimate shot to advance to the Round of 32.
My conjecture will be put to the test starting tomorrow when Oregon, Arizona and Cal all take the floor in the Big Dance. The fun will continue for the Pac-12 on Friday when UCLA and Colorado get their chance to make some madness. If our conference can manage at least a 3-2 record by the time Saturday rolls around, it would have to be dubbed a successful year after claiming just one tourney win in 2012.
Here’s to hoping for the best, and rooting for the Pac-12 over all the rest.