When the buzzer sounded in Indianapolis on Friday, it was the end of the 2013 Pac-12 basketball season. But it was also a sign that things aren’t always what they seem. After being rated as one of the worst Power 6 conferences in the country all season, the Pac-12 showed some grit in the NCAA Tourney to get two teams to the Sweet Sixteen.
At the onset of the Big Dance, the Pac-12 had five teams in the field, a significant step forward over last year’s two. And when they got there, most of the teams from the Conference of Champions made it count, as three secured a win, and Oregon and Arizona advanced to the second weekend.
On paper, the Ducks had the most impressive run in the tourney, thanks in part to the drastically inaccurate seeding granted them by the NCAA Selection Committee. Despite being underrated as a 12-seed, Oregon crushed the 5-seed Oklahoma State Cowboys, 68-55, before stomping on the 4-seed Saint Louis Billikens, 74-57.
And though their season ended versus overall No. 1-seed Louisville in the next round, the Ducks and head coach Dana Altman have to be pleased with their performance. The 77-69 loss to the Cardinals was the closest margin of victory for legendary coach Rick Pitino, who was never lost a Sweet Sixteen game in eleven tries.
The appearance was Oregon’s first in the Big Dance since 2008, and only the program’s fifth Sweet Sixteen ever (the tournament only had eight teams when the Ducks won the national title in 1939). Assuming UO’s talented freshman backcourt of Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson continues to shine in 2014, there’s no reason to believe the Ducks won’t be in the mix for years to come.
As a 6-seed in the West, Arizona was the other Pac-12 squad to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, though the Wildcats weren’t exactly world-beaters in getting there. After being tabbed as a sexy upset pick in the Round of 64, Arizona came out with a chip on their collective shoulder and blasted the 11-seed Belmont Bruins, 81-64. Then, thanks to a stunning upset, the Cats were paired with 14-seed Harvard in their second game. A 74-51 walkaway win over the Crimson launched Zona into the next round, setting up an epic clash with 2-seed Ohio State at the Staples Center.
Unfortunately for the Wildcat-heavy crowd in L.A., OSU buried a game-winning three-pointer with two ticks left to earn a slot in the Elite Eight. It was the Buckeyes’ fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen showing, while Arizona’s roster is filled with freshmen, so the outcome isn’t too surprising. If head coach Sean Miller can continue to bring top-tier talent to Tucson, expect the Cats to be a Top 25 mainstay for a long time.
At the end of the day, the Pac-12 posted a 5-5 record in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, which is a marked improvement over last season’s 1-2 effort. There were certainly some disappointments, most notably UCLA’s 20-point loss to Minnesota in the Round of 64, but in all it was a strong March Madness for the conference.
For comparison, consider how the other big-time conferences fared this year. The Big East and Big Ten, which were widely considered the toughest leagues this season, featured four and three teams in the Sweet Sixteen, respectively. Meanwhile, the ACC had two teams in the regional quarterfinals, while the SEC and Big 12 each had one team left.
And while the Big East, Big Ten, ACC and SEC all outlasted the Pac-12 to get to the Elite Eight, it’s clear that the class of college hoops is no longer exclusive to the Eastern time zone. Left coast basketball is on its way back to relevance, and the nation better take notice.