USC nearly doubled Kansas’ worst NCAA Tournament loss in school history Monday night. The craziest thing? It didn’t even feel that crazy.
By the end of a long weekend that flipped the “best conference” argument on its head, a Pac-12 team administering that kind of noogie to one of the sport’s venerable programs felt like a West Coast hoops birthright.
“A major rout!” CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle called it, well before the Trojans’ 85-51 victory was complete.
The first five days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were a rout for the Pac-12, for you, for your neighbor, probably for your neighbor’s neighbor, too. After a three-year period of basically counting on Oregon coach Dana Altman to maneuver the Ducks into the later rounds, the Pac-12 went 9-1 (10-1 if you count Oregon’s no-contest in the first round) and claimed four spots of the Sweet 16.
No other league has more than two teams, and the Pac-12’s tally doubles the Big Ten and the Big 12’s combined two. Remember when those were the obvious choices as the best leagues in college basketball this season?
I’m not big on the notion of conference pride, but if there were ever a time for a league’s fans to band together and puff out their collective chest, it is now. The Pac-12 just hijacked one of the wildest first weekends of March Madness ever, and, no matter your loyalty, how could you not be able to find just a small glimpse of a reason to root for UCLA, USC or even Phil Knight “U”? (The assumption here is that everyone will find it easy to jump aboard the Oregon State bandwagon.)
The only thing standing in the way of Pac-12 camaraderie, of course, is that both USC and Oregon were so under-seeded that they were placed in the same region and on the same side of the bracket where they could meet in the Sweet 16. Sadly, we’re going to lose the Trojans or Ducks on Sunday night, which means there’s no chance of an all-Pac-12 Final Four.
This would have never happened to any other “power” league — the top two teams in the regular season standings, Oregon at 14-4 and USC at 15-5, being set up by the NCAA selection committee to play before the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four. Could you imagine that happening to Michigan and Illinois? Baylor and Kansas? Virginia and Florida State? Alabama and Arkansas? Villanova and Creighton?
The only reason this scenario befell the Pac-12 is because the national consensus from the beginning of the season was that this league was “power six” in name only, and, with abridged and mostly regionalized nonconference schedules because of COVID-19, there was no chance for the league to punch through that bias until now.
That’s what is great about this tournament, though. In college football, disrespected conferences can only rack up pristine bowl records, but even when a league pulls that off, the losers say bowls don’t matter.
In this tournament, going 9-1 matters. Four out of 16 matters. Having the whole country actually watch the Pac-12 put on a show matters and has restored credibility to the entire operation, department by department, from Pullman to Tempe. Think the open job of Pac-12 commissioner didn’t become more appealing in the last five days? Think again.
The Pac-12 can achieve greatness in high-stakes sports. We’ve just forgotten that, even here in the heart of the league’s footprint, where the doom and gloom around the underachieving USC football and UCLA men’s basketball programs colors all. Yes, the league has a lot of ground to make up at every level, particularly within the walls of its downtown San Francisco headquarters, but try to remember there can be no momentum without a moment like this.
Why didn’t we see this coming? I credit our columnist, Bill Plaschke, for writing that USC and UCLA had this exact path in front of them when the brackets came out. To be honest, I thought he was cooking up some hope for the hometown fans. I didn’t see it, and if someone who passionately follows the sport as I do from L.A. was blind to it, imagine how shocking this was to someone who lives in the middle of the country or the East Coast, whose only exposure to Pac-12 basketball comes with Bill Walton as the emcee?
Throughout the weekend, announcers and analysts often referenced Walton, whose love for his “Conference of Champions” finally paid off. There were lots of laughs over it, which is part of the Pac-12’s problem.
Look, we all love Walton, his passion for the game, for these universities, for their quirky towns, for his entertainment value calling games at the same time of night people want to fall asleep to Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel. But when you listen to Walton call a Pac-12 game, does it feel like something to be taken seriously?
I love listening to ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla call a Big 12 game. He’s all about the strategy, the player development, the program storylines. You can tell Fraschilla spends time talking to the coaches and watching practice all season long, because he thinks Big 12 basketball is worth not just his time but yours.
Walton’s heart is in the right place, and he’s clearly doing what he feels he’s been paid to do, but he makes the Pac-12 seem like a joke at a time many observers want to think that already.
This is just one of many things a new commissioner can consider regarding the league’s perception and branding. Whoever that is will come to those decisions from a place of greater strength after last weekend.
For the first time in too long, America got to see Pac-12 excellence on repeat, without any contrived distraction. Knowing there’s a lot more to come this weekend has never felt so sweet.