The maligned Pac-12 conference made inroads toward reshaping its NCAA tournament reputation Thursday as the field of 64 commenced in arenas across the country. Arizona, Oregon and California—a trio of teams that settled for lower seeds than many expected—provided a clean sweep for the conference.
Arizona, the No. 6 seed in West region competition, cruised to a 17-point win over Belmont. Oregon and California each upended higher-seeded opponents, creating more questions about why both teams started the tournament with a 12 next to its names.
Perhaps these victories provide a shot in the arm for the Pac-12 after an underwhelming 2012 postseason.
The conference added Colorado and Utah to the mix in 2011, but added competition resulted in a conference-wide embarrassment on Selection Sunday. Colorado and California were the only teams to earn a spot in the tournament. The Golden Bears fell in the first round, and the Buffaloes were bounced days later.
The conference caught a ton of grief from national media as Pac-12 players were restricted to the couch while several mid-major programs played deep into the 2012 tourney.
Things are much different this time around.
A 3-0 start could signal the return of this conference's swagger. Pac-12 coaches and teams are cheering for each other, knowing that it will take more than one program to return this conference to a state of prominence.
Colorado Buffaloes guard Spencer Dinwiddie echoed this sentiment (h/t Brush News-Tribune):
You have actually the best conference in the country and a conference that has been maligned very recently and has gained traction, I mean we want to prove that we're as good as a lot of people think we are and that we play good basketball on the West Coast. Yeah, we're rooting for each other. I want UCLA to win their game, California, Oregon, Arizona to win theirs, even though we're conference foes.
Colorado and UCLA are in action Friday. The Pac-12 could potentially place five teams in the field of 32, which starts Saturday.
The Buffaloes, a No. 10 seed, take on Illinois. The sixth-seeded Bruins battle Minnesota. A season highlighted by the Big Ten's rise in national perception could be seriously shaken up if UCLA and Colorado claim victories.
Bruins coach Ben Howland insists things are looking up for the Pac-12, saying, "Well, I'm really pleased to announce, as I walked out here, that Oregon's winning, who I thought would win. I think Cal's going to win (Thursday), I think Arizona's going to win. I think our league's really good."
The conference's tarnished reputation cost Oregon more than any program. When the NCAA selection committee sat down to assess the Ducks' tourney resume, here's what they saw:
- 26 wins
- 4-1 vs. Top 25 teams
- Pac-12 tournament champs
Those qualifications didn't prevent the committee from stamping the squad with a No. 12 seed. Oregon, absent from the NCAA tourney since 2008, responded with a 68-55 victory over Oklahoma State.
The Ducks out-rebounded the Cowboys 14-4 on the offensive glass and controlled the tempo throughout. Afterward, Oregon coach Dana Altman alluded to the dose of disrespect his program received on Selection Sunday, telling ESPN, "We downplayed it because we weren't going to change it. There was nothing we could do about it."
No, there's nothing Oregon or its conference contemporaries can do to alter its rankings/seedings at this point. Everything else, however, is up for grabs.
If the Pac-12 is on a road to redemption, it made some serious strides Thursday.