The Pac-12 Is Alive and Well and Busting Your NCAA Tournament Bracket

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 23, 2021

USC forward Isaiah Mobley (3) celebrates beating Kansas 85-51 after a men's college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Legendary former UCLA coach John Wooden once said, "Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you."

If UCLA coach Mick Cronin had tried to say the Pac-12 would dominate the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament, he would have had a lot of people arguing with him. Specifically, a lot of Big Ten supporters and experts who favor metrics when making projections.

From KenPom.com to the NCAA NET rankings, all the metrics favored Big Ten teams coming into the tournament. USC and Colorado got some love, but not many foresaw the success of UCLA and Oregon State, and few gave Oregon the credit it has proved it deserves. What metrics fail to take into account is the unpredictability of March Madness.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The Big Ten sent nine teams to the 68-team field, but only No. 1 Michigan is left after the round of 32. The SEC, ACC and Big East each have two representatives in the next round, but no conference is better represented than the Pac-12 after it nearly went perfect in the First Four and first two rounds. UCLA, USC, Oregon State and Oregon are all still dancing.

The Conference of Champions has a better chance than any other to produce a champion.

"I feel like we don't get the respect that we deserve," Oregon senior guard Chris Duarte said in his postgame news conference. "It looks good on our conference. It tells you guys that our conference, we have talent, and we are really good."

Colorado was the only team to lose, as the No. 5 seed Buffaloes fell to No. 4 Florida State in the East Region's second round. The other four programs had impressive showings.

The final game of the second round was possibly the most memorable of the weekend. No. 6 USC throttled No. 3 Kansas 85-51 to advance in the West Region. The Jayhawks didn't have the same firepower of years past, but it's Kansas—the Sweet 16 is an expectation for a historically elite team that is coached by one of the game's elite, Bill Self.

USC is a football school in a city that is mostly ambivalent about college basketball, but for the Angelenos who haven't been paying attention all season, this is now a basketball school.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Led by the Mobley brothers, Evan and Isaiah, the Trojans steamrolled the Jayhawks, shooting 57.1 percent from the field and an even better 61.1 percent from behind the arc. Head coach Andy Enfield is back in the Sweet 16 for the second time in his career, having done so last in 2013 when he coached another bracket buster, Florida Gulf Coast.

USC was the best defensive team in the conference this year, and its length bothered Kansas on both ends of the floor. But the length of Evan and Isaiah, who are 7'0" and 6'10", was particularly deadly. The brothers accounted for all four of the Trojans' blocks, and with no clear lanes or clear plays, the Jayhawks jacked up bad shots. It showed, as Kansas shot a dismal 29.0 percent from the field.

Isaiah finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while his little brother had a tremendous stat line of 10 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, five assists, one steal and a single turnover. Evan is mobile, athletic and a lock to be a top-three pick in the 2021 NBA draft.

But that's looking ahead a little too far. USC's next challenge is another Pac-12 team, Oregon, which ensures the conference will have at least one team in the Elite Eight.

No. 7 Oregon did not play its first game of the tournament against VCU because of COVID-19 issues within the Rams program. It had a layoff before a date with No. 2 Iowa and the best player in the game, Luka Garza, the projected Naismith Player of the Year.

The Ducks let Garza do his thing, and the big senior tried to put the Hawkeyes on his back. He dropped 36 points and grabbed nine rebounds. But Oregon's strategy to contain everyone else worked. Garza and Joe Wieskamp were the only Iowa starters to score.

"We knew Garza was going to get his points. Our plan was get stops and play defense, play hard, get on the boards," Duarte said. "And that's what we did."

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

No. 11 UCLA (East Region) and No. 12 Oregon State (Midwest Region) look unbeatable. The Bruins needed to beat Michigan State in a play-in game just to get to the round of 64, and the Beavers had to win the Pac-12 tournament just to get into the NCAA tournament.

But UCLA then beat BYU and Abilene Christian to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017 and the first time in Cronin's two seasons. Oregon State found its offensive stride at the right time of the season to beat Tennessee and Oklahoma State.

"The Pac-12 has shown exactly how strong it was. I'm so proud of the conference. And for us to be the champions of the regular season, I'm proud of that, and I'm proud of the guys the way they responded," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "Mick has done a great job at UCLA, Wayne [Tinkle] has done a great job at Oregon State, USC's doing great, and Tad [Boyle] at Colorado. Our league has done great, and I hope we can keep it up."

The other three teams are hoping to keep it up as well.

"This is literally what you dream for," Isaiah Mobley said. "Like it says in the songs. Future says, 'Beat the odds, do numbers and remain humble.' Just try to keep that motto and keep it rolling from here on out."

It's not quite Wooden, but the motivational sentiment is the same.