Three Pac-12 basketball teams advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the first time the conference has enjoyed such postseason success since 2008.
March success is a shallow measure by which to gauge the overall strength of a league, but in the Pac-12′s case, the trio dancing on are taking a big step for the entire conference.
This season’s collective success is a dramatic departure from just two seasons ago when the conference hit rock bottom of a decidedly down half-decade. Fewer representatives of Pac-12 basketball were invited to the tournament than are headed to this year’s Sweet 16, and among those left out of the 2012 tournament was regular season champion Washington.
Unwritten rule: When your regular season is an NIT auto-bid, you are not a power conference.
Last season began the climb back to national relevance, thanks to impressive tournament wins for Oregon and Cal. But only Arizona advanced past the first weekend, and did so by beating a pair of double-digit seeds. And of the conference’s five tournament participants, none was seeded higher than sixth. Conference tournament champion Oregon received a 12-seed. The other automatic qualifier to land a 12-seed? MAC champion Akron.
The unfortunately earned perception that the Pac-12 was no longer a power conference carried over into 2013, but this season has emphatically restored the conference’s reputation.
While last season’s tournament winner was a 12-seed, this year’s tournament champion, UCLA, earned a four-seed. Regular season champion Arizona received the Pac-12′s first No. 1 seed since 2008. Both were also rewarded with opening weekend games close to home and favorable matchups. They made good on the road map to the Sweet 16 in blowout Round of 32 wins, in the process putting the two longtime rivals in the tournament’s second weekend at the same time for the first time since 2002.
Before the Wildcats and Bruins met in the Pac-12 Championship game, I examined the rivalry’s importance to the conference. The two programs are on the rise at the same time, and their championship engagement in Las Vegas more than exceeded expectations.
The tournament championship—UCLA’s first since 2007—provided the Bruins with a springboard into the postseason, as head coach Steve Alford detailed following their defeat of Stephen F. Austin on Sunday per ASAPSports.com.
For us…to put our stamp on it, win a Pac 12 championship, we’re in the Sweet 16, there is only 15 of us out there, started with 350. A pretty good accomplishment already knowing that there is so much parity in college basketball.
Of course, the regular season and tournament champions moving on is not necessarily indicative of conference depth—a third team is. And it’s not simply that Stanford advanced, but how that makes the Cardinal’s tournament a win for Pac-12 basketball.
Stanford scored the conference’s biggest win of the opening weekend, outplaying Big 12 regular season champion and perennial powerhouse Kansas.
Head coach Johnny Dawkins specifically cited the Cardinal’s conference slate when asked about his team’s preparation for facing a team the caliber of the Jayhawks.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said via ASAPSports.com. “But for us we played a great schedule in the Pac‑12.”
That the Pac-12′s three representatives dancing on are Arizona, Stanford and UCLA has special significance. When the conference was collectively at its strongest in the mid-to-late 1990s, and Arizona and UCLA were battling for championships, Stanford turned the Pac-12 basketball main event into a three-way dance.
One of the three claimed every Pac-12 title from 1986 through 2001, and each played in at least one Final Four from 1994 through 1998.
When the Bruins, Cardinal and Wildcats were the last three remaining in the Pac-12 Tournament, TheBootleg.com reporter David Lombardi called it classic.
So Arizona, Stanford, and UCLA are the three final teams alive in the PAC-12 Tournament. That has a classic ring to it.
— David Lombardi (@DavidMLombardi) March 15, 2014
With the trio playing in the Sweet 16, 2014 is just like old times for Pac-12 basketball.