SEATTLE – A year ago was thought to be an anomaly for the Pac-12 Conference, advancing four teams to the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament and eventually seeing Washington and Oregon State make the Final Four.
Based on what the Pac-12 did in the first week of the NCAAs this year, maybe last year’s performance might become the norm.
“I think a lot of people wanted to think that was a fluke,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “I heard that a lot during the offseason. That it was a fluke year, blah, blah, blah. I think five in the Sweet 16 just backs it back up.”
Stanford, Oregon State, Washington, UCLA and Oregon will be playing during the second weekend of the tournament after advancing to the Sweet 16, all with impressive second-round victories. Oregon won at Duke and Stanford – despite being the higher seed – won at Kansas State. Oregon State handled Creighton, UCLA routed Texas A&M and Washington put up 108 points against Oklahoma while Kelsey Plum set yet another NCAA record, becoming the all-time single-season scoring leader.
The NCAAs have been a Pac-12 party thus far and it’s not just Stanford leading the way anymore.
“Going back to the days when it was us and Stanford battling it out, only two teams in the tournament, maybe my life was a little easier night to night, but it doesn’t make you better, and I think this is what’s good for the league,” California coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
Seven Pac-12 teams made the NCAA Tournament and went 7-0 in the first round. Through two rounds, the conference is a combined 12-2, the only losses coming by Arizona State and California to No. 1 seeds. There were a few close calls with No. 2 seeds Stanford and Oregon State barely avoiding upsets by No. 15 seeds.
All season long, the Pac-12 was rated as the top conference in the country. Coaches lobbied throughout the Pac-12 Tournament that the conference deserved to have at least seven teams in the NCAAs. The selection committee agreed – and the performance thus far has validated those beliefs.
“I remember having a conversation with (Washington coach) Mike Neighbors, my buddy in the league, we talk about this stuff, about getting the RPI and all that kind of stuff,” Gottlieb said. “We said early in the year, I don’t know if we have a Final Four team. I don’t know if there’s a legit top five team, but we said we could get five or six in the Sweet 16, and maybe there is a Final Four team or two, and I hope there will be.”
The five Pac-12 teams in the Sweet 16 is a conference record. The conference was on the verge of having a sixth in the regional semifinals but Arizona State was unable to pull off the upset of No. 1 seed South Carolina, falling 71-68. The next closest conference is the ACC, with three teams in the regional semifinals.
“Our kids pull for each other. They were texting me all night last night about the Arizona State game,” Neighbors said. “They were so nervous, they were so happy that Arizona State almost knocked off South Carolina.”
The other piece helping the conference is the arrival – or return – of programs onto the national scene. Two years ago it was Oregon State bursting into prominence, followed by Washington last year. This year that surge belongs to Oregon, who under third-year head coach Kelly Graves is in the Sweet 16 for the first time.
“It’s funny, we never really put a goal on how far we can go, just because we didn’t know what we had,” Graves said after upsetting Duke. “We’ve kind of attacked the entire season as a work in progress.”
It will get tougher for all five teams from here. UCLA has the biggest challenge facing Connecticut in the round of 16. Washington takes on No. 2 seed Mississippi State; Oregon State gets Florida State; Oregon faces Maryland; and Stanford takes on Texas.
“Our league has gotten so rugged it prepares you for any type of thing that you can see,” Neighbors said.
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