The Pac is Back, or overreacting to mild upsets
As the first two rounds of the tournament progressed, a major storyline was how the Pac-12 ‘proved the haters wrong' or ‘returned to relevance' or some other claptrap like that. The reality is that the Pac-12 had been back all year. But we live in a world where 50% of the college basketball fan base doesn't pay any attention to the sport until March, and 98% of the fan base pays zero attention to the Pac-12 until March.
Was what happened actually surprising? Five teams made the tournament. Arizona won two games you would expect them to win. Cal and Colorado played opening round toss ups - one team won and one team lost. UCLA lost in a game that might have been a toss-up if they had been fully healthy. The only real upset was Oregon's advancement to the Sweet 16, except everybody seemed to agree that with Dominic Artis back, Oregon was more like a 5 or 6 seed than a 12 seed.
In 2012-13, the Pac-12 was an average basketball power conference. They put 5 teams in the tournament, like an average basketball power conference. They have a combined record of 5-3, with two teams in the Sweet 16, like an average basketball power conference.
The only unusual part is why people were surprised to discover that the Pac-12 is an average power basketball conference. The evidence has been available all year long.
This Week In The Pac-12
There are lots of different ways to advance in the NCAA tournament. But particular ways seem to be more effective than others, and Arizona and Oregon used two classics. The Wildcats took advantage of the bracket opening in front of them, while the Ducks brought stifling defense.
Arizona ‘only' had to get through Belmont and Harvard to advance to the Sweet 16. It's a little disingenuous for me to suggest that their path was easy, as a root for a team that lost to Harvard at home. But as much as I respect what the Crimson have accomplished this year, it's not quite the same as having to go through teams from the Big 10 or the Big East.
Oregon, meanwhile, might have had a deceptively good draw in terms of matchups. St. Louis and Oklahoma St. are both excellent teams, but their calling card isn't offense. When both teams ran into Oregon's now a top-10 Kenpom defense, they were collectively held to about .8 points/possession, an impressively low number in the tournament.
True, the blowout nature of both games had to do with the Ducks shooting better than you would typically expect. But Oregon didn't need all of those 3s against St. Louis - the defense was that good.
And in the end, the last two Pac-12 teams standing are probably the two best teams in the conference, vagaries of conference play aside. Arizona flashed their talent in early season wins over Miami and Florida (both in the Sweet 16) and actually had the best efficiency numbers (by a tiny, tiny margin) in conference play. And as everybody is quick to point out, Oregon likely would have won both the regular season and conference tournament title if Dominic Artis wasn't hurt.
Next Week In The Pac-12
Just two games left on the schedule:
6 seed Arizona vs. 2 seed Ohio State
12 seed Oregon vs. 1 seed Louisville
There's a pretty decent chance that the Pac-12 will be done dancing before the elite 8 starts. Arizona and Oregon both face tall tasks against two teams many have pegged as the Final Four favorites from their respective regions.
For Oregon, the question is how they are going to score against perhaps the best defense in the country. They did well to put up points against excellent K St. and St. Louis defenses, but we can all agree that Louisville is a different challenge entirely. E.J. Singler and Carlos Emory will need to stay hot from behind the arc. They probably wouldn't need to hit 8-11 again, but that would go a long way.
And Arizona? Well, Ohio State is a huge competitive leap from Belmont and Harvard. But the Buckeyes looked vulnerable against Iowa State and the Wildcats already have wins over teams about as good as OSU. The game will be held in Los Angeles, and the arena will be crawling with loud, white-shirt clad retirees. And if they pull another mild upset, the other half of the broken west regional bracket sure does look manageable . . .