Not so shockingly, Pac-12 is rolling

In the wake of the Pac-12 Conference short-sheeting the NCAA tournament last weekend, we’ve sought explanations from hundreds of hoops savants, including advanced-metrics statheads, Nate Silver, Charles Barkley, Joe Lunardi and Jake from State Farm.

  The consensus: Stuff happens.

  No, actually, there really is some perspective to be gleaned from a broader look at Pac-12 basketball. Here’s why I think the conference’s drop-dead stunning performance in the first week – four teams in the Sweet 16 – is so at odds with what we expected:

  We need to thank Larry Scott.

  The commish of the Conference of Champions is out the door in the next few months, of course. Trailing along are an endless series of missteps, from the Pac-12 Networks misjudgments to continual officiating fiascoes to his apparent penchant for the high life.

  While most of those misadventures have to do with football, or administrative bungling, I believe what’s happened is, the conference’s reputation as a serial bungler has bled into a perception that basketball is a comedic endeavor as well.

  Feeding into that is the big-ticket view: In the 2010-2020 decade, only one team – Oregon in 2017 – got to the Final Four. And of course, next year will mark a quarter-century since a Pac-12 team – Arizona in 1997 – won the national title.

  So no, the Pac-12 hasn’t been a big player on the national men’s basketball stage. I have a couple of friends who routinely scoff at the league. But I found myself surprised when I paged back several years to see what the records show.

  Minus the big splash, it’s actually pretty damned respectable.

  Starting in 2015, the league has had at least three teams in the Sweet 16 three times now, and that has to be considered a net positive. In ’17, not only did Oregon crash the Final Four, Arizona and UCLA made the Sweet 16 and USC won in the First Four and one more. The league went 10-4. Since the 2015 tournament, it’s 35-22.

  But Arizona, one of the bellwether programs by which some people judge the league, began to crash and burn after consecutive near-misses against Wisconsin in the Elite Eights of 2014-15. Included was the blowout defeat with Deandre Ayton to Buffalo, in a 2018 tournament in which the Pac-12 was an 0-3 dud. About then, the Wildcats got tangled up in the FBI probe. UCLA, the other traditional standard-bearer – and putative attention-grabber outside the region — has been to three Sweet 16s since ’15 but those are hardly head-turners against its storied history.

  The pandemic took away a 2020 tournament that probably would have included five or six Pac-12 teams. And this season, it trimmed the opportunities for non-league comparisons. Indeed, it was Stanford’s blowout of Alabama that stands as the league’s best victory outside the Pac-12, and Stanford didn’t make the tournament.

  So why this climactic run? Specifically, Oregon wasn’t a complete team until guard Will Richardson returned in mid-season from thumb surgery. It seems to make sense that USC would get better late in a season that featured freshman wunderkind Evan Mobley. UCLA caught flak for serial blown leads down the stretch, but it lost games to Stanford and USC under unlikely circumstances, and since it defends, is well coached and has a solid point guard in Tyger Campbell, it’s always a threat.

  Oregon State? That’s the total outlier, a team that lost home games to Portland and – by 34 points – to Arizona. But I recall seeing them early in the conference season, with a seven-foot center with skill in Roman Silva, and thinking, that’s worth something. Forward Warith Alatishe is the most athletic player the Beavers have had in years, and they have guards who have been shooting well.

  And a final word related to OSU: That preseason media prediction of 12th in the league is overblown. Is it true? Yes. Have the Beavers vastly outperformed expectations? Yes. But having filled out those ballots for years, I can attest that almost nobody spends a lot of time on them. And when they get into the second division, they spend less time than that. In OSU’s case, the prevailing feeling would be, they lost leading scorer Tres Tinkle and they weren’t very good with him (7-11), ergo, 12th. Trust me, nobody who doesn’t have a free-lance assignment writing about the league knows in detail the talent incoming at each school.

  It’s the antithesis of well-thought-out – perhaps something like the popular vision of Pac-12 hoops a couple of weeks ago.