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For a league that has taken its lumps, Pac-12 enjoying taste of March Gladness

With four teams in the Sweet 16, embattled conference finally has something to feel good about

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UCLA players prepare for a first-round game against BYU in the NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021.

AJ Mast, Associated Press

Remember the Pac-12 Conference? Maybe not. The league has performed so poorly that it has been almost irrelevant in the major sports.

Not anymore.

The Pac-12 has four teams in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament — 25 percent of the field. That’s twice as many as any other conference. It marks the first time the league has done that in 20 years. That’s two from Oregon — Oregon and Oregon State — and two from Los Angeles — UCLA and USC.

None of those teams was highly seeded — USC No. 6, Oregon No. 7, UCLA No. 11 (after losing its last four games), Oregon State No. 12. The league’s highest seeded team, No. 5 Colorado, was the only team that failed to advance out of the second round.

The Pac-12 might have sneaked up on everyone because the league was so competitive and beat up on each other. Pac-12 champ Oregon had four league losses; Oregon State had 10; UCLA and USC had 11 losses between them. (All of this puts Utah’s 11 losses in a different light, but this is little solace for Larry Krystkowiak, the Utes coach who was fired after the season.)

When they turned their attention on the rest of the country in the NCAA Tournament, they won decisively, by an average of 16.5 points per game (not counting Oregon’s no-contest win over VCU). USC beat Drake and Kansas. Oregon beat Iowa. UCLA beat Michigan State, BYU and Abilene Christian. And Oregon State beat Tennessee and Oklahoma State.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten, which sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament — the best in the country — had only one team survive. The Big Ten berths included two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds.

On Saturday, Oregon State will play Loyola-Chicago, and on Sunday UCLA will play Alabama and USC will play Oregon in an All-Pac-12 showdown. That means of course that only three can advance to the Elite Eight, at best.

This probably called for a big celebration in the league’s posh downtown offices in San Francisco, but it all comes too late to save commissioner Larry Scott’s job, who will be parting ways with the league this summer.

Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle did his best LeBron James imitation when he told reporters, “I’m very happy for our program, but I’m extremely happy for the Pac-12 Conference. Maybe now we’ll get some damn respect.”

Does someone have a chip on his shoulder?

The league hasn’t done much to earn respect as a basketball or football conference in recent years. The Pac-12 sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament in both 2018 and 2019 — the last time the tournament was held — but only one of them reached the Sweet 16. In 2018, all three teams lost in the first round.

In the preseason basketball polls for the 2020-21 season, three Pac-12 teams were ranked but none higher than 18th.

The last time a Pac-12 basketball team won the national championship was Arizona in 1997. Since 1960, the league has won 12 national basketball championships, but 11 of them were courtesy of UCLA, 10 of them under coaching legend John Wooden.

Football has seen an even bigger drought. Since the College Football Playoff was created seven years ago, the Pac-12 has claimed only two of the 28 berths, the last one in 2016. The league has lost 22 of its last 33 bowl games.

The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national football championship since it claimed a three-way tie in 2003 (for some reason, the conference lists Utah as the 2008 co-national champions, but Utah was not recognized as such and, besides, the Utes didn’t join the Pac-12 for another three years). 

The league looked like it was headed for another mediocre basketball season when play started late in the fall. By Week 4 the Pac-12 didn’t have a single team ranked among the top 30. All that has changed now.