On a conference level, there are two major storylines after the first weekend of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. On one hand, the Big Ten fell on its face, sending just 1-seed Michigan to the Sweet 16 after spending most of the year being touted as the best league in the country, with nine teams in the field. On the other, the oft-overlooked and mocked Pac-12 has been absolutely dominant.
Five Pac-12 teams made the Big Dance, one of those stealing a bid outright. 12-seed Oregon State was nowhere near the NCAA Tournament picture after going 14-12 in the regular season, with a 10-10 Pac-12 record. Now, they may be the hottest team in the country, after beating three fellow tournament teams—UCLA, Oregon, and Colorado—to win the conference tournament, and 5-seed Tennessee and 4-seed Oklahoma State to advance to the Sweet 16.
All five teams advanced to the Round of 32, while four have reached the Sweet 16. After blowing out Georgetown, East Region 5-seed Colorado fell to 4-seed Florida State. Meanwhile, 6-seed USC crushed 3-seed Kansas, and 7-seed Oregon handled 2-seed Iowa to advance. They’ll face each other in the West Region. Oregon State takes on one of the other stories of the first weekend, Midwest 8-seed Loyola Chicago.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas acknowledges just how surprising the Pac-12’s dominance seems, but outside of Oregon State, he isn’t personally shocked. He thinks Oregon, UCLA, and USC all wound up seeded below where their ceiling as teams are, for multiple reasons.
Bilas appeared on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt on Monday night. After discussing the Big Ten’s struggles, he broke down the remaining Pac-12 teams, and just how they’ve emerged at the most important time of the year.
“Well, UCLA’s been pretty good all year and they lost Chris Smith to injury, overcame that. They didn’t play well at the end of the year, but part of that was they had to go up to Oregon at the end as a make-up game. So that certainly didn’t help them.
“Oregon is now healthy. They were not healthy earlier in the year. They didn’t have Will Richardson. If Will Richardson had been playing the whole year, he would’ve been first-team All-Pac-12. He’s that good. And to have that team healthy now, able to press, switch defenses, they’re really talented.
“And then USC covers up the rim. Defensively, they’re a joke. They are so difficult to score upon. And to have Evan Mobley as player of the year in the Pac-12 and then defensive play of the year. As you know, Scotty, the last player to do that in a major conference, the only guy to do that, was Anthony Davis at Kentucky in 2012.
“The surprise, obviously, was Oregon State. They’ve been on a roll. They’re good. I don’t think anybody expected this and I don’t think they expected this. But they’ve been on a roll and they’re playing really well. And it’s got to be fun for them to be on this kind of roll, and they’re in one place. Like, usually, team goes back to campus, you don’t know if they’re going to stay on that roll when they go home, then they’ve got to go to another site. Now they’re staying in one place. Maybe it’s easier to keep momentum there.”
The Sweet 16 tips off on Saturday, March 27 in this year’s altered NCAA Tournament schedule. Unfortunately for the “Conference of Champions,” one of USC and Oregon will be out, but UCLA and Oregon State have opportunities to give the league three of the Elite Eight spots, with huge games against 2-seed Alabama and 8-seed Loyola Chicago next weekend. The Pac-12 has had a rough few years in the major sports. This March Madness run might be exactly what the league as a whole needs.