No. 6 seed USC, No. 7 seed Oregon, No. 11 seed UCLA and No. 12 seed Oregon State probably didn’t make it very far on most March Madness brackets.
But after a round of 32 slate that ended with USC thrashing Kansas 85-51 Monday night, I’m convinced that the “Conference of Champions” could produce a champion this year.
Yeah, I said it — one of these four remaining Pac-12 teams could challenge Gonzaga.
The most likely candidate to do so is USC. I know what you’re thinking — I also scoffed when I saw that former president Barack Obama penciled in USC as an Elite Eight team. I thought if Drake didn’t give them problems in the opening round, they’d surely lose to Kansas.
Now I’m a believer.
The Trojans have demonstrated their ability to shut down opposing offenses throughout the tournament. They held Drake to only 19 points and 19% shooting in the second half Saturday before absolutely stifling Kansas, allowing them just 51 points.
And this isn’t just a sudden trend — USC ranked first in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency and second in the nation in 2-point defense this season. Staunch defense will be necessary in a potential Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga, who ranks first in the nation in points scored per game.
USC also destroyed Kansas offensively, shooting at a 61% clip from behind the arc and 57% overall. Five Trojans scored in double-figures. Now, if they could just shoot a respectable free-throw percentage...
To get a chance against Gonzaga, though, USC must beat Oregon, which showed itself to be a legitimate contender when it throttled No. 2 seed Iowa 95-80 on Monday. That’s a lot of offensive firepower. The Ducks will be seeking revenge against the Trojans, who won by 14 points when the two teams met in February.
The Ducks are no stranger to deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, with two Elite Eights and one Final Four bid under head coach Dana Altman.
And then there are the Cinderella teams: the Beavs and the Bruins. It seems like Oregon State just can’t lose. The Beavers beat some of the Pac-12′s best — UCLA, Oregon and Colorado, all NCAA Tournament teams — en route to their first conference title. And the winning didn’t stop at “The Big Dance,” as the Beavers sailed past No. 5 seed Tennessee and No. 4 seed Oklahoma State in games that weren’t close.
We’ll see how long Oregon State can keep this up. If it’s the same team we’ve seen thus far, it will be tough to stop in a Midwest region that has already lost five of its top six seeds.
I’m not as confident about UCLA, even after it beat Michigan State and BYU and crushed Abilene Christian. The Bruins tend to falter in big games and give up significant leads, as we saw in their final game of the season against USC. Their matchup with No. 2 seed Alabama will be a true test of whether the Bruins are one of their conference’s — and one of the nation’s — top programs.
Despite the Pac-12′s strength in this tournament, it’s getting down to the wire, and all of its remaining teams face tough competition this weekend. We saw Colorado, which had a strong first-round outing against Georgetown, fall to a talented Florida State team on Monday.
But even if every Pac-12 team blows it in the Sweet 16, it seems they’ve already done enough to raise the conference’s stock in future AP polls and Selection Sundays.
The Pac-12 became the first conference in history to have four teams seeded No. 4 or worse reach the Sweet 16. The Big Ten had four teams in the AP Top 10 that earned No. 1 or No. 2 tournament seeds, yet only one of those teams remains. No other Power Five conference emerged from the round of 64 with a perfect record.
Regardless of which school adds a trophy to its case, the Pac-12 may just be the biggest winner this March.