Barack Obama was still seven months from being elected President of the United States. “Too Big to Fail” had not entered the financial world lexicon. Tiger Woods’ knees were healthy.
The Pac-12 had a team in the Final Four.
It has been 3263 days and counting since UCLA made the third of three consecutive Final Four appearances, led by freshman Kevin Love and sophomore Russell Westbrook.
And the Pac-12 hasn’t had a champion since Arizona in 1997, aka 6 months before Lonzo Ball was born… So, in other words, it’s been a bit of a title drought for the “Conference of Champions”.
What gives? Is it weak performance in March?
Looking back at tournament performance for top-four seeds to come out of the Pac-12 since 2002, it is not that simple. Since 2002, the top-four seeds have been expected to win 49.8 games in the tournament (based on expected wins per seed) – and they have won 49.
In that span, as noted above, UCLA made three straight Final Fours, losing twice to the back-to-back champion Florida. That same Florida team knocked out Oregon in the 2007 elite eight. Arizona lost in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments to Wisconsin in the elite eight. Last year, Oregon ran into Buddy Hield at the wrong time. In the 2005 elite eight, Arizona blew its 14-point lead at the U4 timeout to eventual runner-up Illinois.
This is all brought up to say: March Madness is called that for a reason. It’s chaos. Teams get hot, teams go cold. Sometimes the bracket breaks your way, but most of the time, it does not. With all of this in mind, the top teams in the Pac-12 have been expected to win 49.8 tournament games since 2002, and they have won 49. They have done nearly exactly as they were expected to do; they just have not broken through and won it all since 1997.
From 2010 through 2013, the conference went through a rough patch, not having a single team in the tournament receive a top-four seed. But, in the past three seasons, Arizona and Oregon have brought back some credibility.
This year, the Pac-12 has three teams that could all rise to the top of the NCAA Tournament field and claim a title: UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona.
UCLA: Ludicrous Speed
The Bruins know one speed.
You are either going to stop them (unlikely) – or you are going to outscore them. In 4 losses this year, UCLA gave up 84, 86, 89, and 96 points. While their defense has been knocked by every talking head this year (it ranks 82nd at KenPom), the Bruins D has been stronger over the final month of the season. They have given up fewer than 96 points per 100 possessions since early February, which would be a top 35-40 defense in the country.
Despite the loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinal, UCLA is on the short list of teams that coaches across the country are hoping they will not run into.
Oregon: The Inigo Montoya
Back with a vengeance! The Ducks check all the boxes for a Final Four contender. They have a star in Pac-12 POY Dillon Brooks. They have a top 25 offense and defense at KenPom. And they have a veteran core that has experienced the ups and downs of March.
Last season, Oregon won 11 straight games heading into its elite eight matchup with Oklahoma. They had won the Pac-12 championship, and were the one-seed in a toss-up west regional final. Buddy Hield dropped 37 points, carrying the Sooners past Oregon, but now the Ducks are back.
Tonight, they will play yet again in the Pac-12 Championship with a chance to head into the NCAA Tournament with a path to the Final Four in Phoenix that would not leave the west coast. They are as prepared as anyone to take on Gonzaga in a potential west regional showdown – and if the bracket breaks that way, there will be at least one person (Hi there!) that picks Oregon to advance.
Arizona: Always the Bridesmaid
Sean Miller’s Wildcats are in the same position yet again. They clearly have enough talent to make a deep run – but the doubters are everywhere and will be here until Arizona gets to the final weekend. Arizona is always in the conversation, but they are yet to get to the promised land under Coach Miller.
The Cats’ biggest strength is strength. These guys are HUGE – led by future lottery pick Lauri Markkanen – and will not be knocked around by anyone. Arizona shoots the ball at a high percentage, but they are in the bottom 50 in the country in 3Ps attempted as a percentage of FGA. This feels like danger if they run into a high risk, high reward giant killer!
But that is nothing new for Sean Miller, aka the best coach not to make a Final Four. Miller’s teams are always vulnerable to the upset just based on their style. Depending on matchups, Arizona could be picked off by a sharp shooting foe.
The Pac-12 does not have an NCAA Tournament problem; it has a bad luck problem. With UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona, it would not be a shock if all three are playing in their respective regional finals.
Will this be the year the Pac-12 ends the drought and breaks through? Or will Bill Walton continue falsely calling it the “Conference of Champions”?