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The Pac-12 saved its reputation in the men’s NCAA tournament

Who has the best shot at the Final Four?

It was only two short years ago that the Pac-12 was considered perhaps the worst power conference in the history of men’s college basketball. Pac-12 teams were getting pounded by every quality opponent it faced outside of the league and ended the regular season with exactly zero teams ranked in the polls. The Pac-12 was projected to be a one-bid conference for much of the year, but rallied to get three teams into the tournament, none of them seeded better than a No. 9 seed. It finished as the seventh strongest league in the country the, behind the American and Big East, in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings.

Given that the Pac-12’s reputation isn’t any better on the football field, the ‘Conference of Champions’ was becoming much more widely known as a punchline than it was for the number of trophies it was hoisting. That recent history is only part of the reason why the conference’s success in the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament feels so shocking to see.

The Pac-12 is the unquestioned biggest winner of the tournament’s opening weekend. The conference went 9-1 overall through the first two rounds, and each of its five teams in the field earned at least one win. Pac-12 teams weren’t just winning games, they also went 9-1 against the spread. Now the conference will make up a quarter of the Sweet 16 when the round begins on Saturday, with Oregon, USC, UCLA, and Oregon each busting through the bracket.

Here’s how each of the four Pac-12 teams reached the second weekend of the big dance — and where they could go from here.

Oregon Ducks (No. 7 seed)

Oregon v Iowa Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

How they got here:

  • Uncontested win over No. 10 seed VCU
  • Win over No. 2 seed Iowa, 95-80
  • Faces No. 6 seed USC in Sweet 16

It’s been a hard season for Oregon from the very start. The Ducks lost starting center and former five-star recruit N’Faly Dante to a torn ACL in Dec., had to play half the season without standout guard Will Richardson as he recovered from thumb surgery, and had multiple Covid-related pauses after the season started.

Oregon started to hit its stride once Richardson returned to the lineup in February, and they played their best game of the season at the most opportune time in the round of 32 vs. Iowa. Oregon dropped a season-high 95 points on the Hawkeyes that included 11 three-pointers and 10 dunks. You’d never know who was supposed to be the No. 2 seed with the presumptive national player of the year candidate watching that game.

Oregon’s success starts with Chris Duarte and Richardson in the backcourt. Duarte is a 6’6 wing and native of the Dominican Republic who arrived at Oregon after being named JUCO player of the year at Northwest Florida State College in 2019. Now the 23-year-old is being considered a potential first round pick for his 43 percent three-point shooting (on 138 attempts) and defensive impact. Duarte is also making 63 percent of his two-pointers and shoots 80 percent from the foul line — he’s one of the country’s most efficient shooters any way you look at it. Richardson is also shooting 41 percent from three this year, and handles most of the playmaking burden. This is one of the best backcourts in America.

Without Dante, the Ducks’ entire lineup is listed at either 6’5 or 6’6, with 6’8 wing Chandler Lawson representing the tallest player in their rotation. The lack of size didn’t matter against Iowa’s Luka Garza, the best offensive center in the country. St. John’s transfer LJ Figueroa and Duquesne transfer Eric Williams have done an admirable job on the glass and defending the paint, but the key for Oregon is spreading teams out and beating them on the other end. It’s a strategy that produced some beautiful basketball against Iowa, and could keep them rolling into the Elite Eight.

Oregon State Beavers (No. 12 seed)

Oregon State v Oklahoma State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

How they got here:

  • Win over Tennessee, 70-56
  • Win over Oklahoma State, 80-70
  • Faces No. 8 seed Loyola-Chicago next

By now, Oregon State’s origin story is starting to become widely known. Picked to finish dead last in the Pac-12 in the preseason, the Beavers were a sub-.500 team in the conference for most of the year before catching fire at the end of the season and winning the Pac-12 tournament. If not for Oral Roberts’ run as a No. 15 seed, Oregon State’s success would be the most baffling surprise of the tournament. At the same time, the more you watch the Beavers play, the less this looks like a fluke.

Despite being one of the last 16 teams left standing in college basketball, the Beavers place just No. 50 overall in KenPom’s efficiency rankings with the No. 41 offense and No. 69 defense in America. They share the ball — assisting on 59 percent of their field goals, a top-30 mark in the country — and play slow, which has helped them as an underdog. The Beavers got the benefit of an ultra hot shooting night in their tournament opening upset of Tennessee, but they were still able to beat future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State on a poor shooting night. The defense has been the key, holding both opponents at or below .90 points per possession in March Madness so far.

Ethan Thompson, son of Beavers assistant coach Stephen Thompson, has been the star of the tournament run so far, dropping 26 points on 15-of-16 shooting from the foul line in the win over OK State. Sophomore 6’3 guard Jarod Lucas is Oregon State’s biggest three-point threat (39 percent from deep), while Nicholls St. transfer Warith Alatishe is a lockdown defensive wing at 6’7. They also have a 7’1 center in Roman Silva who scored 15 points in the win over Tennessee and gives Beavers a matchup nightmare in the middle for whoever they play.

A date with Loyola-Chicago is going to be tough in the Sweet 16, but the way Oregon State is playing right now, there’s no reason to think they can’t compete.

USC Trojans (No. 6 seed)

USC v Kansas Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

How they got here:

  • Beat Drake, 72-56
  • Beat Kansas, 85-51
  • Faces No. 7 seed Oregon in Sweet 16

USC just did the unthinkable and made Kansas — Kansas! — look like a mid-major by routing the Jayhawks before halftime in the round of 32. No, this wasn’t Bill Self’s best team ever, but the dominance that the Trojans displayed in that game should put the rest of the West region on notice. USC has a top-15 offense, a top-five defense, and the single most talented player left standing in the tournament.

Evan Mobley is special, there’s no other way to put it. The 7-foot freshman center is an outrageous defensive talent who can protect the rim or block jump shots with his combination of length (7’5 wingspan) and quickness. He’s also a versatile offensive player who excels as a passer in the pick-and-roll and has enough touch to finish inside or hit a jump shot out to three-point range with some consistency. Mobley is projected the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and he’s a problem without an answer for every team left standing.

Mobley’s older brother, Isaiah, has also been playing well for the Trojans, hitting 4-of-5 threes in the win against the Jayhawks. Tahj Eaddy has proven to be a tough senior point guard, while Drew Peterson provides some much needed shooting on the wing.

Yes, USC has a freshman superstar, but they’re also playing like more than a one-man show right now. The Trojans beat Oregon in their only meeting this year, but you know the Ducks will be ready for the rematch.

UCLA Bruins (No. 11 seed)

Abilene Christian v UCLA Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

How they got here:

  • Beat Michigan state, 86-80 in OT, in the First Four
  • Beat BYU, 73-62
  • Beat Abilene Christian, 67-47
  • Faces No. 2 seed Alabama in Sweet 16

The reasons for optimism ahead of head coach Mick Cronin’s second season in charge at UCLA this year started to fade before the season even began. Top recruit Daishen Nix decided he’d rather play for the G League Ignite. Six games into the year, Chris Smith, arguably the team’s best player, was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Starting center Jalen Hill has also been out since Feb. for personal reasons.

The Bruins just snuck into the tournament, and had to earn their way through the bracket with a First Four game against Michigan State. The Spartans had the Bruins on the ropes, but somehow UCLA came back to win in overtime. Ever since, UCLA has been rolling.

Sophomore wings Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. have been powering the Bruins on this run. Juzang, a Kentucky transfer, has been the team’s primary scorer in March, averaging 22 points per game and combining for nine three-pointers during the team’s tournament winning streak. Jaquez was sensational in the First Four win over MSU (27 points), and has been providing supplemental scoring punch ever since. Add in Jules Bernard, Tyger Campbell, and Cody Riley, and suddenly the Bruins have a solid five-man lineup that looks like it can compete against anyone in the East region right now.

Facing No. 2 seed Alabama will be an incredible test in the Sweet 16, but the Bruins will have a puncher’s chance.

Which Pac-12 team has the best chance to make the Final Four?

This is a really hard question to answer heading into the Sweet 16, especially because the winner of Oregon vs. USC would have to face a powerhouse Gonzaga team in the Elite Eight. We’ll stack up the Pac-12 teams like this entering the Sweet 16:

4. Oregon Ducks

3. USC Trojans

2. UCLA Bruins

1. Oregon State Beavers

Even if the Pac-12 can’t advance a team to the Final Four, it’s been an amazing run through the tournament for the conference so far. It will be fascinating if any of them are still standing a week from now.