With the exciting championship game of the 2017 Pac-12 Men's Basketball Tournament on Saturday night in the books, it was just a matter of waiting until Sunday afternoon to see how many conference teams made it into the NCAA Tournament, a.k.a. March Madness. Unfortunately, the tournament committee only selected four Pac-12 teams for the big dance. The committee also relegated the Arizona Wildcats to a No. 2 seed in the West Regional despite the fact the Pac-12 champs rank second overall in the Ratings Power Index (RPI), an index the committee has used for years to determine such seeding.
Here's the skinny on how the Conference of Champions fared with the announcing of the March Madness brackets on Sunday afternoon: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and USC all will be dancing this week in the NCAA Tournament.
Whose fans will be happy?
In truth, it seems like no Pac-12 team's fans should be happy today. All four teams selected were under-seeded due to a perception that the conference was top heavy. Arizona just beat the No. 3 team and the No. 5 team in the nation on back-to-back nights to win the conference tournament, but the committee gave No. 1 seeds instead to North Carolina (fifth in the RPI) and Gonzaga (eighth in the RPI). The Tar Heels didn't even reach the finals of their conference tournament, and while Kansas (third in RPI) may have deserved a No. 1 seed, the Jayhawks lost in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament. What more could Arizona have done to earn the committee's respect?
Whose fans will be sad?
The California Golden Bears didn't make the tournament despite a general consensus that their win over Utah in the Pac-12 quarterfinals was enough to get them in with 21 wins and a 10-8 mark in league play. Cal finished 53rd in the RPI, and usually, a power conference team with 20-plus wins and a .500 record in conference play gets into March Madness. Again, the committee felt the Pac-12 was a "weak" conference this season, which is strange considering Arizona, Oregon and UCLA were all ranked in the Top 7 of the AP poll last week. If the conference is top heavy, those teams still proved themselves in out-of-conference play, and by extension, the Golden Bears' ability to play tough basketball against Oregon in the Pac-12 semifinals should have been enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament.
What is the big news?
Oregon dropped to a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region but not because they didn't win on Saturday night. The injury to Chris Boucher weakened the Ducks in the eyes of the committee, and even with an RPI in the Top 10, Oregon will be expected to struggle without Boucher's presence in the paint. There is precedent for dropping a team in seeding due to an injury, so this was somewhat expected news. UCLA got a No. 3 seed in the South Region, which some might consider high due to the Bruins' RPI status (16th). Overall, for the conference to land three teams among the NCAA Tournament's top 12 seeds is a fantastic accomplishment.
What is the bad news?
Slotting USC to one of the play-in games on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, perhaps was an even bigger insult to the league than any other seeding decision. The Trojans had a marquee win over the Bruins this season and USC posted 24 victories as well. All that got the Trojans was a No. 11 seed and a play-in game. With an RPI rank of 41, it's insulting that USC got such a poor seeding while teams from other power conferences with lower RPI marks "earned' higher seeds. For example, the Michigan State Spartans ranked 50th in the RPI with just 19 wins but they were awarded a No. 9 seed. This really makes no sense in an era where college sports need to be more transparent in the public eye.
How will the Pac-12 fare in March Madness?
In the end, the seedings don't really matter if a team is playing well. That's where the Pac-12 teams need to focus now. Start with the Trojans: USC can beat Providence on Wednesday and advance to face Southern Methodist, an inexperienced team from a school with just two March Madness appearances since 1993. With two wins, the Trojans could face Baylor, and if USC knows it can beat UCLA, it will know it can beat the Bears. All the Trojans need to do is play well, like they know they can, and advancing to the Sweet 16 is not out of the question.
One of Arizona's four losses this year came against Gonzaga, and if form holds, the Wildcats would face the Bulldogs in a rematch at the West Regional Final in San Jose. This Arizona team is ready to make a Final Four run and this is the year it happens. Gonzaga may have the best record right now (32-1) but the Wildcats are better prepared. Meanwhile, Oregon should be able to reach the Sweet 16 as well, based on projected games against Iona and Creighton/Rhode Island. The Ducks may have trouble against Louisville, however, once they reach the regional semifinals. UCLA can reach the Sweet 16 also, as Kent State and Cincinnati don't look to be strong enough to topple the Bruins. Kentucky looms in the regional semis for UCLA, though, and that could be one of the best games of the entire tournament if it happens.
Overall, look for all four Pac-12 teams to make it to the Sweet 16 because the Trojans will be playing with a chip on their shoulder and with the confidence needed to advance. Arizona should be the only Pac-12 team to make it to the Final Four, and no matter which team the Wildcats face there (Kentucky or North Carolina, perhaps), it will be a great game to watch.