BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 03/23/2021

Thiel: The Pac-12 a hoops power? Who knew?

Astonishing the sports world, the Pac-12 was 10-1 and advanced four teams into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s hoops tourney. How is this possible?

A year into a pandemic, we should be used to up being down and down being up. But no basketball fan was ready for the Pac-12, the Homer Simpson of college hoops conferences, to be astride the NCAA men’s tourney.

The “D’oh” boys are 10-1. Four teams made the Sweet Sixteen, two more than any other conference.

Before I go further, let me type Gonzaga right here. Its fans who read this otherwise will take this discussion as a repudiation and commence a piteous whining.


We love you, Bulldogs. We hope and expect you will win your initial NCAA hoops championship, and the state’s first. We want coach Mark Few this summer to do his trademark handstand atop Mt. Rainier, trophy next to him, glinting from Spokane to Seattle, from Ione to Ilwaco.

We merely ask that you take a step back on the stage this week. You’ll be getting all the respect you deserve in the first weekend of April.

The Pac-12 may never come this way again. So thanks in advance for the courtesy, Zagsters.

If you were doing taxes while waiting for the relief check and missed the previous five days of mayhem, here’s how the hoops shook out for the left side of the fruited plain.


No.1 Gonzaga over No. 8 Oklahoma, 87-71; over No. 16 Norfolk State, 98-55

No. 5 Colorado lost to No. 4 Florida State, 71-53; over No. 12 Georgetown, 96-73

No. 6 USC over No. 3 Kansas, 85-51; over No. 11 Drake, 72-56

No. 7 Oregon over No. 2 Iowa 95-80; a no-contest advance over VCU (covid)

No. 11 UCLA over No. 11 Michigan State, 86-80 (play-in game); over No. 6 BYU 73-62; over No. 14 Abilene Christian, 67-47

No. 12 Oregon State over No. 5 Tennessee, 72-56; over No. 4 Oklahoma State, 80-70

Also-ran: No. 3 Kansas over No. 14 Eastern Washington, 93-84

It should be noted that nowhere is found the University of Arizona, the conference’s most consistently successful program over the past 25 years, including the most recent NCAA title, in 1997. (Among subsequent champions, Kansas is the furthest west).

The Wildcats are in self-imposed house arrest following an FBI raid on the program in 2017, as well as pending sanctions from the NCAA. Somehow the Tucson don, Sean Miller, has kept his job, but the school announced the program was voluntarily sitting out post-season play. Probably the monitoring ankle bracelets wouldn’t be a good look on national TV.

The arrival of Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and USC into the tourney’s third round next weekend is a remarkable achievement for a conference that critics often claim doesn’t deserve four in the 68-team field.

Particularly this year, when the Pac-12 had a lousy non-conference record in a season shortened and disrupted by COVID-19. The regular-season champ Ducks didn’t make the top 25 in the polls, and the conference tourney was won by a Beavers team that had lost 12 games.

Yes, all college teams had to work through similar difficult circumstances. Yet the fifth Pac-12 tourney entrant, Colorado, had a fresh hell to work through Monday. News broke at the Indianapolis tourney before the Buffs game against Florida State that a mass shooting in a grocery store back home in Boulder killed 10 people.

The Buffs did not appear to be the same guys that put 96 points on Georgetown Saturday; they had 20 points at the half Monday following receipt of many fearful texts from home that had to have been distracting.

Regarding the tourney as a whole, the disjointed season helped diminish three blue-blood teams  — for the first time since 1979, Duke and Kentucky weren’t selected, and North Carolina lost in the first round. That helped the 2021 participants set their own record. It was the highest seed total, 94, to reach the round of 16 in tourney history, breaking a 34-year-old record.

How much that helped the Pac-12 is hard to say, but as a group they took to the vacant role of dominator nicely. The average margin of victory in their nine games was 16.7 points, with only one game decided by less than double digits.

Particularly noteworthy was the walloping applied by USC to another blue blood, Kansas, in the final game of the opening rounds.  The 85-51 shocker was the biggest margin of Jayhawks tourney defeat since 1940. Afterward, Kansas coach Bill Self said words that normally come from coaches his team has vanquished:

“We need to get more athletic, we need to get longer, we need to get bigger.”

Whoa. But that’s a theme coming out of Indy: Colossi unleashed.

The 95 points put on No. 2 Iowa to end the college career of 6-11 folk hero All-America Luka Garza was an Oregon tourney record.

Yet among all the feats delivered, foes vanquished and eyebrows raised, it is impossible not want to pinch the collective cheek of the Oregon State Beavers and say, “Wudgie, wudgie, wudgie!”

It’s been 39 years since the Beavers last won a game in the NCAA tourney, then they won two over the weekend, clocking good teams from the powerhouse Southeastern and Big 12 conferences. They are led by a 6-foot-10 coach named Tinkle, who had been winless in four previous tourney appearances in his coaching career. In the Pac-12 preseason media poll, the Beavs were picked to finish last. They were 25-to-1 long shots to win the Pac-12 tourney.

After having beaten Oregon, UCLA and Colorado earlier in the month, followed by Tennessee and Oklahoma in Indy, the Beavs now go up against eighth-seeded Chicago Loyola Saturday and its formidable mascot, 101-year-old Sister Jean, who is apparently capable of invoking the hoop deities.

At least, she is being given copious credit for the 71-58 triumph that ushered No. 1-seeded and downstate rival Illinois from the tournament, by praying that God hold the foe under 30 percent on three-pointers. And it happened.

Now that is an impressive sixth being. Not sure there’s a counter strategy.

But we could be reading it wrong. Perhaps the 10-1 record by the Pac-12 is the proof that God truly cares about college hoops. Homer Simpson, the Beavers and their fellow meeks are finally inheriting the earth.



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  • unknownone

    Uh, didn’t Wisconsin pound North Carolina into submission in round 1? UNC made the field; the Heels just didn’t last.

    • art thiel

      Fixed. Thanks. I blinked and missed UNC.

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  • jafabian

    The PAC 12 is way overdue for some tourney success and I’m hoping the balance of power in college hoops will start to trickle over to the West Coast. Maybe the fact that the West Coast was more prepared for dealing with COVID 19 than the rest of the country will make an impression on recruits?

    But this year will finally belong to the Zags.

    • art thiel

      I doubt that a conference acting in a responsible, cautious manner will be embraced by 17-year-old rim-hangers.

      And yes, Zags by lots.

  • Will Ganschow

    What would the rest of the country do if the championship game were Oregon v Oregon State? Home Shopping Network?

    • art thiel

      I’m told by those who know that many people enjoyed watching Duck Dynasty.

  • WestCoastBias79

    The Pac 12 was the most cautious at the beginning of the year with team activities which is probably why the early non conference was such a disaster, and UW scheduling Baylor didn’t help. Anyone paying attention to the size and talent of the Pac 12 (not counting UW, who had neither) knew this was coming. Maybe no one believed it because Bill Walton is the spokesperson, and the network was playing gymnastics instead. None of these wins have been fluky, they’ve been physical beatdowns, even Oregon State dominated. UCLA having to play a first four game was insulting, and I’m pretty sure they’re being reminded of that at every practice. Every year, there is a eastern time zone conference that gets a buttload of teams in at the expense of the Pac and most years, they’re exposed. This year was Big 10, it’s often the Big East. This tourney has been cathartic. I’ve been prickly about this for decades, and have been irrationally prickly since UW won the Pac 12 regular season and didn’t get in 2012.

    • art thiel

      Good of you to trace the source of your conspiracy theory, and it’s not far off. I do think the Pac-12, after whipsawing with football, chose a careful plan that cut into teams’ development time. They were late to the party, but arrived in a grand manner. These players were there in December, but were getting beat, and thus killed in the rankings. But there remains that not-since-1997 thing.

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  • Archangelo Spumoni

    I neither thunk this up nor repeated it. Yet.
    1. Larry Scott, the most incompetent executive in any known business, military, government, nonprofit, whatever–anywhere–is stepping down.
    2. The Pac-11.9 kicks a@@ all over the place. Noted in the story is several of the games were stompin’s. I was surprised that Kansas didn’t even wiggle and Iowa was weak.
    3. Ding dong the wicked witch is dead!!

    • art thiel

      The cause-and-effect is tempting, but Scott’s damage will last long, and game outcomes, as the tourney proves annually, are often random. Just like life.

    • Husky73

      It used to be that all it took was to recruit the one player which could turn a college basketball team around. Surround the next Lew Alcindor with some fair talent, and a lousy team becomes a good team. Elgin Baylor transformed Seattle U. Paul Westphal transformed USC. Rick Mount transformed Purdue. But now, that great transformative player goes to the NBA after one season. Most teams are better off going the Gonzaga, Creighton, Butler, Oregon and Loyola route and building strength with three and four years players. But, that takes TIME, and right now, the Washington Huskies have seen both the talent pool and the clock run out. Yesterday, they lost Stevenson. Perhaps Hopkins– who doesn’t seem to recruit much– is going to install a portable hoop in the HUB and have open tryouts?

  • Husky73

    Mel Counts is beaming.

    • art thiel

      As is Ralph Miller, the curmudgeon’s curmudgeon.

      • Husky73

        Of course times have changed and young people are different. But, I was watching UCLA play, and they are one scruffy looking bunch (which I’m fine with….I’m looking scruffy myself). However, I recall Wooden’s teams being closely cropped and shaved, with crisp fitting uniforms. Bill Walton showed up for the first day of turnout his senior year with long hair. He told Wooden that it was his right to wear his hair and express himself however he wanted. Wooden agreed, and then said, “We’re sure going to miss you, Bill.” Walton ran and got a haircut immediately. He later expressed himself with the Mountain Man look in Portland, winning an NBA championship, proving that hair and beard do not make the athlete.

        • art thiel

          I’m glad you made the point you did. I was worried for a minute.

      • woofer

        And how about some love for The Glove, who seldom misses a Beaver game?

      • Al Wasser

        I have a difficult time picturing Ralph ever “beaming.” Maybe a grudging nod of approval.

        • art thiel

          Good point. A raised, bushy eyebrow, perhaps.

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  • Stephen Pitell

    Fun, fun, fun! I love it.