SAN JOSE, Calif. — As Cal players happily jogged off the floor at HP Pavilion following their 64-61 opening-round upset of fifth-seeded UNLV on Thursday night, the legions of Bears fans in attendance stood and applauded.
Fifty miles north at the Pac-12 office in Walnut Creek, the reaction was probably just as jubilant.
Cal's victory gave the oft-derided Pac-12 a perfect 3-0 record Thursday, matching or surpassing the league's total number of victories in two of the past three NCAA tournaments. In addition to the win by the Bears, 12th-seeded Oregon surprised Oklahoma State and sixth-seeded Arizona swatted away trendy upset pick Belmont.
One impressive day in the round of 64 won't restore the Pac-12's battered basketball reputation, but it's certainly a sign of progress for a league that has seldom been relevant nationally the past four years. If either sixth-seeded UCLA ousts Minnesota or 10th-seeded Colorado defeats Illinois on Friday, the Pac-12 will have its most teams in the Round of 32 since 2009.
"The league needed a day like this," Cal forward David Kravish said. "I don't know why it needs it, but it seems that way. It's a really good conference. I don't know if it got the recognition going into the tournament, but I think the wins we've gotten as a league and hopefully will get in the future, that will really help."
The biggest reason for the Pac-12's battered basketball reputation is the conference simply hasn't earned the respect. When an exodus of NBA talent in 2008 and 2009 coincided with some uncharacteristically weak recruiting classes on the West Coast and coaching turnover at many Pac-12 schools, the league fell into a tailspin from which it is only just starting to emerge.
Three years ago, the Pac-12 flirted with receiving only one NCAA tournament bid for most of February before Cal and Washington eked out bids. Two years ago, a surprise Elite Eight run from Arizona obscured a mediocre year from the rest of the league. And last season, the Pac-12 hit rock bottom, failing to beat a single Top 25 team in the regular season, producing only two NCAA bids and becoming the first power conference not to get its regular season champion into the field of 68 when Washington was left out.
The league actually made strides during non-conference play this season, with Arizona taking down Florida and Miami, Oregon winning at UNLV and UCLA beating Missouri. The reward for that was five NCAA tournament bids but minimal seeding respect as the Pac-12 tournament champion Ducks received a No. 12 seed and no team from the league was seeded better than No. 6.
"The only thing you can do to convince people you're good ... is to go out and win," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "I can't imagine there's a better conference than the Pac-12, across the board, all sports, the whole way we approach things, but for me to say that means nothing. You've got to go out and win games."
Cal did its part Thursday, avenging a one-point loss to UNLV in the regular season and sending the Rebels to their fourth opening-round loss as the favored seed in the past four years. The Bears did it by befuddling UNLV with a zone defense that rendered future lottery pick Anthony Bennett invisible for long stretches of the game and turned the Rebels into a jump-shooting team.
Having originally planned to alternate between man-to-man and zone as he did during Cal's stretch of eight wins in 10 games to end the season, Montgomery instead stuck with zone most of Thursday's game because the Rebels couldn't figure out how to attack it. They settled for jump shots as they have been prone to do all season, Katin Reinhardt and Bryce Dejean-Jones shooting a combined 9 of 28 and the Rebels going 1 of 9 from behind the arc in the second half as a team.
"That's the most we've ever played zone this year," Cal guard Allen Crabbe said. "They like to get up and down the court and isolate bigs and wings. We took them out of their rhythm."
Cal still had to survive a dicey final 34 seconds during which it missed eight free throws, enabling UNLV to trim a seven-point deficit to one. The Bears never gave the Rebels a chance to tie the game, however, because twice they fouled up three, a strategy that was a direct response to their Pac-12 quarterfinal loss to Utah last week when the Utes forced overtime on a late 3-pointer.
"I think that was on everyone's mind," Kravish said. "I overheard the coaches talking, and they were like, 'This time we have to foul. We have to foul.' It worked out for us."
Before Cal's game, the Bears were in their own locker room watching the end of the Oregon game and rooting for the Ducks. More than likely, Oregon players were doing the same from their hotel rooms as Cal was playing a few hours later.
"Once you get to this point, you want the Pac-12 to do as well as possible so next year people say, 'OK, that's a legit league,'" Kravish said.
Another couple Pac-12 wins, and that may very well happen.