When Dana Altman and his Oregon Ducks gathered last Sunday to watch the NCAA tournament selection show, they were stunned when a 12 appeared next to their name.
They had 26 victories and just won the Pac-12 tournament, yet all they got was a 12 seed? Is that how far the perception of their conference had fallen?
With the Pac-12 ranking sixth nationally in RPI and producing just three Sweet 16 teams across the last four NCAA tournaments, this may have been a cold dose of reality. The conference was going to need to make people believe in it again.
"We downplayed it," Altman said Thursday, "because we weren't going to change it. There was nothing we could do about it. We've just got to go play."
Play the Ducks did, beating fifth-seeded Oklahoma State handedly, 68-55. They were hardly the only show of force from the league, either. Arizona dusted Belmont 81-64. And Cal emerged victorious, 64-61, over UNLV, of the Mountain West conference that many saw as the superior league out West.
For a league that few believed in, it was a rare great day in March.
"Man, it's a statement that all of us who coach in the league were hoping that we could make," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "You get respect by what you do in this tournament."
Both Cal and Oregon were 12 seeds, making this the first time in NCAA history a conference had two teams with that seed win on the same day. And while Arizona was a sixth-seed, they were a popular upset pick at the hands of a tricky, 11th-seeded Belmont club.
"I don't blame people for picking Belmont," Miller said. "They have a great backcourt. They earned the seed that they got. You look at them on paper and they're scary."
And until Thursday, you looked at Pac-12 teams on paper and didn't see much. At least that's the way the selection committee saw it.
Miller repeated the mindset of Altman. He shrugged off all the criticism and focused his guys on doing something about it. Respect isn't easily earned in March, but it's there for the taking.
"The guys on TV have to pick one thing," Miller said of the pundits going against him. "The other guy is offended. The team they pick is happy.
"For us, I'm just happy we have an opportunity to play on Saturday [against Harvard]," he continued. "The longer you stay in this tournament, the more you want to get back here year in, year out because it's so special for the players. It means the world to make it and when you start advancing it really becomes special."
How special this tournament turns out for the Pac-12 remains to be seen, but the start is promising. On Friday, No. 6 UCLA plays No. 11 Minnesota – yet despite the seedings, the Bruins are three-point underdogs in Las Vegas. Meanwhile 10th-seeded Colorado takes on Illinois.
There were plenty of brackets that predicted the Pac 12 would go 0-5. "I think our league's really good," UCLA coach Ben Howland said Thursday. "I think it's prepared each of the teams in our conference because of the rigors of the Pac‑12, to represent our conference and each of the respective schools very well moving into this tournament."
There is still a lot of work to be done but if the first day is any indication, the league beating up on itself wasn't as bad as it looked.
"I know as a coach how hard that 18‑game schedule was," Miller said. "You add the two that we played in the conference tournament, you're playing against terrific players, some incredible coaches, and teams that can win. And I believe that we have the ability as a conference to continue to win here in March."
For a league on an extended draught, overwhelmed by a western rival in the Mountain West and so undervalued that its league champ merits nothing better than a 12 seed, the first day of the tourney couldn't have gone much better.
Three up, three advance.
Just go play.
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