The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the books, and for the third season in a row, USC was not a part of the action. The most exciting weekend on the sports calendar has been Trojan-less for my entire USC career, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always tuned out of college basketball during March. I’ve watched the tournament since I was a kid and still love getting caught up in all the buzzer-beating madness, even if it means watching in my living room with dozens of crumpled up brackets covering the floor.
Over my many years of watching the tournament, I’ve realized that the event is much more entertaining and engaging when 1) there are upsets, and 2) you know at least a little bit about the teams who are playing in the later rounds. Wichita State’s Final Four run last season was exciting, but if the Shockers and, say, Florida Gulf Coast made it all the way to the championship game, it wouldn’t necessarily have been must-watch television.
With those two principles in mind, I’ve found myself consistently rooting for Pac-12 schools (except for UCLA, of course) when USC doesn’t make the field. Pac-12 fans should root for other Pac-12 schools, while still acknowledging rivalry borders, because it makes the tournament more fun when you’re watching familiar players. It also boosts the conference’s national perception, which will pay off the next time your school is on the perilous “bubble” come Selection Sunday.
This season, the Pac-12 had six teams earn a bid in the tournament, and three of them — Arizona, UCLA and Stanford — are still alive heading into the Sweet 16. This level of success in March is something that the conference hasn’t experienced in more than a half-decade, during a time when the then-Pac-10 was considered by many to be among the best basketball conferences in the nation.
The Pac-10 had six teams in the tournament each season from 2007-2009, a stretch that was highlighted by two straight trips to the Final Four by UCLA in 2007 and 2008. Of the 12 Pac-10 teams that made the tournament in those two seasons, nine of them earned a No. 8 seed or better, and six of them made it to the Sweet 16. USC made the tournament each season from 2007-2009 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2007, where it lost to North Carolina.
The conference also boasted an impressive list of future NBA talent during these glory years. Seventeen Pac-10 players were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft from 2007-2009, including four former Trojans — Nick Young (drafted No. 16 in 2007), O.J. Mayo (No. 3 in 2008), DeMar DeRozan (No. 9 in 2009) and Taj Gibson (No. 26 in 2009). The 2008 draft was particularly heavy on Pac-10 players, with seven taken in the first round, three of whom were picked in the top five and six in the top 15.
Following the 2009 season, the Pac-10 entered a bit of a slump. With the previous two drafts robbing the conference of 12 underclassmen drafted in the first round, such a drop-off should have been expected but perhaps not to this degree. Only two Pac-10 schools made the tournament in 2010, with just one, Washington, advancing to the Sweet 16. Only one Pac-10 player, Washington’s Quincy Pondexter, was taken in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, and he wasn’t even selected until pick No. 26.
The 2011 tournament saw a rebound for the conference, and after a one-year postseason ban, a return trip for USC. The Pac-10 earned four bids that year, highlighted by a surprise run from Arizona. The Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight, where they lost to eventual national champion Connecticut. USC lost in the first round to Virginia Commonwealth, who made it all the way to the Final Four.
Despite adding two teams to the conference in Utah and Colorado, the newly formed Pac-12 saw its number of bids cut in half from the previous season. Colorado lost in the Round of 32, and Cal, despite winning the regular season conference championship, earned a No. 12 seed and lost to South Florida in a First Four play-in game.
Last season was somewhat respectable for the Pac-12, with two teams, Arizona and Oregon, advancing to the Sweet 16. No team was seeded better than No. 6, and no team had a particularly impressive win.
This is not the case this season. Arizona enters the Sweet 16 as one of the favorites, with legitimate national championship goals and a relatively easy path to the Final Four. UCLA is as talented as any team left in the field and is on a roll after winning the Pac-12 Tournament. And Stanford surprised nearly everyone this past weekend, first by beating Mountain West champion New Mexico, then by knocking off a top-10 team in Kansas, which was led by this year’s potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins.
Stanford’s success should be encouraging for USC fans itching to return to the tournament. Both schools are prestigious academically, and neither have had a top-25 recruiting class in the past three years. Historically, the programs have been fairly similar as well. This is Stanford’s 17th NCAA tournament appearance, one more than USC’s 16. Each school has made two appearances in the Final Four, though USC’s most recent came in 1954 while Stanford’s was in 1998. The last time either team advanced to the Elite Eight was in 2001, and neither team has won a national championship since World War II (Stanford won in 1942, while USC has never won).
Yet here Stanford sits, in the Sweet 16 representing the now-reputable Pac-12, while USC has finished in last place twice in the last three years. With the Trojans still breaking in a new coaching staff, and with a top-25 recruiting class on the way, maybe the tide will turn in their favor quicker than most expect. Things can’t really get worse, right?
One thing is for certain: Should the Trojans be left out of the field next season, it won’t be a result of playing in a weak conference, because this season the Pac-12 has shown that it’s among the nation’s elite.
Nick Selbe is a senior majoring in communication. His column, “Inside the 20s,” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org.