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Oregon is the lone bright light in a disappointing NCAA tournament for Pac-12, not that anyone's noticed

St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli was trying to find some way to praise Oregon, his team's opponent Sunday in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The problem was, he knew nothing about the Ducks. "Zero," he said.

"This is my livelihood, and I'm saying to you, until I heard on the broadcast that they had finished the season No. 5, I had no idea," Martelli said. "If you said to our players, 'Did Oregon win the Pac-12 or did Arizona?' They would lean to Arizona. As would basketball people in Philadelphia."

So the Pac-12 Conference's breakout season has come to this: the only one of its seven NCAA tournament teams that survived the first two rounds of games is so anonymous that even its opponents lack information.

Oregon, the top-seeded team in the West Regional, will play the reigning national champion Duke, on Thursday in a regional semifinal at the Honda Center in Anaheim. A victory would put the Ducksa win away from Houston and their first Final Four since 1939.

It would also demonstrate that Pac-12 teams are capable of competing with powerhouses from other top conferences. Right now, the jury is still out.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Duke is a member, also sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament. The difference is, six ACC teams remain.

"It just wasn't a good first weekend for our conference; I will admit that," Oregon Coach Dana Altman said. "And we did have a great conference year. Nobody's going to take anything away from that. But if you don't perform in the tournament, then it gives you opportunity for people to attack your league. Unfortunately, that's happened."

During the regular season, the Pac-12's seven tournament teams had a record of 12-7 against NCAA tournament teams from other conferences. Oregon was the Pac-12's best team from start to finish, but California and Utah also were trendy Final Four picks headed into the start of the tournament.

Then came a dramatic turn for the worse. Cal's program was shaken when an assistant coach was dismissed after a university investigation determined he had violated the school's sexual harassment policy in his dealings with a female reporter. Then a top player, guard Tyrone Wallace, suffered a broken hand during practice and the Golden Bears were soundly defeated by Hawaii in the first round.

Utah won a game — the only Pac-12 team besides Oregon to do so — but was then blown out by Gonzaga in the second round.

Elsewhere, USC collapsed at the end against Providence, Colorado lost a close game to Connecticut, Oregon State fell to Virginia Commonwealth and Arizona was defeated easily by Wichita State.

All six losses came against lower seeds.

"That's just the nature of the tournament," said former USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. "It can happen to any league any time."

O'Neill contrasted this season with last, when the Pac-12 sent only four teams but they all won their opening games. Three played in regional semifinals, and Arizona reached a regional final. And Stanford won the National Invitation Tournament.

Postseason play, O'Neill said, "is kind of a crapshoot."

The Pac-12's longer-term tournament performance is more difficult to ignore. No conference team has made the Final Four since UCLA in 2008. In the past 50 years, the conference has sent just one team besides UCLA and Arizona to the Final Four — Stanford in 1998.

At least this year, the conference's lone survivor is also clearly its best team. Oregon clinched the Pac-12's regular-season title before the final game of the season and defeated Utah by 31 points in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament.

The Ducks also appear built to last past this season. Dillon Brooks, the team's leader in points (16.8 per game) and assists (3.1) and its second-leading rebounder (5.6), is a sophomore. Floor leader Tyler Dorsey, the point guard from Pasadena Maranatha High, is a freshman.

Altman, 58, the conference's coach of the year the past two seasons, has quietly moved to 11th in career wins among active college coaches with 563.

A run by Oregon to the Final Four would be a welcomed salve for the Pac-12's wounds. But are the Ducks capable?

Martelli thinks so.

"I know Oregon could end up in Houston," he said.

He did know that much.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 22, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "NCAA TOURNAMENT - A standing O for a fallen Pac - Oregon is the only Pac-12 team in Sweet 16. Should conference be concerned?" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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