Bill Walton on Pac-12 NCAA dominance: ‘This is the dream come true’
As the champion of the “Conference of Champions,” Bill Walton is having as good an NCAA tournament as the Pac-12 itself.
The league makes up a stunning one-quarter of the Sweet 16 — no other conference has more than two teams remaining — after entering with so little respect nationally that its top-seeded entry was No. 5 Colorado.
Yet, the man who gave the league its champion nickname and never fails to preach Pac-12 supremacy, dismissed the suggestion that he deserves credit this season for possessing a very prescient form of court vision.
“I’m not about recognition or credit or accolades,” Walton said Thursday. “I’m a man of action. I love to work. I love my job. And I love seeing other people succeed.”
The difference now is that Walton was one of the few who foresaw the Pac-12 succeeding at this level. Of course, he’s always going to forecast the brightest of sunshine for his favorite conference.
His regular broadcast partner at ESPN, Dave Pasch, was the one who joked on social media last week that Walton’s prediction for the Final Four featured all five Pac-12 participants.
As it is, UCLA, USC, Oregon and Oregon State advanced to the tournament’s second weekend, while Colorado won once before being eliminated. Counting a no-contest victory, the Pac-12 is 10-1.
“We’ve seen peak performance on command,” Walton said. “The Pac-12 right now is on fire. This is the dream come true. ... Now, as in every tournament, you have to keep playing better.”
Even while winning at a pace that suggests nothing is impossible, the Pac-12 can’t secure each spot in the Final Four because of scheduling that Walton labeled a “disgrace.”
Seeded sixth and seventh, respectively, USC and Oregon meet Sunday in a West regional semifinal, a matchup that is happening sooner than Walton believes is necessary or particularly fair.
“This should be a Final Four matchup, and, the way those two teams are playing, they would be matching up in the Final Four,” he said. “That is a disservice to the conference, a disservice to basketball and a disservice to everybody involved. It’s an unacceptable turn of events. I want that fixed for the future.
“I just think it’s people not doing their job. When I don’t do my job or you don’t do your job, we get fired. When something like this happens, who’s responsible? Who’s accountable? We ask our athletes to be responsible. Yet, the people who are responsible for this … the faceless, the nameless, the anonymous.”
Walton also spoke with passion about the recently exposed imbalances between team accommodations for the men’s and women’s tournaments, saying the “systemic inequality is just unacceptable.”
UCLA coach Cori Close says she misses the support Kobe Bryant gave to women’s basketball, which this week again was slighted by the NCAA.
He touted the financial rights of all student-athletes, explaining, “Whatever is going to benefit the athletes, I’m for.” He pointed out the Pac-12 has three teams in the women’s Sweet 16, saying Stanford’s women are “as enjoyable a watch as there is in basketball today on any level.”
Then, Walton added, “I’m clamoring for better refereeing, too.”
With four teams in the men’s Sweet 16, the Pac-12 has as many survivors as the Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 combined. The Pac-12 already has taken out a second-, a third-, a fourth- and a fifth-seed.
Oregon State, picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason, won the Pac-12 tournament to move on and since has triumphed as a six- and an 8.5-point underdog.
On Monday, USC beat third-seeded Kansas 85-51, the Jayhawks’ worst tournament loss ever, and Oregon convincingly pulled away from second-seeded Iowa 95-80.
“The fierceness of USC, of Oregon just saying, ‘We’re here to run. We’re here to play. How about you guys?’” Walton said. “And Kansas and Iowa, they basically put their hands up and said, ‘We can’t do this.’ It was beautiful. I was just so happy because I love good basketball. We’re getting a lot of it.”
The Trojans’ rout of Kansas was born of the team’s hard work and coach Andy Enfield’s vision, and announced the arrival of a major on-court power.
He praised USC for exploiting its athletic ability and size and playing with so much freedom and spirit. The Trojans opened the tournament with a 16-point victory over Drake.
“This is just another step in Andy Enfield solidifying himself as being the mentor, the coach, of the greatest run in the history of USC basketball,” Walton said. “And USC has a tremendous basketball history.”
A former UCLA great, Walton also offered an appreciation of Bruins coach Mick Cronin, noting especially his character and authenticity.
“Could not be more proud of Mick or more thrilled that we have him as the coach at UCLA,” Walton said. “When he got here, it was a mess, and he’s quickly turned it around.”
UCLA coach Mick Cronin has helped transform the Bruins into a Sweet 16 team. What else can he and his talented roster of players accomplish this weekend?
Walton pointed to a Bruins loss in mid-January 2020 as the moment the program pivoted. UCLA fell 74-59 at home that night to Stanford and, afterward, Cronin unloaded on his players, calling them soft and selfish.
“He held them accountable,” Walton said. “He put the burden of responsibility on their shoulders. And, to their credit, they responded. Some people, when they face adversity, they turn to tinder. They transfer. They move on. These guys, they stayed and they made the adjustments and commitment.”
Now, 14 months later, it’s all paying off for the Bruins. And for the Trojans and for the Pac-12.
And for Bill Walton, the champion of the “Conference of Champions,” a proud salesman with even more to sell.
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