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March Madness: Pac-12 Conference tries to regain its swagger in NCAA basketball tournament

March Madness: Pac-12 Conference tries to regain its swagger in NCAA basketball tournament
Arizona guard Allonzo Trier (35) grabs a rebound between Oregon guards Dylan Ennis (31) and Casey Benson (2) during the Pac-12 tournament championship game on March 11. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Before Kadeem Allen arrived at Arizona, West Coast basketball wasn't on his radar.

Allen grew up in Wilmington, N.C., where Duke and North Carolina games crackled onto the radio and beamed onto his television. For junior college, Allen hauled out to Hutchinson, Kan., where on game days, traffic would flow across the plains to Lawrence to watch the Kansas Jayhawks.

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It would have been easy to forget that basketball was played outside the East Coast and the heartland. The Pac-12 Conference? Allen said it didn't have his respect.

"The games come on pretty late back home," Allen said. "I was probably sleeping."

Which is exactly what had been gnawing at USC Coach Andy Enfield for weeks, until he let his frustrations be known at the Pac-12 tournament last week.

"I think there's an East Coast bias in the media," Enfield said. "I coached in the [Atlantic Coast Conference] for five years as an assistant coach at Florida State. I knew it then. But when you're out on the West Coast, it's very obvious. Our games start later. A lot of the media and the people that are bracketologists, they don't even watch our games. They get the Internet. They're in bed by 10 p.m."

It is a long-simmering complaint, and a reputation not helped by the conference's lack of a Final Four team since 2009.

But the resentment has grown more acute this season. The Pac-12 produced three of the best teams in the country — or thought it did, anyway. Neither Arizona, UCLA nor Oregon earned a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament. And only one other Pac-12 school made the 68-team field — USC, which barely got in as the next-to-last at-large selection.

Fair or not, the tournament will be a referendum: Are people not watching? Or is the Pac-12 just not as good as it thinks?

Players and coaches are as optimistic about the conference's Final Four chances as they have been in years. The bottom of the league has measurably fallen off from last season when the Pac-12 sent a conference-record seven teams to the NCAA tournament. But Enfield's comments hit a nerve. Players at the conference tournament, especially those from UCLA, Arizona and Oregon, said the league is too harshly judged by its worst teams.

In their estimation, the Pac-12 has the most top players — the first two picks in the NBA draft in June are expected to be Washington's Markelle Fultz and UCLA's Lonzo Ball — and the most top teams.

"There's talk of ACC, Big East, but Pac-12, we've got the most talent," Arizona's Rawle Alkins said. "And we've got the most guys that could potentially make it to the Final Four."

Oregon's Dillon Brooks allowed that "the Pac-12 is maybe a little top heavy. But that 'top heavy' is in the top 10."

He said the Pac-12's status has fallen because the best teams — Arizona, UCLA and Oregon were all in the top nine in the final regular-season Associated Press media poll — "just beat down" the rest of the league.

"That's what they're supposed to do," he said.

Those other nine teams, however, were suspect enough to drag down the Pac-12's standing in the Ratings Percentage Index, which measures the relative strengths of teams and conferences. The Pac-12 ranks sixth, worst among the major conferences, behind the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Southeastern.

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Still, the makeup of the brackets allow Pac-12 partisans to dream: Arizona, UCLA and Oregon were placed in different regionals. What if they all made the Final Four? The conference's fourth participant, USC, is in yet another regional.

USC's Jordan McLaughlin scores on UCLA's Thomas Welsh in the second half at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Mar. 8.
USC's Jordan McLaughlin scores on UCLA's Thomas Welsh in the second half at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Mar. 8. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

"I think we have three teams that are legit as far as Final Four potential," said Mike Montgomery, a former coach at Stanford and California. "Any time you get there, who knows?"

No conference has produced three Final Four teams in the same season since the Big East in 1985 sent Villanova (the eventual champion), Georgetown and St. John's.

Just as easily, there could be more disappointment. In the West Regional, Arizona might have to get past Gonzaga, a team that defeated the Wildcats convincingly in December. Last weekend, Oregon lost forward Chris Boucher, a key starter, to a knee injury. UCLA is a popular Final Four pick but has Kentucky and North Carolina in its regional. And USC must first compete in a play-in game.

Early exits would fuel skeptics who argued that the Pac-12's best teams had records inflated by weak competition. After the big three, the drop-off was steep: Only two other Pac-12 teams, USC and Colorado, notched wins against UCLA, Oregon or Arizona this season. And few had a nonconference resume strong enough to even garner NCAA tournament consideration.

"Where our conference failed, I think, this year in terms of getting more teams in is, No. 1, some scheduling errors by some teams," Colorado Coach Tad Boyle said. "And quite frankly, we did not win enough games in November and December."

Boyle indicated that the best way to earn respect is to win more. Arizona Coach Sean Miller agreed.

"The one thing that you learn is it's about what you do in March," Miller said. "A year ago, we had seven of our 12 teams in the NCAA tournament. You know how hard that is to get over half of your teams in the NCAA Tournament?"

But most of those teams were eliminated early. Only Oregon reached a regional final.

Miller said the dismal showing contributed to the conference's diminished status this season. He predicted the fallout would last until schools have to face the Pac-12's best in the tournament.

"When the other coaches draw them," Miller said, "they will understand at that point how good those teams are."

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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