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Pac-12 making its case with undefeated start to men’s NCAA Tournament

The debate about conference supremacy during the men's college basketball season was focused on the Big Ten and Big 12. Right behind those two was the Atlantic Coast Conference.

So it was no surprise the three leagues led everyone when NCAA Tournament berths were handed out. The Big Ten secured nine and the other two received seven. The 23 spots were slightly more than one-third of the teams in the field.

But after the first round of action, there's only one conference that has gone unbeaten. And it's not any of those three. It's the Pac-12.

All five Pac-12 teams advanced to the second round with a combined 5-0 record. UCLA has two victories after starting in the First Four. Oregon did not play after Virginia Commonwealth was forced out of the tournament due to COVID-19 concerns.

UCLA players celebrate after beating Brigham Young during the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. (Photo: Marc Lebryk, USA TODAY Sports)

The Big 12 and Big Ten have had six teams advance with 6-1 and 6-3 records, respectively. The ACC has seen five of its seven teams eliminated. 

Fueling the conference's success has been a perceived lack of respect. 

Colorado heard talk about being a possible upset victim against Georgetown, the Big East tournament champions. The Buffaloes made 16 three-pointers in an emphatic 96-73 victory.

“It was crazy coming into the game,” Colorado forward Jabari Walker said. “We were, like, the underdog, even being the 5 seed. You know, everybody had us losing this game.”

UCLA coach Mick Cronin has been vocal about his disappointment that the Bruins were seeded 11th and forced to play Michigan State before entering the first round. Two days later, they took down No. 6 seed BYU.

Cronin, who coached at Murray State and Cincinnati before taking the Bruins job, has a unique perspective on what might be causing the league to be overlooked.

"Being from the Midwest, I don't think people realize how hard it is to win at Colorado," Cronin said after the Michigan State win. "How hard it is to beat Oregon.

"I don't think people understand how hard those games are. … Playing good teams can make you or it can break you."

He let loose further after the BYU victory.

"You're finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke," Cronin said. "I've been doing this a long time. Back in 2011, I coached in a league where 11 teams made the NCAA Tournament. And the national champion finished in a tie for ninth, 10th and 11th. So I know good teams. So Oregon State, Oregon, Colorado, SC, those teams winning is just not a surprise at all to me."

The second round starting Sunday offers five more opportunities for the Pac-12 to further change the narrative about its league. 

Four teams will face higher seeds from the three conferences above them in the hierarchy. Oregon is matched up with No. 2 seed Iowa. Southern California plays No. 3 seed Kansas. Oregon State will face No. 4 seed Oklahoma State. Colorado gets No. 4 seed Florida State. 

Only UCLA has a game against a lower seed when it squares off with No. 14 Abilene Christian. 

"Anything we do from now on, nobody expected it," Walker said. "Just go in there with that underdog mindset, trying to prove everybody wrong."

Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith @ericksmith

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