'We're excited about the momentum we have': Pac-12 men's basketball looks to build on NCAA Tournament success in 2021-22
The 2021 NCAA Tournament was a banner event for Pac-12 men’s basketball. After underwhelming March outings in recent years, the Pac-12 tied a conference record by sending four teams to the Sweet 16, with three advancing to the Elite 8 (the only loss being Oregon falling to USC) and UCLA becoming the Pac-12’s first Final Four team since Oregon in 2017. In all, the conference amassed 13 NCAA tournament wins, a Pac-12 record.
There’s no doubt the Pac-12 improved its conference profile last spring. Now the question centers around whether it can sustain this success in the 2021-22 season.
“Our shared objective is to optimize tournament bids and ultimately cut down the nets again as national champions,” Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said at Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Media Day. “We’re excited about the momentum we have from last season and confident in the talented student-athletes and great leadership from our coaches.”
National prognosticators certainly believe that Pac-12 teams will be major players in the national conversation. From ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to Andy Katz to CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, seven different Pac-12 teams are getting preseason Big Dance consideration, with UCLA and Oregon viewed as top-3 seeds come March.
Of course, those are just projections. The work needs to be done on the court, and the immediate way the Pac-12 can prove itself is by racking up wins in November and December during non-conference play.
There will be plenty of opportunities for big wins, as Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford all have defending national champion Baylor on the schedule, while UCLA and Washington are scheduled to play 2021 national runner-up Gonzaga.
Not including potential matchups that might happen in later rounds in pre-conference tournaments like Oregon at the Maui Invitational or Arizona State at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Pac-12 teams will play at least 20 games against power-conference teams. Take down a Baylor or Gonzaga and show out well in Maui, the Bahamas or the Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge — a recent initiative to have neutral site games across the country with other high-major programs — and the Pac-12 will be well at the forefront of the college basketball national consciousness.
These high-profile matchups are not a happy accident. The conference has had a hand in helping teams schedule a non-league slate with the help of an analytics-based program that aids the schools in figuring out what schedules makes the most sense for each team. The goal: have each team win 75 percent of its non-conference games. If the league can win three-quarters of its non-league contests, the NCAA Tournament bids will follow.
“We looked at tons of data historically of the NCAA Tournament, in not every case, but in most every case, if a conference wins 75 percent of their non-conference games, they advance at least 50 percent of the teams from their conference to the NCAA Tournament,” Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Liaison Jamie Zaninovich said. “We became very focused on that and focused on working with our schools to build schedules where they feel comfortable and winning 75 percent of their non-conference games and the right 75 percent for their goals in terms of selection and seeding in the NCAA Tournament.”
While the 2021-22 results are yet to be seen, the Pac-12 is positioning itself to back up its 2021 NCAA Tournament success as the conference looks to produce its first national champion since Arizona in 1997.