INDIANAPOLIS — Received an interesting text message the other day from a long-time Division I college basketball coach who marveled at what’s happened to the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball landscape in recent years.
The coach wrote, “Never would I have thought Oregon would have a stranglehold on the league like this.”
Dana Altman knows what he’s doing. The Ducks’ coach has won four of the last six regular-season conference titles. But the inquiring coach pointed out that UCLA and Arizona have essentially evaporated as consistent powers during that same span. Also, before this week USC hadn’t made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 14 seasons.
But what happens in the next era of Pac-12 basketball?
That question hangs over the top of today’s Oregon-USC Sweet 16 matchup. The Pac-12 is having a sensational NCAA Tournament. No. 12-seed Oregon State is already in the Elite Eight. UCLA has a chance to join the Beavers there if it can beat Alabama today. And the conference is guaranteed to get either the No. 7-seed Ducks or No. 6-seed Trojans in the Elite Eight because they’ll meet today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It’s all great for the conference, which is piling up NCAA Tournament shares. The Pac-12 is already guaranteed to earn approximately $30 million (and counting) in revenue from its performance in this tournament. But I think there’s a lot more at stake for future of the Pac-12 today.
Maybe it’s too much to call the USC-Oregon game a “pivot point” by itself, but there are a lot of eyes on the matchup because of what it represents in the conference hierarchy. USC went 15-5 in conference play this season. Oregon went 14-4. The Ducks had a couple of Covid-positive cancelations. Oregon didn’t get to reschedule them and won the conference regular-season crown by virtue of percentage points (.777 to .750).
Trojans’ sophomore Isaiah Mobley said, “They stole the Pac-12 championship from us.”
Meanwhile, Oregon has been quiet since advancing to the Sweet 16. Altman’s players haven’t been made available for individual media interviews this week despite the NCAA’s directives to do so. I couldn’t help but wonder how strategic that is given the bad blood in this USC-Oregon game.
It appears the Ducks will let today’s outcome do the talking.
The Trojans want to advance to the Elite Eight, of course. This isn’t just about beating the Ducks. They’d like to prove they — not Oregon — deserved that Pac-12 regular-season title. They’d like to take a step toward a Final Four and utilize their success in recruiting. But Mobley’s words rang especially loud in Indianapolis because it was Oregon he was directly and explicitly calling out.
The same Ducks program with that “stranglehold” on Pac-12 in recent years. The same Oregon team that USC beat by 14 points in their only meeting this season. No doubt, what we have here isn’t just an unfortunate Sweet 16 match-up between two conference foes, but a scramble for turf within the conference.
Arizona is a non-factor, for now. UCLA has nice momentum. Oregon State is on a wonderful run. But it’s USC that is directly challenging Oregon today. Not just on an NCAA Tournament court, but off it as well. The Trojans believe they have the better team and are publicly saying so. Meanwhile, Oregon has a 62-year old witch as the head coach and everyone expects the Ducks to be much better vs. USC than they were in their February meeting.
Altman’s contract runs through April of 2026. He’ll turn 68 in the summer after that season. So that may very well serve as a line of delineation in this discussion. For perspective, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is 76. Mike Krzyzewski is 74. Maybe Altman has one more contract in him. Maybe he doesn’t. But what’s clear is that Oregon’s coach has fostered one of the most successful runs in conference history.
Is his grip on the Pac-12 being challenged?
Will Altman lose it?
We’ll see, but I wouldn’t bet against him until I saw it.
The conference’s most successful programs are converging on each other in the bracket. The Pac-12 suddenly feels as competitive as it has been in some time. Oregon remains at the top, but everyone can see USC, UCLA and others jockeying for position. And if Arizona ever gets out of the wiretap business and dumps Sean Miller, the Wildcats could be an immediate addition to the fray.
Oregon-USC in football is an annual discussion. But we’re now knee-deep in a budding basketball rivalry between those same universities. One that is great for fans, of course. It’s also wonderful for the brand of the conference. Oregon has been left in recent years to carry the Pac-12 flag by itself. But something feels different this season. The Ducks are being challenged. Called out, even.
Let’s see how they respond.
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