PORTLAND, Ore. — After taking a lot of lumps in the media during the regular season, the Pac-12 conference is having the last laugh in March.
The Conference of Champions boosts an undefeated record in the 2015 NCAA Tournament and three Sweet 16 teams so far. The only undefeated conferences as of Utah’s win on Saturday were the ACC (7-0), the MVC (2-0) and the Pac-12 (7-0).
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said “what else is new?” when asked about the Pac-12 being criticized this year.
“There were years when the Pac-12, you know, was down and out, then all of a sudden you look up and there's three teams in the Elite 8, four teams in the Sweet 16,” Krystkowiak said. “So we know the brand of basketball that we play.”
In Portland, Ore. two Pac-12 teams made it to the Sweet 16. No. 2 seeded Arizona beat No. 10 seeded Ohio State 73-58 in the West Region and No. 5 seeded Utah beat No. 4 seeded Georgetown 75-64 in the South Region.
“It’s good to see that, everybody doing well,” Utah guard Delon Wright said. “I think people across the country probably don’t respect the Pac-12 like they should be. I hope everybody does well and continues to do well.”
Also on Saturday, No. 11 seeded UCLA beat No. 14 seeded UAB 92-75 in the South Region to make it to the last 16.
“Looking at how our conference is doing, you know, UCLA, we want to congratulate them on also being a part of the Sweet 16,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We have Utah out here. Oregon won yesterday against Oklahoma State. That's four teams that have advanced. I think that also says a lot about our team, how we've done in our conference against all of those people.”
Arizona won the Pac-12 championship by three games and won the Pac-12 Tournament as well.
The Pac-12’s fourth NCAA tournament team, No. 8 seeded Oregon, will play Wisconsin, the top seed in the West, on Sunday at 4:45 p.m. on TruTV.
Krystkowiak said the Pac-12 is often judged on how Arizona and UCLA do.
“I looked at our league and say, ‘okay, other than Arizona this year, a lot of people took turns beating the crap out of each other,” Krystkowiak said. “That seems to be acceptable in other leagues. The strength of schedule and everything just stays elevated. But it validates what we're doing.”
Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell had a rough night against Arizona, but he remained confident after the Buckeyes’ loss.
Russell said he wears number zero because that’s the number of people who can guard and him after the game he reiterated that. After the loss to Arizona he was again asked who “who is the best defender you've faced all year?"
"Nobody," Russell said to Cleveland.com, repeating his quote from Friday.
The All-American was 3-for-19 from the field against Arizona and scored nine points, which was 10.6 under his average going into the game.
“Our guys did an excellent job on D'Angelo Russell,” Miller said. “I thought we defended with a lot of purpose.”
After the game, the normally very talkative Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a key defender against Russell, was at a loss for words when asked about the “nobody” quote.
“Uh, I mean I kinda, I mean that’s what players do, they’re confident,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “There’s nothing wrong with being confident, saying those types of things, but we just guarded him well. It was a great defensive night for us as a team.”
Russell led the Big Ten in scoring during conference play.
“It wasn’t his best offensive night, but those nights come for the greatest players, Kobe, whoever the case may be,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It just so happened that tonight was that night where we defended him well.”
After the game, Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Arizona’s length helped them shut down Russell but they hoped he would shoot his way out of his struggles.
“Obviously they were committing two guys to him off the ball screen and did a really nice job,” Matta said. “You know, with that length, it was a little bit difficult to see around. But I thought he had some great looks at the basket. Unfortunately it was kind of one of those days for him in terms of the shots not going down.”
Rondae doubles down
On the offensive end, Hollis-Jefferson started slow, but nonetheless, picked up his second straight double-double and the sixth of his career.
Against the Buckeyes, Hollis-Jefferson had 11 points and 10 rebounds, plus five assists, one block and one steal.
“He's a very unselfish basketball player,” Arizona guard Gabe York said. “That shows I think throughout every single game. He works so hard defensively guarding the best player, then on the offensive end he's so unselfish as well. He's getting offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, getting in transition, finding the open man.”
Hollis-Jefferson scored a career-high 23 points on Thursday against Texas Southern.
Final Four bound?
Matta compared the 2015 Wildcats, to the 2001 edition that beat his 10th seeded Butler team 73-52 in the round of 32 en route to Arizona’s last Final Four appearance.
The 2001 Wildcats featured point guard Jason Gardner, guard Gilbert Arenas, forwards Richard Jefferson and Michael Wright, and center Loren Woods. Arenas and Jefferson played in the NBA for years and Gardner had his jersey retired by Arizona.
“I think I was a 10 seed and Arizona was a 2 seed with Gardner, Arenas, Jefferson, Wright and Woods with like nine All-Americans on the bench,” Matta said. “That was a heck of a basketball team, too. I think Sean is doing a tremendous job when you watch him and you really zone in, preparation.”
Arizona had three players score in double-figures on Saturday and five score at least 12 on Thursday.
“Quite honestly, we had to sort of pick our poison in terms of what we wanted to do today defensively because they can hurt you in so many different ways.” Matta said.
Follow James Kelley on Twitter.