Arizona coach Lute Olson isn't known for talking smack, but there he was at a postgame news conference last Friday, woofing shamelessly for the Pac-10. "We get tired of hearing 'Dookie' Vitale," Olson cracked, suddenly sounding like Vince McMahon. "Not a whole lot is said about the Western teams, but our whole conference will make a statement." Sure enough, for the third time in five years the Pac-10 sent four teams ( Arizona, Stanford, UCLA and USC) to the Sweet 16—more than the basketball Brahmins of the Big Ten (three), ACC (two) and SEC (two) and every other league in the land. Preach, Brother Lute, preach!
What accounts for the Pac-10's March success? Besides talent, of course, here are a few reasons.
The Pac-10 is more competitive than people realize; its teams head into the tournament as battle-tested as those from any other conference. Remember when Arizona won the 1997 national title after finishing fifth in the Pac-10? Well, try naming a fourth-place team better than USC. Last week the Trojans knocked off Big East champ Boston College and won two tournament games for the first time since 1954. "Their starting five is as talented as Arizona's," says Stanford's Casey Jacobsen, "and they gave us two really good games."
Pac-10 softies? Think again. Take one look at Arizona's Michael Wright, Stanford's Jason Collins and UCLA's Matt Barnes and try calling them soft. Utah State's Bernard Rock found out as much in the Aggies' second-round game against the Bruins. "Coach [Stew Morrill] was saying, 'Just hang in there. They're going to choke,' " says Rock. No such luck, pal. Pac-10 players have heart. UCLA rolled to a 75-50 victory.
Upon further review, Pac-10 referees didn't ruin the league's tournament chances after all. Earlier this month, eight of the Pac-10 coaches ripped the conference's referees in the Los Angeles Times, arguing that their extra-tight officiating in regular-season games would hurt Pac-10 teams in the tournament, where more banging is allowed. Though there has indeed been some evidence of looser officiating, USC and Stanford both eliminated Eastern schools (BC and St. Joseph's, respectively) that are well-versed in full-contact basketball.
The Pac-10's schedule simulates the tournament. As UCLA coach Steve Lavin points out, the Pac-10 is the only conference that plays its games every Thursday and Saturday, a quirk that he believes serves as a dress rehearsal for the NCAAs. "I think that has an effect," says USC forward Sam Clancy. "We're better adjusted to the format."
It's a long shot, of course, but there's still a chance that the Pac-10 will become the first league to have three Final Four teams in the same year since the Big East (Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's) did in 1985. "It would be a great thing for our conference," says Jacobsen. " Pac-10 guys are always talking about the East Coast bias, how we aren't as exposed as much as other teams are. We feel like we have something to prove."
In other words, as Stone Cold Lute Olson might say, "Watch your back, Dookie V."