Published March 22, 2013
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Twelve turned out to be a lucky number for the Pac-12 Conference.
A year after sending only two teams to the NCAA tournament, the league doubled its win total from last March in two games — on one day at one site: Oregon and California, both No. 12 seeds, scored upsets in San Jose. Even sixth-seeded Arizona added to the strong showing by beating Belmont 81-64 in Salt Lake City.
"I don't think anybody in our league came in with a chip on our shoulder, like we weren't good," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "I think Oregon thought it was supposed to win. I think we thought we were supposed to win and that's the way we approach these games. It's an opportunity and I think we so far have done a good job."
Buoyed by the support of a strong contingent so close to the Berkeley campus, the Golden Bears burnished the conference's credentials perhaps more than anybody else.
Allen Crabbe had 19 points and nine rebounds, reserve Robert Thurman scored all 12 of his points on dunks and Cal upset fifth-seeded UNLV 64-61 in the second round Thursday night.
A few hours earlier on the same floor, Dominic Artis had 13 points, four steals and helped slow down Marcus Smart while fellow freshman Damyean Dotson led the way with 17 points to help Oregon extend a run that began in the Pac-12 tournament by beating the fifth-seeded Cowboys 68-55 in another second-round game.
The Bears will play in San Jose again Saturday against fourth-seeded Syracuse, which routed Montana 81-34, for a spot in the round of 16 and in the East regional next week in Washington, D.C. The Ducks will face fourth-seeded Saint Louis, which won 64-44 against New Mexico State, for a trip to the Midwest regional in Indianapolis.
"Shows you that our conference is tough," said Cal guard Justin Cobbs, who had 13 points and five rebounds against UNLV. "It's tough from top to bottom. Teams are playing well right now. So all the bad press we were getting before maybe wasn't true."
The Pac-12 still has two other teams that have yet to play. Sixth-seeded UCLA (25-9), the league's regular-season champion, will open its tournament bid against No. 11 seed Minnesota (20-12) on Friday in Austin, Texas. Colorado (21-11) also faces Illinois (22-12) in the same location.
The Bruins and Buffaloes will have a rooting section from their West Coast colleagues, too.
"Guys are playing well," Cobbs said. "And I just wish the best of luck to all of the rest of the Pac-12 schools."
Last March, Pac-12 tournament champion Colorado defeated UNLV before losing to Baylor. The Bears bounced out of the NCAA tournament in 40 minutes last year, falling 65-54 to fellow No. 12 seed South Florida in a "First Four" in Dayton, Ohio.
No other team even made the tournament.
The selection committee didn't do much to dismay the skeptics when Oregon was given a 12 seed despite tying for second place in the Pac-12 in the regular season, winning the conference tournament and going 21-4 with Artis in the lineup.
"I never felt like we needed to make a statement," Ducks forward E.J. Singler said. "We knew we had a good team. It was about getting the win and feeling good about ourselves."
This time, the Golden Bears (21-11) held the Runnin' Rebels (25-10) without a basket for more than 11 minutes in the second half. Cal confused UNLV with 40 minutes of zone defense, which Montgomery couldn't recall employing for such a long stretch since he was at Montana from 1977-86.
Perhaps the Pac-12 has changed its perception a little now, too.
"The only thing you can do to try to convince people of otherwise, I don't think it's ever going to really change, as long as I've been in the league, 20 some years, is to go out and win. That's the only thing you can do to prove that you're a good conference."
At the very least, the Pac-12 has reaffirmed its opponents' opinions.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said before the game that the Ducks looked nothing like a 12 seed and that was proven true in their tournament opener with the way they shut down Smart and hit their outside shots. Oregon's eight 3-pointers were their most since having nine in December against Houston Baptist.
"We ran into a very hot team, a very hot team," Ford said. "I've watched a lot of games on these guys and how they've played the last three games compared to how they were playing two or three weeks ago, this was a hot basketball team. I was impressed with Oregon, really impressed and they came in here playing extremely well."