With the fifth most teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Bill Walton’s Conference of Champions has a chance to leave its mark on the madness this March. Of the 68 teams invited to the tournament, five hail from the Pac-12: Oregon State, Oregon, USC and Colorado so far, and UCLA will need to beat Michigan State in the First Four to crack the first round. Though the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are one in 9.2 quintillion, here are the Daily Californian sports staff’s picks on who from the conference might pull off unexpected upsets.
No. 12 Oregon State. First round matchup vs. No. 5 Tennessee
Ryan Chien: In a preseason media poll, the Beavers were ranked last in the Pac-12 and have since then won a conference championship. They’re no strangers to shattering expectations, so it’s very plausible that they upset the No. 5 Volunteers. But Oregon State’s path to victory thereafter is a steep mountain to climb. In the round of 32 and beyond, it’d presumably face No. 4 Oklahoma State and then No. 1 Illinois, two teams expected to make deep runs in the tournament. As phenomenal as guards Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas have been all season long, a superstar like the Cowboys’ Cade Cunningham might just be their kryptonite.
William Cooke: I’m an Oregon State fan for the time being. The Beavers might just be the hottest team in college basketball at the moment, but considering Oregon State’s first-round matchup against Tennessee, it may be a short-lived bandwagon ride. The Volunteers’ regular season did peter out a bit, as head coach Rick Barnes’ squad went 4-4 over its last eight games, including a 15-point loss to Kentucky. But considering the talent and big-stage experience difference between these two teams, I just don’t see the Beavers moving on past the first round.
No. 7 Oregon. First round matchup vs. No. 10 VCU
RC: With a Pac-12 regular season title under their belt, the Ducks’ exhaustive list of offensive weapons makes them a formidable force. Led by Eugene Omoruyi and Chris Duarte, Oregon boasts five scorers in double-digit figures, which should allow the team to coast past VCU with ease. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this team could sweep its way to the elite eight; that is, if it weren’t for No. 2 Iowa’s 6’11”, 265 pound center Luka Garza. As the Big Ten Player of the Year, Garza has no plans of going home early with the Hawkeyes, so expect the Ducks’ second-round match to be an absolute bloodbath.
WC: I had Oregon making a deep run in the tournament before its 11-point loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal. Under head coach Dana Altman, the Ducks have never lost in the first round and I don’t expect that to change. Oregon will beat VCU, but then will likely play Iowa, who I consider to be the best second seed in the tournament. I’m sorry, Ducks fans, a second-round exit will have to suffice.
No. 6 USC. First round matchup vs. No. 11 Wichita State/Drake
RC: When you think of the Trojans, you think of Evan Mobley. Projected to be a top-four pick in the 2021 NBA draft, the freshman forward with a 7’4” wingspan is a one-of-a-kind player. Mobley handles the ball like a guard, weaves his way into the paint and creates his own outside shot — a lethal combination that’ll make any opposing defense force a double-team and leave one of his USC teammates wide open. Against either the Shockers or the Bulldogs, that should be enough. But against a blueblood team like No. 3 Kansas, it could be a different story. The Jayhawks’ head coach Bill Self is a mastermind; with a tournament record of 46-19, I expect him to devise a way to neutralize the young, first-year phenomenon.
WC: The Trojans aren’t all that. Eleventh-seeded Wichita State will beat Drake in its first-four play in game and then upset USC in the first round. I see the Shockers playing out of their socks (as they always seem to do in March), keeping the game close and then beating the Trojans down the stretch with clutch free-throw shooting. Andy Enfield’s team shoots just under 65% from the free-throw line, which is not nearly good enough to make a deep run. Additionally, prior to its one-point loss against Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference tournament last Saturday, Wichita State has not had a loss since late January. In between those two losses, the Shockers were dominant. Bye bye, USC.
No. 5 Colorado. First round matchup vs. No. 12 Georgetown
RC: The Buffaloes’ faithful are a passionate bunch — and for good reason. They’ve trounced every other top-six team in the Pac-12 at least once — including all of those who made this year’s NCAA tournament. Though they lost to the Beavers by two points in the conference championship game, Colorado enters the tournament with its highest seeding in school history. Yes, Georgetown just won the Big East. Yes, the Hoyas have a legend in player-turned-coach Patrick Ewing. However, the Buffaloes are too well-rounded of a team not to make some noise. Look out for seniors McKinley Wright IV and Jeriah Horne to wreak havoc early on, just as they have throughout the season.
WC: There has been a 12-over-5 upset in every NCAA tournament over the past 40 years, save for five. And if you’re frantically filling out your bracket right now and unsure which 12-5 upset you should pick, choose this one. Georgetown beat a Collin Gillespie-less Villanova and Creighton in the Big East tournament to earn an automatic bid. Colorado lost in the Pac-12 tournament final to Oregon State. If you’re a big believer in picking teams that are clicking heading into March, pick the red-hot Hoyas.