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Andy Furillo: Pac-12 gets respect, now it has to deliver

Cal forward Jaylen Brown, left, center Kameron Rooks, center, and guard Jordan Mathews go up for a rebound against Utah during the first half of the Pac-12 tournament March 11, 2016, in Las Vegas.
Cal forward Jaylen Brown, left, center Kameron Rooks, center, and guard Jordan Mathews go up for a rebound against Utah during the first half of the Pac-12 tournament March 11, 2016, in Las Vegas. The Associated Press

For the first time, the NCAA selection committee picked seven Pacific-12 Conference basketball teams to play in the madness of March. This major show of respect by the bracket makers puts the Pac-12 up there with the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 for most teams in the tournament. Now it’s up to the seven to show the conference deserves the high regard, and is there a better way than for one of them to win the whole thing?

It’s only been 19 years, which amounts to an embarrassment for those of us who consider ourselves Pac-12 honks. We remember the good old days when UCLA owned the month of March. The Wooden years have been all but forgotten in the modern age of Twitter, much like the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower. You’re old school these days if you remember Nixon.

Look this one up on Snapchat: A Pac-12 team hasn’t made it to the Final Four since 2008. The conference hasn’t played in the championship since 2006. And it hasn’t won the whole thing since Arizona in 1997, when the Wildcats had a sophomore named Mike Bibby at the controls. You may remember him.

Fast forward to this year’s bracket. The NCAA selection experts entered Pac-12 schools as first, third and fourth seeds, and they have equitably sprinkled all seven throughout the four geographic regions, reducing the odds of Pac-12 schools eating their own before the Final Four in Houston.

Kevin O’Neill is the former coach of Arizona and USC, both in the tournament. He also was head man at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, as well as the Toronto Raptors. These days, O’Neill works as an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. From that perch, he thinks the conference has a legitimate shot to write some history.

“You never know how people are going to match up once they get out on the court, but every team from the Pac-12 this year has a chance to be a Sweet 16 team,” O’Neill said. “I assume three or four of them will make it happen.”

O’Neill said conference champ Oregon has a legitimate title shot. He likes the Ducks’ versatility, point guard Casey Benson, their size and forward Elgin Cook, “the most underrated player in the whole country.” Everybody liked the way they looked in last weekend’s Pac-12 tournament title game thumping of Utah 88-57, except for the Utes. The beat down of what had been the nation’s 12th-ranked team vaulted Oregon to the No. 1 seed in the West.

Oregon might be the Pac-12’s best hope, but Cal is the conference’s most intriguing team.

Cal has two freshmen, guard Jaylen Brown and big man Ivan Rabb, who are expected to be NBA first-round picks if they opt to enter the draft. One projection has Brown, a slasher and passer, going third. His play, and Rabb’s, will determine Cal’s destiny.

“The stage, the excitement, the adrenaline – I think they’ll have butterflies, the nervous energy, but I don’t think they’ll be afraid of the stage by any stretch,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said in a conference call Monday. “They’ve been on the big stage before. They’ve played in big games. They’ve played all over the world, for that matter (on national U-17 and U-18 teams). So they’ll be ready to go.”

During the regular season, Cal lost by three points at Oregon and stuck it to the Ducks by 20 in Berkeley. The Bears had Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, all but beaten in Charlottesville in December but lost 63-62 overtime. Just as disappointing was a four-point overtime loss to Utah in the conference tournament semifinals. Cal led for all but 62 seconds of the second half, but as the last one ticked off the clock, Utah’s Lorenzo Bonam dribbled the ball the length of the court and laid it in to tie the score. The Utes scored 15 seconds into the overtime period and led for the rest of it.

“They were upset about it,” Martin said of his players’ reaction to the loss. “But they’ve had two days off. Now it’s the NCAA Tournament. Everything is new, and they’re excited to play the game.”

The Bears, the fourth seed in the South, open against Hawaii on Friday in Spokane, Wash., with a cloud of distraction hanging on the rim. One of their assistant coaches, Yann Hufnagel, was fired Monday for violating the school’s sexual harassment policy. It sounded Monday as if Martin took the news hard.

“You’re talking about a guy who is a part of your staff and a family member,” Martin said.

“We’ll deal with this,” Martin said. And they better, if they want to advance, because they won’t get any sympathy from Hawaii or Maryland, their likely second-round foe if they make it that far.

The other Pac-12 teams in the tournament are Arizona (No. 6 in the South), Colorado (No. 8, South), Oregon State (No. 7, West), Utah (No. 3, Midwest) and USC (No. 8, East).

Can one of them please come home with the championship?

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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