Sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament already signaled a comeback for the Pac-12 Conference this season.
Winning three games Thursday was an even bigger breakthrough.
A year after having only two teams invited to the tournament, the Pac-12 delivered a validating performance. Victories for No. 6 seed Arizona and No. 12 seeds Oregon and California drove home what the coaches and other proponents of the league have been saying all season.
The Pac-12’s showing is “a statement that all of us who coach in the league were hoping that we could make,” said Arizona’s Sean Miller, whose team beat Belmont 81-64 at EnergySolutions Arena. “You get respect by what you do in this tournament. … And I believe that we have the ability as a conference to continue to win here in March.”
UCLA and Colorado will play in the tournament Friday.
Belmont was a trendy pick to post an upset, but the Wildcats asserted themselves with a 44-18 rebounding advantage.
“We had a physical advantage in the game,” Miller said. “It’s one thing to have the advantage, and it’s another to take advantage of it.”
The Wildcats helped create those rebounding opportunities by holding Belmont to 39 percent shooting. That was the theme of the Pac-12’s victories, with Oregon and Cal doing similarly solid defensive jobs against Oklahoma State and UNLV.
Belmont guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark combined to make 14 of 26 shots and score 43 points, but the rest of the Bruins went only 6 of 25 from the field for 21 points. Belmont coach Rick Byrd attributed some of his team’s struggles to Miller’s strategy of not asking center Kaleb Tarczewski to defend a good outside shooter.
In every respect, this was an impressive effort for an Arizona team that dropped a tough, 66-64 decision to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. Even though the Wildcats had lost two of their last four games, Miller liked the way they were playing, and the trend continued Thursday.