UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, celebrates with teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) and others after an Elite 8 win over Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 31. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Bill Walton asked if it was OK to remove his mask, explaining that he was fully vaccinated. Unhooking the black cloth embellished with a colorful wavy pattern from his ear, he leaned his 6-foot-11 frame back in his seat, folded his arms across his chest and broke into a wide smile that could now be revealed.
It’s never been more fun to be the Pac-12’s greatest basketball ambassador.
The conference is coming off its best across-the-board showing in NCAA tournament history, piling up 13 victories. Four teams advanced to the Sweet 16, three teams made the Elite Eight and UCLA came within a banked 40-footer of playing for the national championship.
The conference that Walton likes to say includes no truck stops as a playful dig at its more remote counterparts could be on the verge of becoming the college basketball epicenter.
“I am a very proud member of the Conference of Champions,” Walton, the Bruins legend and longtime ESPN and Pac-12 Network analyst, told The Times on Wednesday at the conference’s media day.
More springtime delight may be on the way. UCLA, the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 after receiving 32 of 34 first-place votes in the preseason media poll, is also a fashionable pick to win the conference’s first national championship since Arizona toppled Kentucky in 1997.
Oregon, which snagged the other first-place votes while being picked to finish second in the conference, is another contender to make a deep NCAA tournament run. The same goes for USC, which was projected to finish third in the Pac-12 one season after advancing to its first Elite Eight in 20 years.
“Man, we’ve got the chance to do something so special,” UCLA junior guard Johnny Juzang said in explaining why he returned for another college season when he might have gone in the first round of the NBA draft.
The Bruins return all five starters and every player who participated in their heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga in a national semifinal. USC might just be able to withstand the loss of star 7-footer Evan Mobley, bringing back older brother Isaiah Mobley while importing transfer guard Boogie Ellis, an explosive scorer from Memphis.
Trojans coach Andy Enfield said there was more buzz around his program than at any point since his arrival eight years ago. There’s also plenty of hubbub across town, where the Bruins now find themselves mobbed in the wake of their unexpected run from the First Four to the Final four.
“Going out, whether it’s going to eat or going to the grocery store or going even to the movies now, you can’t go out without someone asking for a picture nowadays,” junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said with a laugh.
The Pac-12’s NCAA tournament success generated more than additional photo ops; the conference’s improved image has also filtered into recruiting.
“There’s a lot of national and regional interest in our program from players that are interested in USC that maybe we would not have been able to recruit beforehand,” Enfield said, “so I think from a perception standpoint, it elevated our league as well as our program.”
While Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff reiterated that conference presidents and chancellors did not think expansion was necessary to win national championships, he said the Pac-12’s new alliance with the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences could provide valuable scheduling opportunities in future seasons.
For now, the conference hopes the Pac-12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge that debuts with Stanford playing Texas on Dec. 19 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas can eventually showcase its teams against major conference counterparts in other markets such as Dallas, New York and Chicago.
Jamie Zaninovich, the Pac-12 deputy commissioner who oversees basketball for the conference, said the league has placed a premium on its teams playing schedules in which they can win 75% of their nonconference games because it’s found that is usually a key metric for any conference placing at least half of its teams in the NCAA tournament.
“You want to play as many games that win or lose, they’re a quality team that doesn’t hurt you if you win,” Zaninovich said, “and it’s going to help you when they’re talking about that seed line.”
UCLA’s schedule might be the perfect model for its conference brethren — the Bruins slated to play Villanova, Gonzaga and North Carolina in the season’s opening weeks.
“I mean, you go to UCLA, those are the games you want to play,” Jaquez said while standing on the rooftop of Pac-12 headquarters in the SoMa District, just down the street from the Chase Center.
If the Bruins fulfill their preseason projections, they would likely make a stop at the Golden State Warriors’ home for the NCAA tournament’s West regional after playing their opening two games at San Diego’s Viejas Arena.
Of course, projections often miss the mark. UCLA was picked to win the Pac-12 last season before finishing fourth and then was widely expected to lose in the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend before commencing its longest stay since 2008.
Walton, who also serves in an unofficial capacity as the Pac-12’s chief philosopher, said his beloved Bruins might have to travel a road fraught with unexpected potholes to reach their desired destination.
“When life looks like easy street, there’s danger at your door,” Walton said. “The ability to be humble but stay hungry and realize that we learn from yesterday, we dream about tomorrow but make today your masterpiece, be great every day and everything and every one counts.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.