Somewhere in San Diego, maybe listening to Grateful Dead tunes in his backyard teepee, Bill Walton must be smiling.
For once, his beloved Pac-12 is living up to its Conference of Champions moniker.
All five Pac-12 teams that received NCAA men's basketball tournament bids advanced to the round of 32, the first time since 2009 that the conference still has that many teams alive after the first round. Four of the Pac-12’s victories have come by double figures. Three were as point-spread underdogs. Three came at the expense of power-conference teams from the Big Ten, SEC and Big East
Spearheading the Pac-12’s resurgence is UCLA, so far the only team in this year’s NCAA tournament to win two games. Johnny Juzang’s torrid shooting propelled the 11th-seeded Bruins to a come-from-behind First Four overtime victory over Michigan State on Thursday night and to a convincing 73-62 upset of BYU two nights later.
On Friday, 12th-seeded Oregon State toppled Tennessee to secure its first NCAA tournament victory in nearly four decades. On Saturday, fifth-seeded Colorado clobbered Georgetown, sixth-seeded USC overwhelmed Drake and seventh-seeded Oregon advanced via no contest after COVID issues forced VCU out of the tournament.
Only the Big 12 and Big Ten join the Pac-12 sending five or more teams to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Only the Pac-12 has yet to suffer a loss.
"You're finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke, and some people ought to be ashamed of themselves," UCLA coach Mick Cronin said.
"I know good teams. Oregon State, Oregon, Colorado, USC, those teams winning is not a surprise at all to me. It's not a surprise. I know we didn't have great early-season stuff, but COVID and scheduling was way against us. On the West Coast, man, our teams didn't have the whole summer. The rest of the country had workouts all summer. We didn't."
That performance is a reputation-altering display of strength from a conference that desperately needed one. With the future of the Pac-12 Network in doubt and the conference failing to consistently produce playoff teams in football or Final Four contenders in men's basketball, the league has fallen behind its power-conference peers financially and on the field of play.
In basketball, the gap has sometimes resembled a chasm.
In 2012, the Pac-12’s regular-season champion didn’t receive an NCAA bid. In 2018, the conference’s three NCAA tournament teams failed to win a game. Even in years when the Pac-12 has produced nationally relevant teams, it has often been a step behind.
Oregon is the only Pac-12 team to reach the Final Four since UCLA’s run of three straight appearances from 2006-2008. Over that time, the Bruins have been erratic, Arizona has risen and fallen, and Stanford and Washington have endured steep declines. In the meantime, Gonzaga has surpassed the Pac-12’s top basketball schools as the West’s best program.
Strong recruiting classes up and down the conference offered hope that this would be a boom year for Pac-12 basketball, but the results didn’t materialize in non-league play. Worse yet, Arizona took itself out of the running for the NCAA tournament with a self-imposed postseason ban.
No Pac-12 team received better than a No. 5 seed in this year’s tournament. The conference wouldn’t have even gotten a fifth team in the field had Oregon State not upset UCLA, Oregon and Colorado to win the Pac-12 tournament.
Now the Pac-12 is 5-0 and has a chance to add to its win total — and to the financial score that comes with each victory. UCLA draws 14th-seeded Abilene Christian in the round of 32. Colorado, USC, Oregon and Oregon State will all be second-round underdogs, but the Trojans have enough talent to challenge Kansas and the Ducks are a particularly tough matchup for Iowa.
Whatever happens, the past three days have given Walton more ammunition for future broadcasts.
Seven days ago, we all laughed when he ludicrously suggested that Oregon State belonged in the NCAA tournament no matter how it fared in the Pac-12 title game. A week later, who knows? Maybe he was right.
More from Yahoo Sports: