LAS VEGAS - — Just two years ago, the Pac-12 Conference had the look of a mid-major, with just two teams getting into the NCAA Tournament.
Regular season champion Washington didn't even get an invite in 2012.
What a difference a couple of years make. This year, the Pac-12 is considered one of the strongest conferences in the country, with Arizona being a legitimate contender for the national championship.
"We've got that magical combination right now of elite teams and increasing depth in the conference in basketball, which is something we aspire to," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said.
On Sunday, the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament will be announced, and there's a good chance that six Pac-12 teams will be included.
Arizona (30-4) has a shot at a No. 1 seed, while UCLA (26-8) is coming into the tournament on a roll. The Bruins were impressive during the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, capping their run with a 75-71 win against Arizona on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Aside from those two, Arizona State (21-11), Colorado (23-11), Oregon (23-9) and Stanford (21-12) are all likely to get invited. California (19-13) was on the bubble coming into the week and may have coughed up an opportunity with its quarterfinal loss to Colorado on Thursday.
"We're deserving of six, if not seven, teams in the NCAA Tournament," UCLA head coach Steve Alford said after his team's win against Arizona on Saturday, "and hopefully we'll all get some good seeds and it's match-ups (from that point)."
Alford watched the conference evolve from the outside in recent years. He came to UCLA this year after six seasons at New Mexico, which plays in the Mountain West Conference. Alford has also coached in the Missouri Valley Conference and Big Ten during his career.
"I've been on the outside looking in ... and (the Pac-12) has been trending up," Alford said. "I thought last year the Pac-12 was much, much better. Two and three years ago, not so much. So, it's been trending up. This year, unbelievable.
"Just comparing it to the leagues I've been in, this league this year was really, really good."
The six teams likely to get invited all bring impressive tournament resumes to the table.
For the most part, that group avoided bad losses, going a combined 73-2 against teams outside of the RPI Top 100 (ASU lost to Miami, Fla., and UCLA lost to Washington State).
Arizona State has an impressive win against Arizona; Stanford has two top-20 road wins (at No. 10 Connecticut and No. 17 Oregon); Colorado beat Kansas, which is a likely No. 1 or No. 2 seed; and Oregon won eight of its last nine, including an upset of Arizona.
The Pac-12 has not had a national champion since Mike Bibby and Miles Simon led Arizona to the title in 1997. That could change this year, with Arizona looking as good as anybody in the country lately.
"If Arizona makes shots and the way they guard consistently, they've got a chance to win a national championship," CU head coach Tad Boyle said. "You've got to be lucky to do that. You've got to win six games. But, they're a good team."
UCLA made a statement this weekend, too, showing that it has to be taken seriously in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins may have vaulted themselves into a No. 4 or No. 5 seed with Saturday's win.
"Beating (Arizona) gives these guys the momentum and confidence knowing we can not just play with anybody, but we can beat anybody," Alford said. "Right now, we need to stay hot."
As a whole, the Pac-12 seems to be hot going into the NCAA Tournament. Just how much noise the conference can make in March remains to be seen, but the results to this point suggest that it could be a fun few weeks for the conference.
"I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what we do this year," Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson said, referring to the conference. "We obviously have a bunch of great teams. I don't know how many will make it, but hopefully we will get a good amount.
"We've been tested every game all year throughout the Pac, so it's definitely going to help us and help them."