The NCAA selection committee always tries to downplay talk of conferences, and focus instead on individual teams. But for everyone else, seeing how the various conferences fare is a big part of the fun. Or disappointment, depending on how it goes.
Every year, you'll hear coaches say the same things about how tough their conferences are, regardless of whether that's quantifiably true. It's what they are supposed to say.
But in this NCAA tournament, the fates of two conferences in particular might be very much in the spotlight. The Pac-12 feels perpetually undervalued by media and fans in the rest of the country, and every season tries to rectify that. There's no arguing that this season, the top Pac-12 teams scheduled tough outside of the conference and then had a compelling regular season and tournament that showcased how competitive it was.
In contrast, the SEC generally is considered to be the league that gets the benefit of the doubt, season after season, which annoys the daylights out of some other conferences and their fans.
This season, the Pac-12 has five teams in the field, and four of them are among the top 16: No. 2 seeds Oregon State and Arizona State, No. 3 UCLA, and No. 4 Stanford. The other is No. 7 seed Washington.
The SEC leads all conferences with nine teams, but just three of them are in the top 16: No. 1 South Carolina, No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4 Texas A&M. Mississippi State will get to be a host site for the early rounds, despite being a No. 5, though, because Michigan State, the No. 4 seed in the Bridgeport regional, has a facility conflict.
The rest of the SEC's teams are No. 5 seed Florida, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 8 Georgia, No. 9 Auburn and No. 10 Missouri. And you could say that in the case of the last three, they all got into the field in part because the others did. In other words, that it was difficult to tell them apart in regard to overall body of work.
So between the Pac-12 and the SEC, which league has the most to prove? Does the Pac-12 have to live up to those lofty seeds to convince everyone that the league really was as good as it says it was this season? Does the SEC take a hit if several of its teams fall in the early rounds, even if South Carolina lives up to its No. 1 seed and makes it to Indianapolis?
The realistic answer is that both have a lot to prove. Consider this: Both have had a standard-bearer for a long, long time: Tennessee for the SEC, and Stanford for the Pac-12. Not counting Texas A&M's title in 2011 -- won when the Aggies were still in the Big 12 -- the SEC's only national champion in women's basketball is the Lady Vols, who won the title eight times.
And Stanford is the Pac-12's most recent NCAA champion -- way back in 1992. The Cardinal have gone to the Women's Final Four, though, 11 times total.
This season, Tennessee tied for seventh in the SEC with an 8-8 record. Stanford tied for third in the Pac-12 at 14-4. South Carolina has become the "giant" for now in the SEC, losing just one conference game in the past two seasons. And Oregon State and Arizona State, which tied atop the Pac-12 for this regular season, eclipsed the Cardinal -- at least for now.
The only other Pac-12 team that has reached the Final Four since Stanford's '92 title is California, in 2013. For either or both Oregon State and Arizona State, a trip to the Final Four this season would be a landmark.
During the regular season, the SEC typically was at center stage on Thursday nights, which produced some really compelling matchups and upsets. Same for Fridays, in particular, in the Pac-12. They provided a lot of entertainment, really, during league play. But now, it's all about what happens in March (and maybe April).
Another standard refrain from coaches is how much the teams in their league prepare them for the NCAA tournament. We'll have to see how that plays out, too, with the Pac-12 and SEC. The latter is generally considered a physical, defensive conference that can be -- to put it generously -- offensively challenged. Again, generally speaking, the Pac-12 tends to be viewed the other way: a more offensive-minded league.
In the first round, we don't have any Pac-12 vs. SEC matchups. But there could be a big one in the second round, if Arizona State and Tennessee meet.
Obviously, that won't be the final word on how these two leagues will be evaluated for 2015-16. But it could be a bragging-rights kind of game for whomever wins, if they face off.