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Grip on Sports: Outside of Gonzaga, the West is the opposite of best in college basketball these days

Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins crashes into the Zag bench chasing a ball against Ohio State, Saturday, March, 17, 2018, at Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Id. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins crashes into the Zag bench chasing a ball against Ohio State, Saturday, March, 17, 2018, at Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Id. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • There once was a time when the western states dominated college basketball. Transformed it from a sleepy game to the product we see on our TVs these days. But those days are gone now, as this year’s NCAA Tournament shows. Read on.

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• Major league baseball grew into America’s pastime thanks in large part to the New York Yankees. They won so much everyone else in the country followed the games in the mostly vain hope they would lose.

The Boston Celtics did the same for the NBA, though the league reached new heights when Magic Johnson joined the Lakers and gave each coast someone to root for – and against.

The NFL was fueled by the success of the Green Bay Packers – Ice Bowl anyone? – and the Dallas Cowboys. The modern-day successor, the New England Patriots, helps the Super Bowl be must-see TV almost every year.

College basketball had its dominant program, UCLA, which won every title for a decade-and-a-half. OK, almost every one, but that’s what kickstarted the nation’s love for March Madness. The Bruins under John Wooden made college hoops a western-dominated sport and the region stayed a huge part of the college landscape over the years. But that seems to have changed.

Funny thing. UCLA became, well, UCLA, when Lew Alcindor left New York and headed to Westwood. His towering presence shifted the balance of power and led to three consecutive national titles.

The West’s warm-weather campuses attracted talent from all over the country in the decades that followed, teaming with California’s high school stars to ensure if not dominance (no one dominates anymore), then at least top-of-the-pyramid competiveness.

That’s changing though. The West’s best players have no problem anymore heading East for a year before they move on to the NBA. The latest – and best – example is Marvin Bagley III, who is the mountain in the middle for Sweet Sixteen-bound Duke.

Which leaves Western basketball in a state of disrepair. Not decline, mind you, because the area has probably bottomed-out. Or least would have if Nevada hadn’t been able to make a comeback for the ages yesterday. The Wolf Pack somehow rallied from a Grand Canyon-sized second-half deficit to knock off Cincinnati and move into the next weekend.

That win doubled the West’s Sweet Sixteen representation. Already there, as it seemingly every year, was Gonzaga, that little school from that weird town in Washington. You know, where it rains all the time.

(And led to a joke about the Mountain West being the only conference on this side of the country with anyone in the last 16.)

The Pac-12’s awful, terrible, gosh-forsaken basketball year is the catalyst, sure, for such a poor showing, but that’s not all. Not only were Nevada and Gonzaga the only two western schools to win twice, they were the only two to win once. After the round of 64, every other team west of the Rockies was back on campus. The Big West champion? Out. The WAC? Out. The Big Sky? Out. The Mountain West tournament champion? Out. The Pac-12? Out, out and out.

What in the name of John Wooden is going on here?

• Want to know some of the reason for the region's decline? This Oregonian story from Sunday explains part of it. College coaches aren’t just recruiting players anymore. Oh no. There is so much more involved.

And don’t think the coaches themselves aren’t part of it. They steer their recruits to certain travel programs for their own reasons. The headline on the Oregonian story is ironic in this day and age.

•••

Gonzaga: How have the Zags continued to win? By making the key plays. Jim Meehan delves into that today as well as looking at who GU will face in Thursday night’s game in Los Angeles, Florida State. … John Blanchette covers a Twitter war with Gonzaga implications and Theo Lawson covers a Twitter blizzard of support for this year’s Zags from their predecessors. … The loss to Stanford was Emma Stach’s last game with the women and Jim Allen relays how she felt about it.

WSU: It hasn’t been a good start to Pac-12 baseball play for the Cougars. … Elsewhere in the conference, the NIT rolls on tonight, with Washington trying to do something only Gonzaga has done this season, win at Saint Mary’s. … Heck, Oregon couldn’t even get past the NIT’s second round. … Utah hopes the NIT experience helps. … Stanford would like to win a crucial road game. … California and Colorado are concentrating on football. … The bad basketball has cost the conference money. That’s important – and why some are calling for Larry Scott’s head. … The conference is doing fine in women’s basketball, with Oregon and former Gonzaga head coach Kelly Graves headed to Spokane for this weekend’s regional.

NIC: The Cardinals won the NWAC basketball title yesterday.

Chiefs: Oops. I said the regular season was over after Saturday’s game. My bad. Spokane played Sunday and won in a shootout over Portland, who it will face in the WHL playoffs.

Mariners: The M’s lost yesterday. And made some roster cuts.

Seahawks: Is it time to get rid of Earl Thomas, no matter the price? … The Rams are doing everything Seattle fans want the Hawks doing.

Sounders: The Sounders were short-handed going into the Dallas match anyway. Then Clint Dempsey was given a red card and sent off. They lost, 3-0.

•••       

• The week will be filled with stories of Sweet Sixteen dreams. The ones in the West will be fulfilled in Los Angeles, where dreams often go to die. Until later …


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