SAN FRANCISCO – Gonzaga coach Mark Few isn’t sure there’s a valid reason – other than it’s incredibly hard to do – why the West hasn’t produced an NCAA men’s basketball tournament champion since Arizona in 1997.
Few is certain that several Western teams, including his Zags in 2017 and 2021, were capable of ending a title drought that has reached 25 years. Gonzaga was one victory away last season from becoming the first unbeaten national champion since Indiana in 1976, but Baylor took home the hardware with an 86-70 victory in Indianapolis.
Few is quite certain the West Coast Conference is as good as it’s been in his 32-year association with the conference.
The West, in general, is on an upswing with Gonzaga, Arizona and UCLA in the Sweet 16 and the Zags and Wildcats earning No. 1 seeds. Gonzaga and UCLA staged an epic overtime battle at last year’s Final Four and USC and Oregon State made the Elite Eight.
“It’s been good,” Few said of basketball in the West. “Lute (Olson, Arizona coach) had good teams, UCLA and UNLV had good teams. We kind of grew up watching those. It’s very good, it’s in a good place right now.”
The West nearly ended the title dry spell at 20 years when Gonzaga defeated South Carolina in one national semifinal, but Oregon fell to North Carolina 77-76, preventing an all-West final. Gonzaga led with less than 2 minutes remaining but the Tar Heels won the championship by scoring the last eight points.
Few figures the questions will resurface with the Zags, the tournament’s top overall seed, set to face fourth-seeded Arkansas in the Sweet 16 Thursday at Chase Center.
Gonzaga Bulldogs center Chet Holmgren (34) smiles with teamates forward Drew Timme (2) forward Anton Watson (22) and forward Ben Gregg (33) during a practice before the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Wednesday Mar 23, 2022, at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
“They seem to kind of stuff a lot of us in against each other (in the same bracket),” Few said. “And so obviously, with the population centers being on the East Coast they get more teams, but for whatever reason they just kind of seem to stuff us in. Who knows if us and UCLA were in different brackets even at that Final Four last year?
“I’ve heard it talked about back in 2017 and obviously it’s continued on.”
Cutting down the nets requires six victories in a pressure-packed, win-or-go-home tournament. Consider that Baylor’s title last year was the Big 12’s first since Kansas in 2008. The 2000 Michigan State Spartans were the last Big Ten champion.
“Winning a national title is extremely hard,” said Dan Monson, who guided Gonzaga to the 1999 Elite Eight before moving on to Minnesota and his current post at Long Beach State. “I remember being in the Big Ten and people saying how many years it had been since a Big Ten school had won. That’s why it’s so sweet and coveted because it’s really hard to do.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with West Coast basketball. There’s only one champion every year and it’s difficult to do.”
Utah, then a member of the Western Athletic Conference, and Stanford advanced to the 1998 Final Four, with the Utes falling to Kentucky in the championship.
Arizona’s last trip to the Final Four ended in a title-game loss to Duke in 2001.
UCLA made three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08, but came up short against Florida in 2006, the first of the Gators’ two consecutive titles. The Bruins won the 1995 title over Arkansas.
“There’s not as many schools out West for starters,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said. “The West has three teams that are capable with Gonzaga and Arizona, and don’t sleep on UCLA because they got to the Final Four last year.
“In my bracket it’s Arizona, UCLA. I have the Pac-12 going 14-2, so I’m pretty optimistic. But there’s no real theory (to the drought). It’s just hard to do. I mean Kentucky only has one title (since 1998) and the number of pros they’ve had the last 10-15 years is truly amazing. North Carolina has snuck out three (since 2005).”
Smith has been at WSU for three seasons after three years at San Francisco in the WCC. He spent six years in the Ivy League as Columbia’s head coach before taking at USF.
“I think (the Pac-12) is a little under-represented, but the numbers didn’t shake out,” he said. “I think we’re doing pretty well in the postseason and we’ll bounce back next season for sure, but again we might have two of the top eight teams.
“The West Coast Conference actually had a really good year and the Mountain West had four (in March Madness). There’s some good coaches and programs. I’ve always been biased because I coach out here, but I do understand the East Coast bias thing because I was at Columbia for six years. I forgot about these leagues, I couldn’t stay up to watch them. Don’t blame the East Coast, they just can’t stay up that late.”
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