The West’s Destiny?
February 13, 2017 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
When you think of the regions of the country most synonymous with college sports, the Western United States shouldn't be the first one that comes to your mind. But in college basketball, because of the success of the UCLA dynasty in the 1960s and '70s, the region calls the most decorated program in the history of the sport home.
In recent years, however, the West has hardly been a factor in hoops.
The last time a team from the West made the Final Four was a full nine years ago, when a UCLA team with four current NBA players (including Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook) racked up 35 wins before falling to Memphis' best-ever team in the national semifinals in 2008.
In several of the years since, UCLA's Pac-12 probably wasn't even the best conference in the West, often being out-shined by the Mountain West and the West Coast Conference.
Remarkably, in a four-season stretch from 2010 to 2013, the Pac-12 didn't have a single top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. In a couple of those years, the league sent a mere two teams to the dance. And in 2012, Washington won the regular-season championship outright but was still left out of the tournament.
Thanks to a crop of fantastic coaching hires, extended program turnarounds, and a crop of blue-chip recruits and skilled veteran players, those subpar days look to be over for the Pac-12. And when you consider Gonzaga's top-ranked and undefeated status, the Left Coast has four legitimate Final Four threats in 2017.
Let's start with the one team in the country with still with a chance to become the first undefeated national champions in college basketball in more than 40 years in those Zags. Gonzaga is now a huge favorite to go into the NCAAs at 33-0 after taking care of St. Mary's on the road, never trailing after giving up the first basket of the game.
And yet, it seems like the college basketball world is at a point with Gonzaga that's analogous to where Villanova was this time last year. Sure, this team has the tools and talent to win a national title, but it's extremely hard to actually believe they'll do it due to the program's reputation over the past 10 years of getting to the second weekend of the tournament and losing (or before, as was the case the last time Gonzaga topped the polls in 2013).
That's probably not the fairest judgment, and only star center Przemek Karnowski was on the team headlined by Kelly Olynyk that fell four years ago as a WCC champ, undefeated in conference play and a No. 1 seed. But the underlying concern we have about their ability to compete in the latter rounds still remains, since they'll have only played two or three games since the beginning of December against tournament-quality competition.
The biggest thing working in Gonzaga's favor this time around is that its defense looks to be elite, where past squads under Mark Few have struggled on that end of the floor against good competition.
One of those good teams Gonzaga has beaten is Arizona, which somehow navigated its way through the Allonzo Trier suspension in the first half of the season with just two losses, and now finds itself in first place in the Pac-12 despite a 27-point loss at Oregon on Feb. 4.
The Wildcats are a team with three key freshman contributors and two super-talented offensive European players, but still fit a general Sean Miller mold of playing strong defense; efficient, measured basketball on offense; and getting to the line about as well as any team in the country. Right now, and despite the Oregon loss (the teams' only scheduled meeting this season), Arizona looks like the most consistent and well-balanced team in the conference.
If you watched that Oregon/Arizona game a little more than a week ago, you know how capable the Ducks are to put on an absolute show. If they're shooting well, and they usually do, there's not a team in the country they can't beat. Since Dillon Brooks got back to full strength after offseason foot surgery, the Ducks have lost just twice. They have a reputation for playing position-fluid, free-flowing basketball, but their ability to control tempo and defend has been underrated.
The Ducks are weaker on the glass than you'd like from a top team, and their inability to get crucial rebounds was a huge factor in their loss at UCLA last Thursday, when they blew a 15-point lead with 14 minutes left.
Of the group of teams outlined in this article, UCLA is probably the least likely of the four to get to the Final Four in Arizona, but they might just be the most entertaining to watch, and they're a huge wildcard come tournament time.
If you're watching a UCLA game, you need to expect points. The Bruins have the best offense in the country, and play at one of the fastest paces in America. Furthermore, they seem allergic to defense in many instances.
If you're a college basketball purist who loves defense, watching UCLA may sound anathema to your interests, but the Bruins are also an amazing team if you love ball movement on offense. Furthermore, Lonzo Ball, who could be the top pick in the NBA draft, might be a once-a-decade offensive talent at the point guard position.
It's just so incredibly hard to predict UCLA's fate for the season, since it will probably all come down to matchups for them in the NCAAs. I can't say I'd be entirely shocked if UCLA got bounced in the first round to a No. 13 or 14 seed that controlled tempo, played disciplined basketball and was able to take advantage of the fact that the Bruins play only seven guys. On the other hand, Ball, T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday, and Bryce Alford might just out-offense everyone and run-and-gun their way to a Final Four or better.
One interesting thing about the three Pac-12 contenders is that the advanced metrics don't like them too much relative to other top teams across the nation. However, I think a healthy amount of that disparity can be explained by the fact that the Pac-12 is fairly weak after the top three highly-ranked teams, and that conferences like the Big 12 and ACC this year are so incredibly team that essentially every game is between two top-80 teams, creating a huge strength-of-schedule-boosting vortex.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga is No. 1 in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings partly on the back of huge, efficiency-boosting performances against the Santa Claras and San Diegos of the world.
Even though college basketball's heartland is in places like Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, and big northeastern cities, it seems impossible that the Western U.S. could go a whole decade without producing a Final Four team. In Gonzaga, Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA, there are four solid chances to end the drought this March.