March Madness: Will a West Coast Team be in The Final Four?
Each year after the NCAA Tournament brackets are released, fans of schools on the west coast routinely blame the seeding and poor selections on the committee’s east coast bias. Schools from out west have provided us with great teams and even better players throughout the regular season in recent years such as Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State), Jimmer Fredette (BYU), and Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga). However, despite having great regular seasons and star players, these teams always fell during the tourney to opponents with a lower seed. The last team from out west to make it to the Final Four featured Darren Collison, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook; Russell Westbrook was considered the third best player on that team, and their opponent in that Final Four featured a player who was considered the best amateur player in the world: Derrick Rose.
If this seems like a long time ago, that’s because it really was – George W. Bush was still in the White House. No team on the left coast has advanced past the Elite 8 since Ben Howland’s 2008 UCLA team faced John Calipari’s Memphis squad in the national semifinal. This season, four teams out west have a legitimate shot at winning the national championship: Oregon, Arizona, Gonzaga and UCLA. Each team has ranked among the 10 best teams in the nation for most of the season and earned at least a 3 seed in the tournament for their respective regions. Here’s a prediction of each team’s fate in the big dance.
Gonzaga (32-1) #1 Seed in West Region
Since becoming the top mid-major program in the nation, each season the same question surrounds Mark Few’s basketball program: Is this the year they finally get over the hump? After nearly completing a perfect regular season and earning a #1 seed, this year’s squad appears to be the best to ever come through Spokane. The Bulldogs are led by West Coast Conference Player of the Year Nigel Williams-Goss and the 7-foot duo of Przemak Karnowski and Zach Collins. Gonzaga also has transfers from major programs that give this team the look of a squad from a Power 5 conference. Williams-Goss transferred from Washington; Jordan Matthews came from California; and fellow double-digit scorer, Jonathan Williams, came to Gonzaga via Missouri. Unlike Gonzaga teams in the past, this year’s team has a strong defense to go along with a potent inside-outside attack. With a rematch against red-hot Arizona looming in the Elite 8, Gonzaga will need to rid itself of its ghost from the past in order to reach its first Final Four.
Tourney Prediction: Loses in Sweet Sixteen to Notre Dame
Oregon (29-5) #3 Seed in Midwest Region
Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks entered the season as the favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champions. Behind star Dillon Brooks, veteran players like Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis and an elite defense, the Ducks ran through their Pac-12 schedule winning 16 of their 18 conference games. After earning a #1 seed and reaching the Elite 8 last season, Oregon’s hopes for an encore took a big hit when rim-protector Chris Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tournament. With half of their shot-blocking duo gone, the margin of error for Oregon is thin in a tough Midwest region that has #1 seed Kansas, #2 seed Louisville and a much-improved Michigan team as potential opponents. Dillon Brooks is arguably the most clutch player in college basketball and his heroics will be needed if the Ducks have any chance at reaching their first Final Four since 1939.
Tourney Prediction: Loses to Louisville in Sweet 16
UCLA (29-4) #3 Seed in South Region
In preseason polls, UCLA ranked 16th and 20th on the heels of a disappointing 2016 season. Led by LaVar Ball’s finest, Lonzo Ball and fellow freshman T.J. Leaf, UCLA quickly rose to a #1 ranking after an impressive win against Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Ball’s excellent point guard play, reminiscent of fellow Pac-12 alum Jason Kidd, turned the Bruins into college basketball’s most exciting team. Coach Steve Alford’s team led the nation in scoring and finished 8th in 3-point percentage led by sharpshooter Bryce Alford. Even as a 3 seed, the Bruins are still picked by many to win the national title. However, their effort on the defensive end will need to improve in order to survive a South region that has offensive juggernauts like Kentucky and North Carolina. In their four losses, the Bruins have allowed over 80 points per game. Kentucky and UNC averages 86.1 and 84.9 points per game respectively, and if the Bruins can’t slow both teams down, their Achilles heel may have them going back to Westwood earlier than expected.
Tourney Prediction: Loses to North Carolina in Elite 8
Arizona (30-4) #2 Seed in West Region
Since arriving in Tucson, Sean Miller’s Arizona program has been the class of the Pac-12, winning 4 regular season titles and appearing in Elite 8 three times. Like the aforementioned Gonzaga Bulldogs, the Final Four has eluded Sean Miller as well. Most recently his 2014 and 2015 teams both fell to Wisconsin in the Elite 8. This season, after sweeping both the Pac-12’s regular season and tournament championships, Miller’s Wildcats are as good a bet as any to make a title run. Arizona has veteran leadership in Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright as well as reliable freshmen in Kobi Simmons and Rawle Atkins. Of course, we can’t forget their dynamic duo: Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen. The Wildcats should also have home court advantage throughout the tourney with games in Salt Lake City, Utah; San Jose, CA; and the ultimate home-court advantage of playing in Phoenix during the Final Four. No team in the West region has as much depth as the Wildcats. Safe to say that after losing 69-62 to #1 seed Gonzaga earlier in the season without Trier and Jackson-Cartwright, the Wildcats should feel confident about their chances if they meet in the Elite 8.
Tourney Prediction: Defeats Notre Dame in Elite 8 to advance to Final Four