West Coast hoops gets prime opportunity in Final Four

The Gonzaga Bulldogs come out of the tunnel before their national semfinal matchup with South Carolina in the Final Four. (Cronkite News photo)

GLENDALE – This weekend’s Final Four makes it clear – quality basketball is being played in the Pacific Time Zone.

After all, the event is in the west for the first time since 1995, when Seattle’s Kingdome hosted UCLA, Oklahoma State, Arkansas and North Carolina. Saturday, two programs from the west – Gonzaga and Oregon — are in the Final Four and seeking to become the first west school to win it all in 20 years. Not only that, but this is the first time two teams from the Pacific Time Zone have made the Final Four in the same year.

The two Pacific Northwest programs are looking to change a narrative that has seen programs in their time zone fall short of the Final Four. The last team time a team from the Pac-12 Conference made it, for example, the conference didn’t even have its current name.

The then-Pac-10 Conference’s last representative? UCLA in 2008. The West Coast Conference, which has had several close runs from member school Gonzaga, last had a school from its conference in the Final Four when San Francisco made it in 1957.

“I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction for the conference,” Oregon forward Jordan Bell said. “I think people have been overlooking us since we haven’t made the Final Four since 2008. So I think us making it is definitely shining some light on the conference as a whole.”

Oregon coach Dana Altman said the conference has had a few close calls during its drought. Last season, the Ducks lost to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight. Each of the two previous seasons, Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the same round. Were it not for a late 3-pointer against Michigan in the Sweet 16, Altman said, Oregon may not be here.

The conference is still chasing the ghost of its last champion – Arizona – who last won it all exactly 20 years to the day yesterday.

“It’s been 2008 since we’ve had anybody in the Final Four, but it’s been ’97 since we had anybody win it,” Altman said. “So our challenge was not only to get here, but it’s been 20 years since our league has won it. And so we’ve got a ways to go yet.”

This year’s run also halted a dry spell in Eugene. This is just Oregon’s second Final Four, and their first since winning it all in the first-ever NCAA Tournament in 1939.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who had taken the program to the Elite Eight in 2015 as head coach and was an assistant on the 1999 team that fell one win short of a Final Four, saw the potential out west brewing. In addition to Oregon and Gonzaga, programs such as Arizona and UCLA entered this season’s NCAA Tournament as prime contenders. Other programs such as USC also made the tournament and surprised, with the Trojans making it to the Sweet 16.

Few said it’s no surprise to see a western team in the Final Four, let alone two.

“I mean, I think sometimes it’s cyclical,” Few said. “And I think it’s just, for whatever reason, maybe guys, you know, not leaving and staying at UCLA and even Arizona to a certain extent. And but certainly you could see this kind of, this big, I don’t want to say — like a funnel cloud or whatever you want to call it — forming early in the year.

“You got into late December/January it was, like, wow, there’s some really, really good teams out west.”

That doesn’t mean Gonzaga isn’t glad they were one of the two. This marks the school’s first-ever Final Four, and the accomplishment of a goal that came together earlier in the fall.

Despite a pair of transfers in Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews and freshman additions such as Zach Collins, it became clear that the Bulldogs had something special brewing. Even as they won their first 29 games, the goal was Phoenix and the Final Four.

Once the streak came to an end Feb. 25 against BYU, another one began. Gonzaga hasn’t lost since, entering its first Final Four at 36-1 for the season. Now, Williams-Goss and the Bulldogs are looking to overcome what they felt was a lack of attention put not just on their program but on West Coast basketball as a whole.

“East Coast basketball just gets shown more because of the time zone difference, but it is great that West Coast basketball is doing well,” Williams-Goss said. “To have two teams in the Final Four, it’s huge for us. I definitely think it’s big, and I hope one of us can bring it home.”

Oregon and Gonzaga find themselves on opposite ends of the bracket, which could lead to an oddity on Monday night – two programs from the Pacific Northwest squaring off for the national title.

To have that, however, both the Ducks and Bulldogs need to get past their semifinal opponents in North Carolina and South Carolina – their own potential regional national title battle.

“It would be great if Oregon got there – a great story – but the only thing that tops this off is winning on Monday,” Gonzaga assistant Donny Daniels said. “It doesn’t matter who you play. The big thing is having the opportunity, and we’re here.”

If either Oregon or Gonzaga make it to the title game at Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium, it’ll have history on its side. The Final Four has been hosted in the west 12 times in the NCAA Tournament’s history. A school from the west has won half the time in those tournaments.