Long ago the NCAA abandoned regional accuracy for its Division I men’s basketball tournament.
Often times the “West” champion was Duke or North Carolina or Syracuse or something like that.
However, in 2017 when the Final Four finally returns to the west after a 22-year absence, the West Region could actually feature a de facto western United States championship game. Plus the last time the Final Four was west of San Antonio, 1995 when it was in Seattle, a western team, UCLA, won it.
If the seeding’s hold, and that’s a big if, press time was before any of the West’s first round games ended, No. 1 seed Gonzaga would face second seeded Arizona in the Elite Eight in a match up the west’s most consistent powers this century.
However, Arizona hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2001 and Gonzaga has never been so the Wildcats and Bulldogs battle would mean Zags head coach Mark Few’s first Final Four or UA head coach Sean Miller’s first.
While they don’t share a conference, Arizona and Gonzaga has become arguably the west’s best rivalry. They’ve met eight times since 2000 in Tucson, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Most of those have been close ones, like the 2003 double over time second round battle in Utah, the five point UA win in Phoenix in 2008 or the over time Arizona triumph in 2014 when No. 3 UA survived at home against the No. 9 Zags when the visitors missed three free throws with 3.3 seconds left.
Sure, UA has won six of those games but Gonzaga beat the Wildcats 69-62 in the Staples Center in December, helping the Bulldogs get the No. 1 seed. Then again, UA was missing Alonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
Then again, Miller is only 3-3 against the Zags…it goes on and on.
Plus while the Final Four is in the Great State of Arizona for the first time, the West’s Elite Eight will be in San Jose, about halfway between Spokane and Tucson.
“Our fans have done a great job all year of showing support no matter where we play,” said Jackson-Cartwright at the UA’s Wednesday press conference. “So us being in the west we know they’re going to come out and show a lot of support.”
With both the Zags and Wildcats in the running for the No. 1 seed in the west, the rivalry has intensified with their fans going at it online. After all that, they could potentially settle the debate on the court
“You’re going to hear the noise,” said Gonzaga senior Jordan Mathews on Wednesday at their press conference. “When we were undefeated, everybody always had something to say. That’s just the nature of sports. Someone is always going to have something negative to say about you. If we saved the world, someone would complain we didn’t do it fast enough.”
Of course this is March, so the likelihood of both those teams making it to the last eight is low, but fortunately the West Region is filled with intrigue.
If the seeds hold, Gonzaga would face No. 8 seed Northwestern in the second round. The Wildcats’ first NCAA tournament appearance is a great story and not just because so many Northwestern alumni are in the sports media.
A potential Sweet 16 match up for Gonzaga would be fifth seeded Notre Dame, who many had as high as a three and could have been a two. They had the third best ACC record and everyone agrees that’s the best conference.
The four seed West Virginia is seventh in ESPN’s basketball power index.
On the other side of the bracket, if No. 11 Xavier wins a couple and UA wins, Miller would face his ex, again. No. 6 seed Maryland has an explosive Melo Trimble, who could lead the Terps on a run like Carmelo Anthony did in 2003.
Then there’s No. 3 Florida State and No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast, a couple teams that many are picking to go on tourney runs.
Finally, if they get past VCU, No. 7 St. Mary’s would face Arizona in the second round if the Wildcats beat North Dakota. How awkward would it be if the Gaels upset UA after their fans trashed Gonzaga’s conference for months.
Ah, the madness of March.
To quote Tupac Shakur, “you and I know the west side is the best side.”