The history of men’s college basketball is filled with grainy footage of Western dominance. From the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, won by the Tall Firs of Oregon, to Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons teams of the mid-1950s, and to John Wooden leading UCLA to 10 titles in 12 years in the ’60s and ’70s, the West ruled the top of the college hoops landscape.
There is a reason the footage is grainy. It is old.
Since 1979, when the NCAA began seeding the entire tournament field, Western teams have been almost an afterthought, with very few teams becoming nationally relevant come tournament time.
Here is the modern history:
• Since 1979, only five schools from the West (UCLA, Arizona, UNLV, Stanford and Utah) have reached the Final Four, and they have done so a combined 14 times.
• Western schools have just three national titles in the past 40 years, and none since Arizona won 20 years ago.
• No Western school has made a Final Four since UCLA ended a run of three straight in 2008.
• And this year, the Final Four will be held in Phoenix, the first time the event has been staged west of the Rocky Mountains since Seattle in 1995, when UCLA beat Arkansas for the most recent of its 11 national championships.
This year, a quartet of high-powered teams hope to right that ship back to the left coast. Gonzaga, somehow both a perennial underdog and a perennial powerhouse, is the top seed in the West with Arizona the No. 2 seed. The Zags are dancing for the 19th straight season, beginning that stretch with a famous run to the Elite Eight in 1999 but only reaching that far again in 2015 as a No. 2 seed.
Oregon, still looking for its first Final Four appearance since that first Final Four, is the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region and will have to make a run without shot-blocker extraordinaire Chris Boucher, who tore an ACL in the Pac-12 Tournament and is out for the season.
Arizona, the Pac-12 Tournament champion and regular-season co-champion with the Ducks, was held together by duct tape due to injuries and suspensions in the first half of the season. And the Wildcats are relishing the opportunity to play for a title in their home state. A potential Elite Eight matchup with the Zags in San Jose, California, is looking like a pretty tasty rematch of Gonzaga’s 69-62 win in December.
UCLA, at No. 3 in the South Region, has possibly the nation’s best offense and possibly the nation’s best freshman in Lonzo Ball. With fellow blue bloods North Carolina and Kentucky as the top two seeds, there will certainly be some entertaining, high-scoring affairs in the regional semis and finals in Memphis, Tennessee.
And don’t sleep on the other Western teams: Saint Mary’s, the West Coast Conference runner-up, has been ranked all season and is 28-1 against teams not named Gonzaga, though their best win was at Dayton way back in November. The seventh-seeded Gaels open with VCU, though the winner likely runs into Arizona in the second round.
And Southern Cal, which opens with a First Four game against Providence, went unbeaten in nonconference play and has a coach who knows how to pull an upset or two: Andy Enfield led the 15th-seeded “Dunk City” crew from Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013.
The road to Phoenix is short. The teams out here are good. Now all that is left to be determined is if this is the year the West can win it all.
Like a Dillon Brooks 3-pointer in the final seconds, count on it.