It has been quite a while since the college basketball world has seen a West Coast team come out on top as NCAA champions. To be more exact, it has been 20 years since such a feat when Arizona led by their big three of Miles Simon, Jason Terry and Mike Bibby cut down the nets in 1997 following a 84-79 win over Kentucky. Since then, there have been only two other teams to even reach the finals: Utah did it the next year (1998) and Arizona made it back in 2001. In recent memory, there really has not been a true contender coming from the Western half of the United States. Yes, we do have history on our side with the dominance of John Wooden’s UCLA teams who racked up 10 championships from 1964-1975. Oregon generated this ‘west coast dominance’ idea from the start, winning the first championship in 1939 over Ohio State. Also, the University of San Francisco mounted back to back title runs in the mid 1950s with all-time great Bill Russell. This lack of winning since can be attributed to a multitude of different reasons. The main reason being the geographic layout of Division I schools. Extending from Hawaii out to Colorado, there are just over 60 schools out of a total 351 Division I men’s basketball programs, situated into a variety of conferences. Most of these conferences are of the ‘low major’ variety, with the only “Power Conference” being the Pacific-12 (PAC 12). However, some can argue that as of late, the West Coast Conference houses some talent with teams like Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s rising to prominence. Secondly, the style associated with West Coast play contributes to the absence of college basketball dominance. People think of this style of play as being ‘flashy’ or ‘dainty’ and players are not tough enough to compete with the so called ‘grinders of the game’ such as a blue-blood like Kansas. Whether or not this has been true in the past, the same cannot be said this year. Looking at this year’s projected bracket of teams poised to play in March, a team out West might have as good of a chance as any that we have seen in awhile. In Joe Lunardi’s most updated bracket (February 27.) there are four west coast teams that were given a top three seed: Gonzaga maintaining their number 1-seed, Oregon at a 2-seed, and both Arizona and UCLA being 3-seeds. All of which I believe have a legitimate chance at winning it all.
Gonzaga (currently projected 1-seed in West Bracket):
Despite their 79-71 loss to BYU on Saturday, Gonzaga remained a 1-seed according to Joe Lunardi, and rightfully so. One loss does not take away from their body of work this season beating projected tournament locks such as Florida, Arizona, Iowa State, and conference foe Saint Mary’s twice. They also have a convincing road win against current bubble team Tennessee. In fact this loss can be used as a time to refocus and take the pressure of a perfect season off of their minds.
The Bulldogs have been clamping down on defense holding their opponents to an NCAA best 41.5% effective field goal percentage. On the other end of the floor they are equally able with a staggering 58.1% effective field goal percentage again the best in all of college basketball, according to KenPom. Accompanying the efficiency, they have the size and length to compete with an elite team. Gonzaga’s average height ranks top 10 at 78.5” being cemented by three legit seven footers Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins, and Ryan Edwards. The roster balance that Gonzaga possesses is something of note too. They have excellent perimeter play starting with point guard Nigel Williams-Goss who is currently ranked as the fifth best statistical player by Ken Pomeroy and Josh Perkins who helps space the floor shooting 41.7% from behind the arc. To go along with Williams-Goss and Perkins is big man Przemek Karnowski who adds a dominating post presence on both ends of the floor. He has the ball in his hands more than any other player on the roster and knows what to do with it posting a 60.9% two point shooting percentage.
Gonzaga’s overall experience will definitely help with the pressures of March. Currently the Bulldogs have two seniors in Karnowski and graduate transfer Jordan Matthews both of which play meaningful minutes. Accompanying them amongst the upperclassmen ranks are three juniors in Williams-Goss, leading rebounder Jonathan Williams, and Silas Melson. All in all Gonzaga’s chances to end the championship drought out West look like a possibility. If their bite can match their bark, the Bulldogs could be hoisting the trophy when the dust settles in Arizona.
Oregon (projected 2-seed in West Bracket):
The Ducks have been in the middle of the title race for a few years now after earning a 1-seed in last year’s tournament and making it to the Elite Eight before losing to Oklahoma. They are returning a majority of that roster, only losing seniors Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin, where both contributed and Cook was a ‘key cog’ to last year’s success. Without these two, Oregon does have a smaller lineup size-wise, with 6’-7” superstar Dillon Brooks having to assume stretch four duties and 6’-9” Jordan Bell having to play center. This does, however, allow them to play a faster pace and makes them quicker overall.
At times this season they have looked sluggish, seeming disinterested by settling for threes and not locking down on the defensive end. They have suffered bad losses getting blown out by Baylor, losing to Georgetown, and getting upset by Colorado on the road (maybe the Ducks flew too high and the altitude affected them). When Oregon is on their game, they look like a legitimate championship team. Quality wins include beating Pac-12 rivals Arizona and UCLA, all of whom are battling for the conference regular season title. Their offense does seem to hinge on the ability to hit perimeter shots, but with four players shooting above 38% from behind the arc, this does not seem to be a problem. Along with that, sixth man Chris Boucher adds much needed size off the bench. He shoots an efficient 62.9% from two, but sometimes settles for the three instead of attacking the basket. Defensively, Boucher records a block on 11.5% of his opponents shots. In fact, Oregon leads all Division I teams blocking on average 7 shots a game.
Where the Ducks really find success is when the ball is in the hands of Dillon Brooks. He possesses the ball on 30.2% of the team’s possessions while taking 32.2% of the team’s shots. This high volume usage does not go unjustified, as Brooks has a True Shooting Percentage of 60.4% and generating 26.5% of the team’s assists. To solidify the perimeter play, the trio of Payton Pritchard, Dylan Ennis, and Tyler Dorsey have been able to handle opposing teams. It seems as if Oregon does not travel well, as every one of their losses came on the road. Hopefully they stay in the West bracket, as projected, and stick to each individual’s role with maximum energy to be able to make a run.
Arizona (projected 3-seed in MidWest Bracket):
The young guns (average of 1.11 years of experience) in the deserts of Tucson are making some serious noise this year. Sean Miller has been able to build a serious championship contender at the University of Arizona; this year he might have his deepest team overall with star talent. This depth can be attributed to the likes of Allonzo Trier and solid role players such as seven footer Dusan Ristic and senior leader Kadeem Allen coming off the bench. Arizona has not lost to a team currently ranked outside the top 13, with non conference losses to Butler and Gonzaga and conference losses to Oregon and UCLA. Despite an uncharacteristic road thumping by Oregon, the Wildcats’ other three losses have come by an average of just five points. In Conference play they have run through the competition of a pretty good Pac-12, being tied with Oregon for first place.
There are not too many bad things you can say about Arizona. They have a balanced offense, a respectable defense, and boy are they big ranking fifth in the NCAA with an average height of 78.8”. Except for starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, they do not have a player under 6’-3”. Easily Arizona’s most productive player comes in their legitimate seven footer Lauri Markkanen, a native of Finland. Just nineteen years of age, he has the potential to be a very special player. This season, Markkanen is shooting an unprecedented 44.4% from behind the three point line with a True Shooting Percentage well over 60%. Normally stretch big men are hesitant to bang down low with physical bigs, but with a team leading 7.4 rebounds per game Lauri Markkanen shows he is willing to mix it up in the paint. To go along with the 19 year old Finnish star, Arizona was able to sign two other five star recruits in Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, both of whom are starting. Coming back from a brief suspension, sophomore Allonzo Trier is reasserting himself, showing why he was a top 20 recruit coming out of powerhouse Findlay Prep. Trier currently leads the team in scoring with 16.2 points per game, yet seems to do it all, adding five assists and two and a half steals per game as well.
Lastly, seniority is something that translates in March. Although the rest of the team is young, Arizona’s two main ball handlers are upperclassman, Jackson-Cartwright and Allen are leading the team in assists at a combined seven and a half dimes a game. Also, when the opposing defense focuses on guys like Markkanen and Trier, these two guards are able to knock down open shots, shooting 41.3% and 38.9% respectively from three. Arizona was the last team from the West to win an NCAA championship. Can the Wildcats scratch and claw their way back to the top of the mountain? It really would be a storybook ending with the Final Four being played in their home state.
UCLA (3-seed in South Bracket):
Die hard UCLA fans have been waiting decades for a team that has a legitimate chance of winning a championship. Too often they are forced to reminisce of the “John Wooden Days” when asked about their program’s success. Well, Steve Alford might have finally put together a squad that has the ability to add to UCLA’s trophy case. They bring back four key players from last season (definitely one to forget after not making post season play) in seniors Bryce Alford, son of head coach Steve Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Junior Thomas Welsh, and sophomore Aaron Holiday. To go along with the returners, UCLA brought in a stellar recruiting class, all of whom played high school ball in Southern California. We all know of Lonzo Ball (#4 overall, #1 point guard) and his accomplishments coming from a Chino Hills team that put up video game numbers, but also the addition of former Arizona verbal commit TJ Leaf (#13 overall, #3 power forward) and Ike Anigbogu (#60 overall, #8 center) have led the Bruin resurgence.
There is no doubt that UCLA can score the ball, as six players averaging double figure scoring numbers. According to kenpom.com, they have an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 125.6 and an effective team field goal percentage of 60.7%, ranking them number one in the nation in both categories. Much of their offensive success is predicated on the three point shot, but they do have the ability to score in the interior as well with TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh. Many expected Leaf to be good, but the 6’-10” freshman forward has put up phenomenal numbers this year. He averages a team high in points per game (16.8) and rebounds per game (8.7). On top of that, he has a top ten effective field percentage shooting just edging out teammate Lonzo Ball at 66.8% (astonishing 46.2% from three). Ball, too, is stuffing the stat sheet with 15 ppg, 7.6 apg, 6.3 rpg, and 1.9 spg. Where UCLA really has to focus on is the defensive end, which they have begun to realize, holding their opponents to 70 points or below three of the past five games. In fact, the Bruins have not let an opponent score over 80 points since January 21 (loss to Arizona). Bottom line: with the explosive offense talent and the ability to move the ball that the Bruins possess they can easily scorch the opposing team. I have no doubt they will refocus defensively in March where every game is a true must win. UCLA has all the tools to be great, now it is time to see if they can ascend to the top of the college hoops pyramid once again.