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Kragthorpe: Gonzaga, Oregon lift college basketball in the West

Gonzaga players and coaches celebrate in the closing minutes of a win over Xavier during the second half of an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional final game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

In postgame news conferences staged three hours and 1,800 miles apart, Gonzaga coach Mark Few and Oregon's Dana Altman thought about how far their basketball programs finally had come.

Few: "We've certainly been good enough … to get there and we just didn't get it done, and these guys did."

Altman: "We have had a lot of opportunities to try to do this and haven't been able to get it done, but these guys got it done."

What they've done is qualify for the Final Four, representing major breakthroughs for their schools and conferences. Gonzaga has reached this stage for the first time, only 22 years after debuting in the NCAA Tournament. Oregon is returning for the first time in 78 years, having won the inaugural event in 1939.

This is the first Final Four to include two teams from conferences with Utah schools as members, which creates weird connections. Utah fans will watch Oregon this weekend, knowing the Ducks have defeated their team nine straight times over five seasons by an average of 13.1 points. BYU fans will follow Gonzaga, recognizing the Cougars are the only team to have beaten the Bulldogs this season — while debating whether that's an indictment of their program as much as an achievement.

Regardless, this is good stuff for the Pac-12, the West Coast Conference and college basketball in the West. With suburban Phoenix as the Final Four host, the rise of our region coincides with the event being staged in the West for the first time since 1995. The last Western school to win the NCAA championship? Arizona in '97.

It could have been Utah in '98, but the Utes lost to Kentucky in the title game in the first of five Final Four appearances in 20 seasons for current Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels, then a Ute staff member. The McCarthey brothers of Salt Lake City, benefactors of Gonzaga and Utah, wondered if they ever would get another Final Four opportunity. It almost happened in 2015, when their teams were in the Sweet 16 in Houston, but then the Utes and Zags both lost to Duke.

The Bulldogs came through Saturday, routing Xavier in San Jose, Calif. To their credit, Tom and Phil McCarthey resisted cutting down the nets, as Oregon booster Phil Knight did in Kansas City. The brothers celebrated with the Gonzaga players and staff in the locker room, having received more return than they imagined on their multimillion-dollar investment in GU's program. They love to tell the story of "expensive ham sandwiches" when administrators asked for a major donation to fund a new arena. The modest lunch included a Final Four trip, as it turns out.

Nobody could have pictured this moment when the McCartheys were Gonzaga students in the early 1970s or even when John Stockton starred for the Bulldogs in the '80s. Gonzaga reached the Final Four via Salt Lake City, having beaten South Dakota State and Northwestern in the first two rounds. The last WCC school to get there was San Francisco 60 years ago.

Nine years is a long time for a Power 5 conference to make another appearance. Oregon is bringing the Pac-12 back to the Final Four after UCLA's three visits from 2006 to '08 (with Daniels as an assistant). The Ducks persevered after losing forward Chris Boucher to a knee injury in the conference tournament.

Utah State played in the Elite Eight in 1939 when Oregon won the first NCAA basketball title. Well, there were eight teams in the field, with regionals in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33 in the title game in Northwestern's gym.

So all of this potentially ties together in the season when Northwestern made its tournament debut. Gonzaga and Oregon could meet in next Monday's championship game. I'm picking Gonzaga now that Kentucky is out of the picture for the McCartheys.

If the Bulldogs win it all, nobody will be able to say BYU (22-12) is the worst team ever to give the NCAA champion its only loss of the season. The 1969 USC Trojans, who beat UCLA but finished 15-11, likely will own that distinction forever.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

Gonzaga players celebrate after a win over Xavier during an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional final game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, center, holds a trophy as his players surround him after a win over Xavier in an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional final game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few holds a net after cutting it down following a win over Xavier during an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional final game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Oregon forward Jordan Bell celebrates during the first half of the team's Midwest Regional final against Kansas in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Oregon players celebrate at the end of the Midwest Regional final against Kansas in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. Oregon won 74-60. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Oregon coach Dana Altman celebrates with his team after the Midwest Regional final against Kansas in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. Oregon won 74-60. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Oregon mascot makes snow angels in the confetti after Oregon's Midwest Regional final against Kansas in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. Oregon won 74-60. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey cuts down the net after a regional final against Kansas in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Oregon forward Jordan Bell holds up the net after the team's Midwest Regional final against Kansas in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. Oregon won 74-60. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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