Twenty-four years ago this month, the University of Arizona interrupted the University of Kentucky’s march to a second consecutive national championship.
Miles Simon scored 30 points, Mike Bibby added 19, and one set of Wildcats outlasted another, 84-79, in overtime at the since-demolished RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The lasting, endearing image of that night was late, legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson, walking up the sideline to shake Rick Pitino’s hand, having his always-coiffed, perfectly white hair mussed by sophomore center A.J. Bramlett.
That night, March 30, 1997, that Arizona team, with five guys who eventually cracked NBA rosters, those CBS-captured images of Bramlett and a wide-smiling Olson endured. The reasons why are numerous, but here’s one that seemingly goes under the radar on an annual basis.
In the 24 years since Arizona won its first and only national title, no Mountain or Pacific-based program has been able to break through and win the whole thing. The closest geographical program to do so was Kansas in 2008, the Jayhawks engaging in an overtime epic that April vs. John Calipari-coached Memphis.
It is not as if college basketball on this side of the country is a talentless, barren wasteland, but to pinpoint why a team on this side of the country can’t break through isn’t so simple. Beyond no one winning the whole thing, there have been only four Mountain or Pacific national finalists since Arizona’s 1997 title, one of which was the University of Utah in 1998.
“I would tell you to quit trying to figure it out,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said wryly. “What I would tell you about the NCAA Tournament, and I mean this, it is so different than any other thing in sports. Football, it’s obvious, there’s only four teams that have a chance every year. Obviously, they have to play their season, but did you guys not know who would be the four teams? Maybe not Notre Dame, but you knew Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama would be.”
NCAA SELECTION SUNDAY SHOW
When • Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV • CBS
To further Cronin’s assertion on the NCAA Tournament, the 68-team event may crown a champion, but it doesn’t always lead to the best team being crowned the champion. The one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament means a bad matchup, a bad shooting day, or a bad defensive effort means you’re going home, potentially with nothing to show for an otherwise-strong season.
As an example, Cronin coached the University of Cincinnati for 13 years before arriving in Westwood. In those 13 years, his best Bearcats team was his 31-win outfit that won the American Athletic Conference in 2018. They were given an NCAA Tournament 2-seed, beat Georgia State in the first round, then got upset by Nevada in the round of 32.
“I don’t know how many times in the last 24 years a West Coast team was the best team and got upset, but it’s all cyclical,” Cronin said. “There was a time when the team that won the championship every year was in Westwood, but that wasn’t going to last forever either. Anything can happen in an NCAA Tournament, it’s very much a coin flip.”
Too much travel?
Nevada is now under the direction of Steve Alford, who should know a thing or two about coaching with high expectations on this side of the country.
In seven seasons at New Mexico, Alford went to three NCAA Tournaments. In two of the three, the Lobos had a 3-seed, but never advanced beyond the round of 32. They were blown out by 11th-seeded Washington in the round of 32 in 2010 and were upset by 14th-seeded Harvard in 2013 in the first round.
Alford went to the Sweet 16 three times in seven seasons at UCLA, but never further. To the overarching point of Western teams struggling to break through, he has a theory.
“When you get out west, you have greater travel,” said Alford, who was the head coach at Iowa and Southwest Missouri State before New Mexico. “You’ve got more land that you’re covering in travel out west. In the East, you have so many more schools together. In the East, you’ve got Duke and Carolina, who are miles apart, so you have a lot of bus trips. Out here, the travel is greater.
“Even when we were at New Mexico, our best teams, we had some really great seeds, but we didn’t get past the second round and some of that, I think it has to do with getting worn down.”
WEST FINAL FOUR TEAMS SINCE 1997
1998: Utah, Stanford
2017: Gonzaga, Oregon
Alford, whose current Nevada team, despite COVID troubles, has had a solid season in the middle of a top-heavy Mountain West, offered a solution.
Let all of the conference tournaments finish, capped by the Power Five leagues, then everyone gets a week off instead of rushing right into the NCAA Tournament days later. The idea is to let everyone get healthy and offer a more-level playing field for the season’s most-important time. This is Alford’s idea, but he even admitted that it would realistically never happen.
Oregon’s run to the 2017 Final Four notwithstanding, it has been a long time since the Pac-12 had something resembling a legitimate national championship contender, and that doesn’t figure to change this season.
In the days leading up to the Pac-12 Tournament beginning on March 10, the league had four teams solidly in the NCAA Tournament field, but none of those four was projected to crack a 5-seed. That means if a Pac-12 team is to get to the second weekend of the Big Dance, it will have happened somewhat unexpectedly.
Here come the Zags
If this Mountain/Pacific title drought is going to end, the best hope between the regions resides in Spokane, Wash., where Mark Few appears to have his best Gonzaga team in his 22nd season at the helm. Not Arizona, not UCLA, not Oregon. Gonzaga has emerged as the preeminent college basketball program on this side of the country in recent seasons.
“It’s an interesting question,” Few said recently. “I don’t know if it’s an anomaly or not, but hopefully, we can do something about it this year.”
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulldogs managed to put together an undefeated regular season. That included wins over Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia, followed by running roughshod over the West Coast Conference for 15 games. None of those 15 contests was particularly close, including a pair of blowout wins over NCAA Tournament-bound BYU, though the Cougars did press the Zags in the WCC tourney title game before submitting.
There is plenty of well-documented, decades-long fascination surrounding Gonzaga, which has gone from The Little Mid-Major That Could to, especially in the last six seasons, legitimate title contention. The road to get to that point has not always been smooth.
Few quickly referenced 2017, when Gonzaga broke through to a Final Four, and ultimately the national championship game against North Carolina. Forty-four total fouls were called, star freshman center Zach Collins was hampered by foul trouble, Tar Heels junior Justin Jackson’s 3-point play with 1:40 left gave his team the lead for good and Gonzaga fell, 71-65.
If Gonzaga finally gets all the way to the summit of an NCAA Tournament next month, there will be a lot of talk about the last 20 years, what it took for Few and his program to get to that point. He knows it, and that’s fine. He will not shy away from it, but instead embrace it, all of it.
Gonzaga’s 1999 team stands as one of the great Cinderella runs ever, but Few points to the 1998 NIT qualifier as setting the table for that ’99 Elite Eight run.
Casey Santangelo, Dan Dickau, Casey Calvary.
The 2006 Adam Morrison-led team got to a Sweet 16, by way of winning first and second-round games at the Huntsman Center.
Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer.
The 2015 team got to an Elite Eight, humbled in that regional final by Duke, which won the national title the following weekend.
It’s all part of the story as Gonzaga now goes in search of the whole thing.
“I think that game, especially when we got to the Elite Eight against Duke, we knew we had some teams that could win some national championships,” Few said. “We were right there before and gosh, I hope with a little bit of luck and our guys continuing to do what they do this year, maybe we’ll be there again.”