When Arizona toppled a trio of No. 1 seeds en route to the 1997 national championship, the balance of power in college basketball appeared to be tilting to the left.
UCLA was two years removed from its 10th title and still awash with talent. Arizona was at the apex of Lute Olson’s run of 11 Sweet 16s in 18 years. Stanford and Utah were entering their respective golden eras under Mike Montgomery and Rick Majerus.
“The Pac-10 alone put four teams in the Sweet 16 that season and two in the Elite Eight,” said former Arizona star Miles Simon, the 1997 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. “I would never have imagined it would take so long for another team from the West to get a title. I wouldn’t have thought that at all.”
The West’s national title drought indeed will reach an almost unfathomable 20 seasons if one of the region’s powers can’t break through next April in Phoenix. Oregon and Arizona begin the season No. 5 and No. 10 the AP Top 25, but Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed Duke as an early favorite to cut down the nets.
Of course these days just making it to a Final Four would be an accomplishment for any team from the West. No school west of Norman, Okla., has gotten to one since UCLA’s run of three straight appearances from 2006 to 2008, the longest Final Four dry spell the region has endured since the inception of the NCAA tournament in 1939.
“It surprises me very much that it has been such a long time,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think it’s a little bit of a statistical anomaly. There are several clubs that have been close, but you have to catch lightning in a bottle. You have to catch good breaks at the right time.”
What’s misleading about the West’s title drought is that its teams haven’t been nearly as nationally irrelevant as the lack of championship banners might suggest. In the past decade alone, 13 different schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West and WCC have reached the Sweet 16 at least once and the conferences have combined to crack the top 10 in the final AP poll 14 times.
Things have typically gone awry for the West’s top teams in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament when an unfortunate bounce, unfavorable matchup or ill-timed injury can doom a once-promising season.
Ben Howland’s first two Final Four teams at UCLA both were no match for an overpowering Florida team loaded with future NBA standouts across its front line. The third year, it was the Bruins who started future pros Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison and Luc Mbah a Moute, however, they lost to Memphis at the Final Four because they couldn’t keep Derrick Rose out of the lane.
Since Arizona’s 10-point loss to Duke in the 2001 title game, the Elite Eight has been its stumbling block. Missed shots at the buzzer doomed the Wildcats in 2003 against Kansas and 2011 against UConn. Squandering a 14-point lead in the final five minutes ended Arizona’s season against eventual national runner-up Illinois in 2005. And in both 2014 and 2015, an inability to find a suitable defensive matchup to stop Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker kept the Wildcats one win shy of taking Sean Miller to his first Final Four.
March misfortune has also befallen the West’s other top programs when they’ve managed to produce a title contender.
Kawhi Leonard’s 2010-11 San Diego State team led eventual national champ UConn by four late in the second half of a Sweet 16 game in Anaheim, but an ill-timed Jamaal Franklin technical foul quieted a roaring pro-Aztecs crowd and sparked a Huskies rally. Adam Morrison’s 2005-06 Gonzaga team had UCLA beaten in the Sweet 16 before collapsing in the final minute. And while Stanford reached the 1998 Final Four and took Kentucky to overtime, maybe the two best Cardinal teams of the Montgomery era fell in the Elite Eight in 2001 and the round of 32 in 2004.
“We had a great lineup both of those years, and we didn’t even make it to the Final Four,” Montgomery said. “So it’s hard. It’s not easy. We always want to complain about East Coast bias, but the bottom line is, hey, when it comes time to play in the tournament, you’ve got to win or else you’ve got to be quiet. There’s nothing you can say.”
The lack of Final Fours and national titles has created the perception that the high school talent throughout the West isn’t as strong as other regions, however, statistics suggest that’s not true.
UCLA, Arizona and Washington each are among college basketball’s top 10 producers of current NBA players despite recruiting the majority of their rosters from Western states. Among the NBA all-stars hailing from the West are James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love, Damian Lillard and Brook Lopez.
“So many people want to say West Coast guys are soft or they don’t have as good talent or the coaching is not that good, but that’s nonsense,” said Hall of Fame basketball writer Frank Burlison, who runs a California-based scouting service for college and NBA teams. “All you have to do is look at who is in the NBA. These are guys who have been phenomenal the past seven or eight years.”
One issue for the West is that its flagship programs have traditionally not recruited nationally as effectively as juggernauts Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina, a foursome that has combined for eight national titles and 21 Final Fours since 1997. Those programs are less vulnerable to a down year in talent in one particular recruiting hotbed because they can typically stockpile McDonald’s All-Americans from all over the country..
“If you look at the majority of the best teams in recent years, they’re really teams that can recruit anywhere,” said Josh Gershon, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “I don’t think the talent on the West Coast is the issue. I do think you have to recruit nationally as well as regionally to contend for a championship year-in, year-out, and I think that’s harder for a UCLA or Arizona than it is for a Kentucky, Duke or Kansas.”
In addition to that talent discrepancy, coaches from Western programs cited a handful of other disadvantages programs from the region face in the NCAA tournament.
Some noted that next year’s Final Four will be the first one held west of San Antonio since 1995. Others pointed out that the preponderance of prep schools across the East Coast better prepares players for the rigors of college basketball. The most common complaint was that until the recent push to allow more freedom of movement across the country, NCAA tournament officials often allowed more clutching, grabbing and bumping than you’d typically see in some of the West’s top leagues.
“The way the NCAA tournament is officiated is a real culture shock for West Coast teams when they get in there,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “A lot of coaches don’t like to talk about officiating because it sounds like an excuse, but it’s real. You have to make a lot of adjustments when you get to the NCAA tournament because the game is different out here.”
The last team from the West to successfully navigate all those challenges was far from a title favorite entering the NCAA tournament. Arizona’s 1997 team finished fifth in a loaded Pac-10 and earned a No. 4 seed in the Southeast Region despite getting swept by Stanford and Cal to end the regular season.
Led by a young but brash backcourt featuring Simon, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry, Arizona reemerged as a title threat when it toppled No. 1 Kansas in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats then edged surging Providence in the Elite Eight before ousting blue bloods North Carolina and Kentucky in the Final Four and national title game.
When members of that team gathered in Tucson for a 20-year reunion last month, they relived their memories of that run and discussed their legacy as the only team to oust three No. 1 seeds on the way to a title. They also marveled at the fact that neither Arizona nor any other program from the West had produced a national champion since their title run.
“I think Arizona is going to get to a Final Four really soon,” Simon said. “I think it’s just a matter of time for Sean to knock down that wall. UCLA has a good shot as long as they keep their recruiting momentum going. I could also see a Utah if they can string some classes together or even Oregon this year. They’re legit national title contenders.”
“So I’ll be surprised if it lasts another five years. I think someone breaks through. But if it gets to 2020, then I’m going to be very concerned.”
BEST IN THE WEST RANKINGS (PRESEASON EDITION):
1. Oregon: Should be even better than last year’s 31-win Elite Eight team if Dillon Brooks gets healthy.
2. Arizona: Questions about Ray Smith’s health, Allonzo Trier’s eligibility cast a pall over the Wildcats.
3. Gonzaga: Very talented, but may not hit their stride until all the newcomers get used to each other.
4. UCLA: Playmaker extraordinaire Lonzo Ball will make the Bruins more successful and entertaining
5. Saint Mary’s: An NCAA bid is the goal with every key player back from last year’s 29-win NIT team.
6. San Diego State: This is the most offensive talent the defensive-oriented Aztecs have had in years.
7. Colorado: Enough talent, experience to overcome the graduation of all-league center Josh Scott.
8. Cal: Sophomore forward Ivan Rabb might have been a lottery pick had he turned pro last spring.
9. Utah: Kyle Kuzma must carry Utah until transfers David Collette, Sedrick Barefield become eligible.
10. BYU: Ex-Lone Peak High teammates Nick Emery, Erik Mika and T.J. Haws will fuel a potent attack.
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GONZAGA’S PRZEMEK KARNOWSKI
Before Przemek Karnowski underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back last December, Gonzaga coach Mark Few wasn’t just worried about his starting center’s basketball future.
Few feared the 7-foot, 300-pound big man might not be able to lead a normal life.
There were long stretches last December when Karnowski was bed-ridden from morning until night. He often took special transportation to classes and seldom felt mobile enough to even set foot in a gym.
Karnowski has recovered faster than expected since the surgery and is expected to reemerge as the starting center for a Gonzaga team ranked 14th in the AP preseason Top 25. The native of Poland spoke with Yahoo Sports recently about his health, this season’s newcomer-laden Zags roster and his goals for his senior season.
1. You guys have lots of talent but nine newcomers this season. How has the coaching staff tried to accelerate the chemistry-building process to make sure you guys have bonded on and off the floor by the start of the season?
PK: “Team chemistry is a huge key for us. We tried to do a lot of team activities in September and October. We went to a team retreat in Idaho in mid-September to bring everyone together somewhere that there wasn’t any service for our phones. We got to see another side of our teammates there.
“I know how it is to come from a different country, so I also try to take those international newcomers under my wing and show them around. I tried to put myself in their shoes and remember what I needed as a freshman to make myself feel comfortable.”
2. Describe that weekend retreat in Idaho. What did you guys do? And do you think the coaches did that this year specifically because of the makeup of your roster?
PK: “We went an hour and a half away from Spokane. We slept in tents one night and made a campfire. I thought it was really cool to see all of our guys talk about stuff that we don’t really talk about on a daily basis. We did some team activities in the woods, and then the next day we went to a lake to hang out and relax. We spent the entire weekend there, and I thought it was a great idea from the coaching staff. We had done stuff like that before but never on such a big scale. With so many new pieces, it was the perfect time to do it.”
3. I know everyone at Gonzaga was very concerned about your back injury. Were there times last season when you wondered if you’d ever play again?
PK: “I was in a lot of pain for the month of December, so for sure there were thoughts like that. There were points I couldn’t walk at all. The question was not whether I could play again but whether I could do daily activities and go back to a normal life. After I got surgery, I started progressing and my rehab went really well. That’s when I started thinking about playing basketball again.”
4. How close to full strength are you now?
PK: “I’m probably 80-85 percent right now. I’ve been cleared since mid-August. I’ve been going full speed for the past month and a half or two months. It’s just great to be out there back with the team. I missed that for eight or nine months. So I’m just happy to be out there running and jumping again.”
5. You’ve been on Gonzaga teams that have won league titles, earned No. 1 seeds and played in Elite Eight games, but you have not been to the Final Four. Would that feel like a missing piece for you if you guys can’t get there this year?
PK: I think I’d feel that way for sure. Everyone who came here, came to play in the Final Four. It’s everyone’s dream to play in the Final Four, but at this point that can’t be our focus. We’re trying to get better every day and make sure that when March comes, we’re prepared and ready to play in the big games.
THE COUNTDOWN: TOUGHEST NON-LEAGUE SCHEDULES
5. UCLA: How much better does the arrival of a decorated freshman class make UCLA after its disappointing 17-loss 2015-16 campaign? We should find out quickly thanks to the challenging non-conference schedule assembled by Steve Alford. The marquee game is the Bruins’ visit to Kentucky for the rubber match in a three-year series between two of college basketball’s blue bloods. UCLA will also host Michigan, face Ohio State on a neutral court and participate in the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim. Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and Dayton are the other three contenders to win that tournament.
4. Stanford: One of the highlights of Jerod Haase’s debut season at Stanford will be the Cardinal’s visit to his alma mater. Stanford will play at Kansas on Dec. 3, a daunting challenge for a Cardinal team that may lack the outside shooting or point guard play necessary to make a run at an NCAA bid. Besides the Kansas game, Stanford has no shortage of non-conference challenges. The Cardinal visits SMU, hosts Saint Mary’s, meets Harvard in China and participates in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, where it will open with Miami and could see Iowa State, Seton Hall, Florida or Gonzaga in the later rounds.
3. UNLV: With a new coach, only two returning players and numerous unheralded newcomers, rebuilding UNLV is at least a year or two away from contending in the Mountain West. The only characteristic of the program that doesn’t reflect that is the Rebels’ overly ambitious non-league schedule. Three games against preseason top-10 opponents highlight UNLV’s schedule: a Dec. 10 matchup with Duke in Las Vegas, a Dec. 17 visit to Portland to play Oregon and a Dec. 22 home game against Kansas. The Rebels also visit Arizona State and host TCU and either Washington or quality mid-major Western Kentucky in the Global Sports Classic.
2. Arizona State: Long gone are the days of Herb Sendek’s prudent scheduling approach at Arizona State. Now the Sun Devils take on all comers anytime, anywhere even in a year when they’re not expected to contend for an NCAA bid. Arizona State’s first litmus test will come at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, where the Sun Devils will open with Northern Iowa and could see Oklahoma on day two and either Xavier or Clemson on day three. Later come neutral-court games against Kentucky and Purdue, a road trip to San Diego State and a challenging home matchup with Creighton.
1. Long Beach State: Every year, Dan Monson assembles a masochistic non-conference schedule pitting his team against as many elite foes as possible in hopes of generating money for the program, enticing recruits eager for a showcase and maybe paving the way for a monumental upset or two. This year’s slate is especially brutal as Long Beach State visits six teams who have played in a Final Four since 2003 — Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Kansas and Texas. As if that’s not enough, the Big West favorites also travel to Washington, Oregon State, Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf Coast and New Mexico State. Yikes.
Before I visited Four Peaks Brewery in Tempe, Ariz., a few weeks ago, a friend of mine gave me one piece of advice. “You have to try their double IPA,” he said. Sure enough, Double Knot IPA, the bigger, bolder cousin to Four Peaks’ flagship Hop Knot IPA, was by far the highlight of the 10 or so beers that the brewery was serving that day. At 9.2 percent alcohol, it’s strong enough to put you flat on your back if you have too many, yet the blast of hops gives it a bright, piney, citrus flavor that makes it both easy and enjoyable to drink. The bad news is Double Knot won’t be easy to find outside Arizona. The good news is I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the desert. (GRADE: 8.5/10)
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