Even if the national championship trophy makes Chapel Hill, N.C., its final resting place, West Coast basketball is already the biggest winner of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga will challenge North Carolina in Monday’s tournament final from Phoenix, vying for the program’s first national title while UNC goes for its sixth.
Oregon came within two agonizing rebounds of upsetting UNC in their semifinal on Saturday; falling two points shy of giving the tourney not only its first-ever all-West Coast title game, but also its first-ever all-Pacific Northwest title game.
That’s not all.
UCLA made up one half of the most star-studded, highly-anticipated game of the Sweet 16 round and perhaps of the entire tournament, a loss to Kentucky that featured enough future NBA Draft picks to fill a green room. (And did anyone do a better job of using this tournament to make himself famous than UCLA dad LaVar Ball?)
Arizona looked great in the first two rounds before losing a Sweet 16 thriller to Xavier.
USC made an inspiring run as a No. 11 seed, winning a First Four play-in game over Providence and then upsetting SMU in the first round – both times rallying from double-digit deficits in the second half – before losing a close contest to No. 3 seed Baylor.
While the much-hyped ACC famously collapsed in the early stages of the tournament, the Pac-12’s four representatives went 8-1 in the first two rounds.
St. Mary’s of the West Coast Conference, given a No. 7 seed despite being ranked in national top-25 polls for most of the season, held off No. 10 seed VCU – a team that a lot of people picked to upset the Gaels – in the first round. Despite losing to Arizona in the second round, St. Mary’s added some credibility to the WCC, a win for them and for conference rival Gonzaga.
That lack of credibility, that absence of respect, isn’t just a West Coast Conference thing. It’s a West Coast thing.
I was born and raised in Seattle. After living in New York for a few years after college, I moved back home, where I reside today.
Take it from a West Coast native: We know that “East Coast bias” is real.
We know that not only in sports, but also in music and fashion and other areas used to define cool, the West Coast is often overlooked and underrated. Don’t call it an inferiority complex, because we don’t feel inferior. We just see how we’re seen.
In basketball, the college game seems to hold the most weight in determining regional relevancy. The success of the Tobacco Road quartet of UNC, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest went a long way in the state of North Carolina earning its reputation as a basketball hotbed. Indiana owes much of its stature to IU’s Hoosiers (and the movie “Hoosiers”). Legendary Big East battles helped cement New York as the game’s Mecca.
And so it didn’t matter as much that six of the NBA’s top nine scorers this season are West Coast natives who went to West Coast colleges: Russell Westbrook (1st), Isaiah Thomas (ties for 2nd), James Harden (tied for 2nd), DeMar DeRozan (5th), Damian Lillard (7th)and Kawhi Leonard (9th).
It didn’t matter as much that the nation’s widely-recognized No. 1 team in boys’ high school basketball this season was Nathan Hale H.S. from Seattle. Or that the nation’s No. 1 player was Hale’s Michael Porter Jr., who was coached by Northwest native and former NBA star Brandon Roy.
For West Coast basketball to put its indelible stamp on 2017, it took an NCAA Tournament like this; the West reppin’ harder than N.W.A. in the Final Four, in Pac-12 country no less.
Oregon made a run for the ages, advancing to the program’s first Final Four since 1939. In the Sweet 16, the Ducks eliminated Michigan, arguably the hottest team in the country at the time, and then took down No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight.
Despite falling short in the Final Four, Oregon’s loss to UNC was an instant classic.
And then there’s Gonzaga. (Officially nicknamed the Bulldogs, but everybody here calls them the Zags.)
Doubted and disrespected all season long – and really, for the better part of the last 15 years – for piling up impressive win-loss records against inferior WCC competition, the Zags have finally cemented their place as an elite program nationally.
Led by junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (originally from Oregon), senior center Przemek Karnowski, senior two-guard Jordan Mathews (from Los Angeles), junior power forward Johnathan Williams and freshman center Zach Collins (from Las Vegas), this is as talented as any team in the nation.
The Zags started this season 29-0, defeating major-conference opponents Florida, Arizona, Iowa State, Tennessee and Washington before losing to WCC rival BYU on Feb. 25.
Head coach Mark Few’s squad has not lost since then. They’re 37-1 going into Monday’s national championship game.
In the NCAA tourney, Gonzaga was not the No. 1 overall seed despite having just one loss. That honor went to defending champ Villanova. But while ’Nova exited in the second round, the Zags handled their business.
Ironically, the program that was once America’s favorite underdog ran through a string of spirited underdogs to make its first national title game, including Northwestern, Xavier and then South Carolina in the Final Four.
On Monday, probably for the first time this season, Gonzaga will be the underdogs against North Carolina.
Win or lose, however, the Bulldogs have admirably led the pack in a West Coast revolution that has been televised for millions.
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