If not now for Mark Few and the Bulldogs then, when?
After 13 consecutive appearances playing the Cinderella favorites, Gonzaga finally holds on to a coveted 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the first in program history, and has a legitimate chance to reach the Elite Eight and (gulp) the Final Four. With a West region lacking in premier names, this might just be the best chance for the Zags, who are 14-13 in the tourney since Few took over the program. That’s better than the four previous Sweet 16 squads, better than Adam Morrison’s team, and certainly better than the last few seasons.
If 31-2 Gonzaga, in a down year overall for college basketball, can not take advantage of a region featuring just one other bona fide title contender (Ohio State) and a tournament without any dominant teams, then is it safe to start resigning to the fact that Few has taken the program nearly as far as it can go? That's not a knock on the 50-year-old head coach, either. Quite the contrary. Few’s done one of the best coaching jobs in college basketball for over a decade. But, occasionally, small programs reach their limits; this tournament could provide the litmus test for Gonzaga’s ceiling.
The biggest test, of course, will likely come at the bottom of the bracket.
A year removed from beating Gonzaga while weaving its way to the Final Four, Ohio State returns with another defensively sound team (sixth nationally) primed to make another run. Led by defensive whiz Aaron Craft and one-man offense DeShaun Thomas, the Buckeyes ran through the Big Ten tourney and enter the West region with momentum and confidence.
And the rest of the region? Well, it’s a coin flip. Seed Nos. 3-8 are filled by New Mexico, Kansas State, Wisconsin, Arizona, Notre Dame and Pitt, respectively – solid, but by no means unbeatable opponents for the top seeds. If Gonzaga’s efficient frontcourt gets into a rhythm, or if Thad Matta’s Ohio State defense plays to its potential, this could turn into a two-weekend cruise for the hot team.
However, it is also a region stocked with potential dark horses.
Wichita State and Belmont are two popular mid-major picks – the Shockers challenged Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference while the Bruins can shoot the lights out (49.4 percent) – and New Mexico, as a 3-seed, was the top non-Power-6 conference team around this season. The Lobos ran through the Mountain West regular season and tournament, and if swingman Tony Snell gets hot like he was during the MWC tourney (12-of-20 from 3-point range), then neither Ohio State nor Gonzaga will want to see Steve Alford’s team.
Overall, though, in terms of viewing pleasure, it’s a region lacking in prominent teams and one that is desperate for star power. Can Ole Miss’Marshall Henderson steal the spotlight with his antics and his jump shot? Can Iona’s Momo Jones recapture his 2011 Arizona magic? Is Ian Clark or Kelly Olynyk good enough to deliver on the biggest stage, or will this be a region to forget when flipping through the stations?
The West region may be lacking in broad appeal, but there are quality players sprinkled throughout. If Few’s team can finally go on a run, then the Zags might become one of the tournament’s main storylines. Just like old times.