NCAA Tournament: How the West was lost (but can finally be won back)

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Toilet bag media gift from Rankman's first Final Four.

Who said the drought is over out West? Has anyone seen us play college basketball the last 20 years?

My Weather Channel aerial map still shows large swaths of parched basins and red areas along certain Pacific rims.

But first, some historical backdrop: John Wooden won his 10th, and final, NCAA championship on the West Coast, in 1975.

The score was UCLA 92, Kentucky 85.

Wooden knew he made the right decision to retire when, the story goes, he was approached by a joyous booster on his way out of the arena in San Diego.

“Congratulations coach,” the fan said. “You let us down last year but this made up for it.”

What an an idiotic, incredulous, insensitive, stuck-up, snobby statement.

The year before, after winning seven straight NCAA titles, UCLA lost in the national semifinals, in double overtime, to North Carolina State.

THIS made up for it?

Honestly, though, I totally get what the booster was saying.

When I was a young UCLA fan, between the ages 7 and 14, the Bruins did win every year. I never once had to ask Santa for it.

I actually felt sorry for poor coaches like North Carolina’s Dean Smith, who was never going to win it all while Wooden was employed.

My West Coast arrogance continued into professional adulthood when, two decades ago, I became national college basketball writer for the Los Angeles Times.

The first Final Four I ever covered, or attended, was UCLA’s title-game win over Arkansas in Seattle.

It was 1995 and it seemed like old times--put another log on the fire!

Two years later, Arizona won it all in Indianapolis.

What a fun Miles Simon-led team that was. The Wildcats finished T-5 in the Pac 10 and rose as a No. 4 seed in the Southeast Regional.

I was courtside for all three of Arizona’s amazing wins over top-seeded teams.

Make no mistake, Kansas was supposed to win that year. It was Roy Williams’ best team, led by Jacque Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz.

Arizona defeated three No.1 seeds en route to 1997 NCAA title--the last for any conference beginning with "Pac."

But Arizona took them out in the regional semifinals, 85-82, and I can tell you Roy cried grown-man tears afterward.

Arizona went on to defeat No. 1 seed North Carolina, in the national semis, and No. 1 seed Kentucky (OT) for the championship.

Simon scored 30 for the victors and afterward, on the court, Bennett Davison messed up Lute’s perfectly coiffed white hair—the only time you’d dare try something like that.

The Pac 10 had won two of the first three Final Fours I covered. Commissioner Tom Hansen was King of Walnut Creek.

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.

But they did.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The Pac hasn’t won a pod-eating contest since.

The conference has grown by two teams since, but hasn’t unfurled a title banner since 1997.

The Pac still leads all conferences in total NCAA basketball titles, with 16, but it’s old money. And one of those titles—Utah in 1944—was acquired with the purchase of Colorado in conference expansion.

West Coast basketball, in general, has dried up.

Gonzaga, in 1999, set the ground work for “Cinderella” runs but still hasn’t closed the deal on its own Final Four.

Arizona made it back to the title game in 2001, but lost to Duke. Ben Howland later led UCLA to three straight Final Four appearances, but none ending with a No. 12 banner.

Could this finally be the year the West gets back in the game?

All signs indicate “yes.”

For starters, this year’s Final Four is in Phoenix, the first time it’s been back in the West since Seattle in 1995.

Thank you, Google Maps, for reminding the NCAA there were western settlements beyond San Antonio.

More important, the West doesn’t have just one team this year that could win it all—it has four.

Gonzaga, Oregon, UCLA and Arizona are legitimate contenders. All are ranked among the top seven in this week's AP poll. The Zags (32-1) have likely secured top seeding in the West, while three Pac 12 schools will drop no lower than the 3 line in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament bracket.

This year, frankly, there are no excuses. Gonzaga will likely get home-cooking (Salt Lake-San Jose) for the first two rounds. And a trip to the Final Four this year only requires a short trip to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.

If not now, when?

All four of western schools have the kind of impact player (s) you need for a deep tournament dive.

Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski is best big man on his toes since, maybe, this guy.

Gonzaga has two Pac 12 transfers, including the brilliant Nigel Williams-Goss, not to mention an unstoppable 7-footer in Przemek Karnowski.

Oregon won the first NCAA title, in 1939, but since the Tall Firs have mostly cried “Timber!”

This year, the Ducks boast a veteran dynamo in guard Dillon Brooks, the Pac 12 player of the year. Dillon is the kind of trigger you need in the tournament clutch—he’s won three-games this year on last-second three-pointers.

UCLA has a transcendent guard in freshman Lonzo Ball, the kind of player who can carry a team to the Final Four. If you don't believe that, just ask his dad. The 1995 team also had a player like that in Tyus Edney, now a UCLA bench coach.

Arizona has fallen painfully short of the Final Four under Sean Miller, yet this year’s team could be the one with the mid-season emergence of Allonzo Trier.

What about the karma factor?

In 1997, Arizona defeated top-seeded Kansas and North Carolina en route to the title.

Both schools will likely be No. 1s again this year.

Roy Williams doesn’t cry for Kansas anymore—but he cries for Carolina.

Last year’s last-second loss to Villanova, in the NCAA title game, was easily Roy’s most gut-wrenching since Arizona in 1997.

It short, it’s all adding up for the West.

Of course it's going to take more than just doing the math.[/membership]