Jules Bernard and his UCLA teammates are part of a men’s Final Four that for the first time ever features teams only from west of the Mississippi River. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
With three games remaining in the NCAA tournament, this much is indisputable: college basketball can go strong to its left.
For the first time, every school in the Final Four is located not necessarily on the Left Coast, but west of the Mississippi River. Seven of the teams in the Elite Eight fell into that category.
With the exception of UCLA — and that reputation was forged in the John Wooden era — the blue-blood programs are out and the new bloods are in, with Gonzaga, Baylor and blast-from-the-past Houston rounding out the Final Four.
Watching from the couch are familiar programs such as Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and Louisville. Of those schools, North Carolina, Michigan State and Kansas made the tournament, with only the Jayhawks winning a game.
“This is a renaissance for West Coast basketball,” said Fox analyst Steve Lavin, a former UCLA coach. “People forget that the West Coast was the epicenter of college basketball for decades. Naturally, the results of this season will be tough to duplicate on an annual basis, but this a timely shot in the arm for college basketball on this side of the country.”
In a year when people are rolling up their sleeves for real shots in the arm, some people will point to this Final Four combination as yet another result of COVID-19 weirdness.
Said Michael Holton, a former UCLA player and assistant coach: “I think when people look at this year they’ll say, ‘What? There was no North Carolina, no Duke, no Kentucky? Oh yeah, that was that year that was crazy, it was COVID, it was this, it was that.’ I just think it’s going to be convoluted, unfortunately.”
That said, he isn’t complaining.
“I think it’s great that Gonzaga has a chance to go undefeated from the West Coast Conference,” said Holton, a color analyst for the Portland Trail Blazers, his former NBA team. “And I’m so biased, I shouldn’t even be allowed to comment on UCLA. I mean, UCLA is playing Gonzaga. I’m in Portland, and everybody here thinks the sun rises and sets on the Oregon Ducks and Gonzaga.
“I mean no disrespect, but it’s hard for me to be an audience to the fanfare of the Ducks, and it will be until their equipment room is smaller than their trophy room.”
Phil Martelli, longtime coach of St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia and now an assistant coach for Michigan, which lost Tuesday to UCLA, said no one should add an asterisk to this season.
“Everybody needs to appreciate the sacrifices these kids have made,” Martelli said. “I don’t see anything where an asterisk will have to be applied. These teams that got this far, they’re going to be in that bubble for over three weeks. The kids haven’t really had that college experience. There’s no crowds to speak of. Every kid that participated in college basketball this year, men’s and women’s, should be applauded.”
These are heady times for UCLA, the gutty program that has survived the improbable odyssey from the First Four to its 19th Final Four, the second-most to North Carolina’s 20. (The number is 18 according to the NCAA, which vacated the Bruins’ 1980 appearance.)
“I think UCLA and what they have done is really going to be good for the conference,” said Mike Montgomery, who coached Stanford to the Final Four in 1998. “Now kids are going to say, ‘Hey, UCLA is back. I can go there and win. I can go there and play for a national championship.’ ”
Gonzaga, meanwhile, is looking to become the first team to finish the season and men’s tournament undefeated since Indiana in the 1975-76 season. UCLA accomplished that four times under Wooden.
“Having been a West Coast person, it’s so great to see that the story line is about the regionality,” said Gloria Nevarez, commissioner of the West Coast Conference. “Because we know we have good basketball out here, but there are certain challenges we have with the time zone.
“If you do a heat map of the basketball media, they’re very concentrated on the Eastern Seaboard. It’s quite a different thing watching a team live than it is catching the highlights the next morning. It’s a great thing for Gonzaga, amazing for the WCC, but it’s also a great thing about Western region basketball, both on the men’s and the women’s side.”
Likewise, this season is a coup for Texas schools, and further validation that there’s far more than football in the Lone Star state.
“Basketball in Texas has been an afterthought for so long,” Sports Illustrated columnist Pat Forde said. “They’ve got two in this Final Four, they had the national runner-up in 2019 (Texas Tech). Texas was a three-seed this year, North Texas won a game. Abilene Christian won a game, beating Texas. Basketball in Texas has gotten so much better.”
Austin Karp, sports ratings analyst for Sports Business Journal, said it will be a challenge for CBS to attract a coast-to-coast audience without the marquee teams in the mix. Compared to 2019 viewership — the 2020 event was scrubbed amid the pandemic — the audience is down 12% headed into the Final Four, pushed down by a 45% drop for the Elite Eight. Of course, it’s not all bad news.
“The most storied program in college basketball, perhaps, landed in their lap in the Final Four,” Karp said. “Is UCLA the brand that they were 20, 30 years ago? Probably not. But it’s still a blue blood of college basketball. And they’re playing Gonzaga, who’s going for an undefeated season. So CBS can play up that.
“But Baylor-Houston is a tough sell. Those are good teams, but outside of Central Texas, who cares? They’re just nonname brands. You weren’t seeing a lot of Baylor on national TV. That’s just not a blue blood of college basketball, despite them being really good this year.”
Los Angeles-based agent Jerome Stanley said if there’s a trend developing in college basketball, it isn’t geographical but philosophical.
“The value of the one-and-done player is way overrated in college basketball,” said Stanley, whose son, Cassius, played one year at Duke before entering the NBA draft, and now plays for the Indiana Pacers.
“The one-and-done isn’t going to be the future of successful college basketball. There are only a few schools that do it anyway. Kentucky, Duke and Kansas. Those are the only ones that are like, ‘We can stack up on those guys and we’ll start them as freshmen. We’ll build a concoction that in the first half of the season will look crazy, and in the second half of the season will start to look good. We get to the tournament, and maybe they’ve matured enough to be considered sophomores and we can make a run.’ ”
He pointed to Gonzaga, which is loaded with seasoned players, as the polar opposite.
“So if you’re specializing in one-and-done,” he said, “and somebody else is specializing [in] graduate transfers, they’re going to walk all over you.”
And this year, teams from the western half of the country aren’t just walking. They’re the only ones still dancing.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.