Only one school west of the Mississippi River has won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this century — Kansas, in 2008, and they’re barely a western school. The last truly West Coast club to cut down the nets was Arizona in 1997, and no western school has even reached the Final Four since UCLA’s run of three straight ended in ’08.
Things could finally change this year thanks to Gonzaga, everyone’s mid-major darling. The Zags can’t really be called a mid-major any longer — they’ve had a sustained run of success, reaching the Big Dance every year since their regional final run in 1999. The Bulldogs haven’t returned to a regional final since and have lost in the second round in the past three NCAA tournaments.
This year’s team could be Mark Few’s best. Gonzaga (20-2) enters the week at No. 6 in the polls, its highest ranking since December 2008, and a solid No. 10 in the RPI rankings. A first-ever No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament could be on the horizon. The problem, as it is every year, is that most top programs won’t schedule Gonzaga in a non-conference game to help boost the Bulldogs’ strength of schedule. Gonzaga did win at then-No. 22 Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve and beat a now-ranked Kansas State team. However, the Zags lost at home to then-No. 13 Illinois on Dec. 8 and at No. 13 Butler on Jan. 19 in the best game of this college basketball season.
The Bulldogs could easily run the table the rest of the season and in the West Coast Conference tournament to make a claim for a top NCAA seed. Gonzaga shouldn’t be tested this week, as it hosts Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, and the only realistic chances for a loss are Feb. 14 at Saint Mary’s, a team the Bulldogs beat by five last month in Spokane, and on Feb. 28 at BYU, a team the Zags beat by 20 earlier this season. BYU or Saint Mary’s would likely face Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game.
Gonzaga is +2000 at the book to win the national championship, which is better than the likes of Kentucky, Michigan State and Butler (all +3000). Gonzaga has three players who could start on almost any traditional powerhouse in Canadian 7-foot junior center Kelly Olynyk, German-born senior forward Elias Harris and sophomore point guard Kevin Pangos.
Olynyk, who redshirted last year, is averaging 17.9 points (shooting 64.3 percent from the field), 7.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in just 25 minutes per game. The 6-foot-8 Harris averages 15.1 points and 7.1 rebounds in 27.1 minutes. Thanks largely to those two, Gonzaga ranks second nationally in field goal percentage. Pangos (11.4 ppg) is among the 20 players to keep an eye on for the Bob Cousy Award, given to college’s best point guard.
A mid-major has reached the Final Four in two of the past three years: VCU in 2011 and Butler in 2010 and ’11. No school from outside a current BCS conference has won the national championship since the tournament expanded in 1985. The ‘Zags have the talent to be the first. Getting the No. 1 seed would be a nice first step, especially if it’s in the West. Selection Sunday is March 17.