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Be wary of the West

<p>Oregon is once again a Final Four contender, but the Ducks are one of four teams out West hoping to bring the region its first championship in 20 years.&nbsp;</p>

Oregon is once again a Final Four contender, but the Ducks are one of four teams out West hoping to bring the region its first championship in 20 years. 

With the attention paid to the strength of the ACC and its top teams, its easy to forget that other conferences in America also have potential national title contenders.

It’s even easier for this to slip the mind of college basketball fans when most league games tip at 10 p.m.

But the subset that has had a chance to watch the Pac-12’s top contenders and Gonzaga this season can tell you that this may be the best crop of teams on the West Coast we’ve seen in quite some time.

It’s been nine years since a team from out West has made it to the Final Four and the last national champion from the region was Arizona in 1997. That could all change if the bracket breaks favorably for four teams.

The Bulldogs may have blown their chance at an undefeated regular season, but have one of their most talented teams in recent memory behind big men Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and a group of skilled transfers. Despite playing in a horrendous conference, Gonzaga has already notched quality wins against Arizona, Florida and Iowa State. In many ways, Saturday’s loss to BYU could end up helping the Bulldogs as they enter March without the pressure of having to go 40-0, though they still carry the burden of trying to make the program's first Final Four.

As Gonzaga has dominated the West Coast Conference, the Pac-12 has been a three-team carousel all season. Arizona handled UCLA early in conference play, before the Bruins returned the favor Saturday in Tucson. Oregon and UCLA also split their two matchups, which were decided by a combined five points. And, well, the Ducks crushed the Wildcats by 27 in the teams’ lone matchup but needed an unfathomable 16-of-25 performance from beyond the arc to do so.

On paper, Oregon and Arizona sit tied atop the conference at 15-2 with UCLA a loss behind at 13-3. Some may sleep on the Pac-12—both literally and figuratively—considering the lack of depth outside of the trio, but that shouldn’t be an indictment against the contenders. Yet, college basketball’s favorite son Ken Pomeroy has none of the Pac-12 teams within the top 12 of his rankings—if you can find 12 better teams than Oregon, Arizona and UCLA, then more power to you.

The Ducks struggled to find their footing to begin the season as star forward Dillon Brooks recovered from August foot surgery. But as the junior has improved physically, Oregon has gone on a roll and has resembled the versatile and athletic group that trampled Duke en route to the Elite Eight a year ago. The Ducks have more than made up for a lack of pure NBA talent by playing a physical brand of basketball that makes the team more than the sum of its individual parts.

Perhaps no game showed Oregon’s cohesion more than its demolition of the Wildcats Feb. 4. Arizona itself has taken an interesting path to get to this point. The Wildcats faced depth concerns coming into the year with a career-ending injury to guard Ray Smith and Allonzo Trier’s PED suspension. Freshman star Lauri Markannen helped keep Arizona afloat during nonconference play, and after Trier’s reinstatement, the Wildcats now have a pair of go-to scorers with talented pieces around them.

Despite winning 20 of 21 games prior to Saturday, Arizona was toppled by a UCLA team that has ramped up its level of play on the defensive end. The Bruins became the darlings of the nation when their fun and exciting style of play was put on display in a 97-92 road win against then-No. 1 Kentucky in December. But UCLA made it clear it didn’t care about defense, and consecutive losses to Arizona and Southern California in January raised red flags about its ability to get enough stops late in games.

For all that chatter, the Bruin offense has reached levels rarely seen in the college game. Lonzo Ball is both better than Steph Curry and set to be the future star of the Lakers—at least in his dad’s eyes. But outside of the team’s star point guard and his hype-man father, UCLA has a number of talented offensive weapons, including Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford and T.J. Leaf. If the Bruins make even a half-hearted attempt to defend in the NCAA tournament before the Elite Eight, it’s hard to see a team with enough firepower to match them on the scoreboard.

Despite the quartet's success up to this point, the four teams jostling for West Coast supremacy are far from finished, especially when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding. San Jose will host the West regional in the Big Dance this March, but only two members of the quartet will find themselves playing close to home come tourney time.

In Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, Gonzaga is slated to earn the top seed in the West region and stay in the same time zone through the second week of the tournament. If the Bulldogs can win their conference tournament, one would have to think that Gonzaga would lock up the top seed in the West. The Bruins, Wildcats and Ducks are all fighting for tournament seeding and the Pac-12 conference tournament will likely decide which team earns the honor to join the Bulldogs as the No. 2 seed.

When filling out brackets this March, it’s always easy to look at the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova and others we have grown accustomed to watching regularly.

But in a year in which the Final Four is headed west to Glendale, Ariz., it would be a mistake to overlook these four teams as potential national champions. 


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