New West not quite like the Old West

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It has been astutely pointed out that the top two seeds in the West Regional of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament are actually western teams, for the first time since 1991.

Gonzaga, of course, being the No. 1 seed and Arizona the No. 2.

That means, barring an upset, the championship game of the West Regional would actually be between two western teams.

That used to be the case more often than not, especially during UCLA’s heyday in the 1970s, when the Bruins would knock off teams like Long Beach State and Arizona, en route to the Final Four.

(Of course, a closer look at the 16 teams in the West Regional bracket shows only one other true western team — Saint Mary’s, a 7 seed. Sorry, North Dakota and South Dakota State don’t count).

But since the NCAA made an emphasis on “balancing the bracket” starting sometime in the 1980s, some good teams from elsewhere in the country have been shipped out West.

Teams like Georgetown, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, etc., have occasionally been sent this way over the years to compete for the honors of top team in the “West.”

BUT SOMETIMES it works out these days that all eight teams sent to a site this weekend are all playing to advance to the same site the following weekend.

Take the games in Salt Lake City, for example, where, you may have heard, the Zags are headed, and play this morning. It is one of the rare sites were all four games eventually feed into the same regional — the West Regional in San Jose, for example.

So the two winners of Saturday’s games will face each other next week at the regional.

In the old days, when you could, say, trek to Salt Lake one weekend for the first and second rounds, then buzz over to Seattle the next weekend for the West Regional (back when there was a Kingdome), it was kinda cool to watch the teams at one site, then see them again the next weekend. It was almost like you were advancing in the tournament along with them.

But that hardly ever happens anymore.

Look at the games in Sacramento.

Yes, there are two prominent western teams there — Oregon and UCLA. Both are 3 seeds.

But Oregon is actually playing in the Midwest Regional, and UCLA is playing in the South Regional.

If they win their two games in Sacramento, Oregon will travel to Kansas City, Mo., for its regional, and UCLA will head to Memphis for its regional.

Each good places for barbecue, we hear, but hardly anywhere near the West.

BACK TO the 1991 tournament.

UNLV was the No. 1 seed, and went on to lose to Duke in the national semifinals under coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Arizona, an emerging power at the time under Lute Olson, was the No. 2 seed.

There were actually seven western teams in the 16-team West Regional that year. Montana, Utah, BYU, Pepperdine and New Mexico State were the others.

Sent to Tucson, UNLV routed Montana and beat Georgetown to advance to the regional at the Kingdome, where the Runnin’ Rebels would face the Rick Majerus-coached Utes, who beat South Alabama and squeeked past Steve Smith and Michigan State.

In Salt Lake City, Arizona beat St. Francis (Pa.), then beat 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley and BYU to punch a ticket to Seattle.

There, they were joined by the lone non-western team, Seton Hall, coached by P.J. Carlesimo and two years removed from almost winning a national title — ironically, at the Kingdome. The Hall beat Pepperdine and Creighton in their first two games in SLC.

So the West Regional really looked like a West Regional — with UNLV, Utah, Arizona and ... ahem, Seton Hall.

OK, three out of four ain’t bad.

In Seattle, UNLV handled Utah and Seton Hall bumped off Arizona in the regional semifinals, and UNLV downed Seton Hall in the regional final to advance to the Final Four — also held out West (sort of), in Denver.

Lots of things have changed since back then. For one thing, UNLV is not any good any more, and neither is Seton Hall. But that’s beside the point.

As teams like Gonzaga, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA can attest, it’s possible for really good college basketball to be played by western teams. It would be nice if such teams could be grouped together in the same regional, to once again crown a true champion in the “West.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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