Gonzaga, Arizona try to end West Coast Final Four drought
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Getting to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is nothing new for Gonzaga and Arizona.
The task this weekend for the Bulldogs and Wildcats will be trying to make it out of the West Region and take that next step to the Final Four. The process starts Thursday when top-seeded Gonzaga (34-1) faces No. 4 seed West Virginia (28-8) and second-seeded Arizona (32-4) faces No. 11 seed Xavier (23-13).
''We're in the spotlight now and we have to make the most of it,'' Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews said.
This marks the third straight trip to the Sweet 16 for the Bulldogs and fifth in seven years for the Wildcats. But like the rest of their brethren based in the western United States, they haven't made a Final Four in that span. Gonzaga is looking for its first trip ever and Arizona seeks its first since 2001.
No western team has made it to the Final Four since UCLA had three straight trips from 2006-08. But with the top two seeds in San Jose, as well as Pac-12 contenders Oregon in the Midwest Region and UCLA in the South, this could be the year that drought ends.
''I just think sometimes these things are cyclical,'' Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. ''I think if you kind of really, you know, drill it down a little bit, the teams are a little bit older and experienced.''
Arizona coach Sean Miller has a national view, having played at Pittsburgh in the 1980s and coached in the East and Midwest before arriving at Arizona in 2009. He said there was little difference in the quality or type of players from different parts of the country.
Any doubts of the talent out West should have been put to rest by the five Pac-12 players in the NBA All-Star game last month.
''The Pac-12 does not get enough credit for the amazing amount of talent that has gone through here,'' Miller said.
Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who previously ran the West Coast Conference, credited coaching continuity that has helped keep West Coast talent home and better exposure from television deals that have put more games from both conferences on ESPN's platforms.
''We're seeing the fruits of that labor now,'' Zaninovich said. ''There's still work to be done. We have three in the Sweet 16. Now we have to get one to the Final Four. It's been a while now.''
Here are some other things to watch:
PRESS VIRGINIA: To beat the Mountaineers you have to beat their press. West Virginia leads the nation with 20.1 turnovers forced per game, including 10.2 steals. The Mountaineers have a plus 7.8 turnover margin and have forced turnovers on more than one-quarter of the opponent's possessions. Gonzaga has committed 20 turnovers just once all season and averages just 11.3 per game. Few had his scout team purposely foul multiple times on every possession to simulate how tough it is to deal with the press.
''It's not like we're going to be surprised about their pressure or anything like that,'' point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. ''We just have to execute our game plan.''
MACK VS MILLER: For the second time in three years, Miller faces his former Xavier team and assistant, Chris Mack, in the Sweet 16. Mack took over the Musketeers after Miller left following the 2009 season. The teams met in this round in 2015 with the Wildcats winning 68-60.
''My players don't care about Sean, just as Sean's players don't care about me,'' Mack said. ''It is about our teams.''
SUPER SUBS: Gonzaga and West Virginia both feature important subs. Mountaineers guard Tarik Phillip was voted the sixth man of the year in the Big 12 after averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 assists per game. Phillip scored 28 points on the opening weekend of the tournament. Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins has averaged 10.3 points per game on 65 percent shooting. He had 24 points and seven blocks last weekend.
TURNAROUND TIME: Xavier's season fell off the rails with a six-game losing streak starting in February. To turn the page, Mack had his players burn the February pages from calendars and put the ashes in a jar that is at each practice and in the locker room for games. The Musketeers have won five of six games since the skid.
''Just a reminder that good things and special things can happen as we look forward and not worry about what happened in the past,'' Mack said.
BAY AREA RETURN: Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews is coming back to the Bay Area. Mathews is a graduate transfer from California who has played a key part in the Bulldogs success.
''Being around these guys has been the best time of my life,'' he said. ''And coming to Gonzaga was the best decision I think I've ever made.''
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