West Coast basketball is Wack Coast basketball this season, and that’s not just because the Lakers are failing to contend even with LeBron James. The painful truth for college hoops followers west of the Mississippi will be revealed in less than two weeks on Selection Sunday. There isn’t even a handful of teams from the West worthy of being in the NCAA tournament this year — maybe not even half a handful.
Sure, there’s Gonzaga standing strong as the nation’s No. 1 team and a legitimate contender to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. The Zags would be the first West Coast Conference national champion since Bill Russell led San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956.
The stench of the Pac-12 this season, though, is so overwhelming that it’s not enough to just have Gonzaga and a Nevada program only recently nationally relevant holding down the fort for the West Coast.
The Zags and Wolf Pack were the only two western teams in the Top 25 rankings this week after Pac-12 leader Washington dropped out following an unforgivable loss to California, which ended a 23-game conference losing streak. Only five western teams are among the top 50 in the country, according to the NCAA’s new NET rankings and KenPom. Utah State and St. Mary’s are actually ahead of the Huskies, but the Gaels are not projected to make the NCAA tournament. The Aggies gave themselves a realistic chance to get an at-large bid by upsetting Nevada last week.
Washington and Arizona State are the only two Pac-12 teams in the mock brackets. The Sun Devils are definitely on the bubble.
When it comes to power conferences, the Pac-12’s national championship drought is the longest. It might seem like eons ago the Big Ten last had a national champ with Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team in 2000, but Lute Olson’s Arizona squad running the table was more than two decades ago, in 1996-97.
The fewest teams to make the NCAA tournament from the Pac-12 is two, which has happened five times, most recently in 2012. Much of the blame this year falls on traditional powers such as UCLA and Arizona being down. And Oregon was definitely a disappointment after flirting with top-15 status.
UCLA was still considered a perennial national powerhouse in the mid-1990s and early 2000s — even after the glory years of John Wooden’s Bruins teams that won 10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row from 1966-73.
Steve Alford went to three Sweet 16s in five seasons, but he was fired after 13 games in Year 6 this season. Such a run might have been enough for him to keep his old job at Iowa, but not at UCLA. The Bruins haven’t been to an Elite Eight or Final Four since back-to-back years in 2007 and 2008.
Could the West Coast shed the wack label if UCLA were back and contending again? It would be a start — and maybe take some pressure off the Lakers to provide exciting basketball to Hollywood.
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller