College Basketball is Alive and Well Out WestPosted by Bennet Hayes on January 7th, 2014
We have heard plenty about the perceived “East Coast bias” with respect to media coverage of American sport, but when it comes to recent college basketball history, let’s face facts: The Western half of the United States hasn’t done a whole lot for us. No team situated west of Kansas has reached the Final Four since UCLA did it in 2008, and Arizona and Oregon are the only Western programs to even reach a Sweet Sixteen in the last two seasons (both did so last March). The Pac-12, undoubtedly the West’s signature conference, has suffered through a historically depressed string of seasons, with the nadir coming in 2012, when the national polls were “Pac-free” from February on and the league quite nearly went without an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But the Pac-12 – and much of the rest of the West – is back. Arizona’s steady, month-long reign atop the polls may be the most glaring example of the western resurgence, but a pair of Sunday victories — authored by San Diego State and Colorado – serves notice that the Wildcats may not be the only elite team along the left coast.
The loudest clamor for respect undoubtedly came from Lawrence, where Steve Fisher’s Aztecs shocked Kansas (and just about everybody else across the country) in ending the Jayhawks’ 68-game home winning streak over non-conference opponents. The final result alone inspires awe, but even more impressive was how San Diego State achieved that end. The Aztecs were unfazed by the bright lights and raucous energy of Allen Fieldhouse; they led for every second of the final 32 minutes of the game. The trademarks of the program that Steve Fisher has built – toughness and physicality on both ends of the floor – were on full display, as the Aztecs snatched 51 rebounds (12 more than the Jayhawks) and harassed Kansas into a 17-of-57 effort from the field.
We’ve discussed college basketball’s youth movement ad nauseam this season. Sunday, Steve Fisher’s team offered a definitive blueprint for how to take advantage of it — no matter how talented it may be. Andrew Wiggins and the rest of the KU newcomers looked like the shell-shocked freshmen college basketball used to know, because a tough, well-coached, veteran team walked into their gym and acted like it was their own. In relentlessly taking the fight to the Jayhawks for 40 minutes, San Diego State may well have delivered the finest performance of this young college basketball season. But at the very least, the 12-1 Aztecs (oh, and that lone loss came against another pretty good West Coast squad – those #1 Wildcats) established themselves as a national contender in 2014.
San Diego State stole Sunday’s headlines, but Colorado also posted a Sabbath victory to treasure last weekend. The Buffaloes knocked off previously undefeated Oregon in Boulder, running away late in a 100-91 victory. The Ducks are a legitimate Pac-12 title contender, so the Colorado hold-of-serve at home notified Arizona that there are now a couple of teams to worry about in the Pac-12 title race. With no seniors in the rotation and three underclassmen in the starting lineup, the Buffs are one of the younger teams in all the land (as you know, that’s saying something these days), but their “Big Four” of Spencer Dinwiddie, Josh Scott, Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson all did Sunday what they normally do: score in double figures. Tad Boyle is heavily reliant on the offensive output of that quartet – perhaps a little too reliant – but when they all have it going like they did on Sunday, this team has proven itself a capable bunch. The Buffs now own victories over three top-30 opponents (Oregon, Kansas, Harvard) as part of a sneakily impressive paper resume, but all those wins have come in the friendly confines of the Coors Events Center. Both losses have come to elite opponents (Baylor and Oklahoma State) at neutral sites, but it’s still a bit premature to bandy about that e-word (elite, shhh) when it comes to Colorado. They aren’t too far off, however; let’s talk again after they take to the road in the Pac-12. In particular, I’m eyeing that late January road-trip to the Grand Canyon state. It should prove telling.
Pollsters didn’t want to take San Diego State all the way into the top-10 (they jumped from #21 to #13 in the AP poll), but there is no doubt that the Aztecs are again nationally relevant. Ditto that for Arizona, of course, and at 13-2, Colorado can’t be too far off if they aren’t there already. But even beyond that trio, there are plenty of other teams out West (UCLA, Gonzaga, New Mexico, and Arizona State prime among them) capable of making some noise between now and April. The coming months will stand as the ultimate test of just how far the West has come, but either way, the current climate is a drastic departure from the grim state of affairs of recent years. And if that East Coast bias does exist out in the college basketball stratosphere, 2014’s group of western powers is making a pretty compelling case for extinguishing it, once and for all.