By JOHN MARSHALL, AP Basketball Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA Tournament has been dominated by the East, mixed with the occasional championship foray by a school from the Midwest.
Teams from the West are usually left on the outside when the bracket gets down to the Final Four.
The West is the best this season.
On the men’s side, Gonzaga will play for a national championship. UCLA made a run to the Final Four. Five western teams made it to at least the Sweet 16 and seven of the Elite Eight were from west of the Mississippi.
The women will have an all-West finale, Stanford and Arizona taking their Pac-12 rivalry to the game’s biggest stage in the first title game between two teams west of the Mississippi since 1986.
It’s been a hard road for the West lately on the men’s side.
The last champion to come from the West was Arizona in 1997. The only champion west of the Mississippi in the past 20 years was Kansas in 2008. Lawrence hasn’t been considered part of the West since the early frontier days.
The West has struggled even getting teams to the Final Four. UCLA did it from 2006-08. Oregon and Gonzaga in 2017.
The map changed with this year’s bracket.
It starts with Gonzaga, which has turned itself into the West’s elite team under coach Mark Few.
The Bulldogs played for a national championship in 2017 and are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 six straight seasons. Gonzaga gets another shot at its first title Monday against Baylor, thanks to Jalen Suggs’ stunning shot against UCLA in the national semifinals Saturday night.
Few has done it by building on the program’s early success, finding talented players who fit his system and constantly adapting to the strengths of each team’s roster.
“The goal was always to build a program that could consistently compete and have an opportunity to play in March,” he said.
The Pac-12 had a resurgence after a couple of down years.
The conference made some adjustments after watching a string of failures — fewer teams in the bracket, quicker exits — by encouraging teams to strengthen nonconference schedules. Moving to a 20-game conference schedule in 2020-21 also boosted competition.
The Pac-12 was considered a weak link in March after its teams beat up on each other during the regular season. It ended up having the best showing in the bracket, opening with nine straight wins and getting three teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon State) to the Elite Eight.
“We’ve been investing and prioritizing,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. “Nice to see it all coming together for the men’s and women’s teams.”
That investment has helped skew some of the power in the women’s game toward the West.
Stanford has long been the standard bearer for West Coast basketball under coach Tara VanDerveer, who’s led the Cardinal to two national championships and 13 trips to the Final Four in 35 years.
In recent years, other Pac-12 schools have devoted more resources into their women’s basketball programs and hired quality coaches who have convinced the top West Coast talent from heading East, as they had in the past.
Kelsey Plum, who’s from San Diego, led Washington to the 2017 Final Four and became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer.
Northern California’s Sabrina Ionescu chose to play at Oregon and smashed the national triple-double record during a storied career. She and the Ducks were one of the favorites to win last year’s national championship before the pandemic canceled the season.
Aari McDonald, from central California, has helped coach and Arizona alum Adia Barnes revitalize a program that won six games just three years ago.
The Wildcats play for their first national title against Stanford Sunday night in a game that guarantees the first women’s champion from the West since the Cardinal in 1992.
“I think this year is an inflection point because in our league we had the best overall conference on the men’s side and obviously on the women’s side that turns some heads,” Scott said. “The Pac-12 will get the benefit of doubt next year and in the future.”
The momentum is building out West.
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this story.
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