By Connor Buestad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
With Selection Sunday just one month away (March 15th), we figure it’s no longer too early to dive into a bit of Bracketology with a decidedly west coast bias. Of course, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, Joe Lundari is the godfather of modern bracketology. And although he currently doubles as a marketing staffer for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, he still shows love to west coast bubble teams. Namely in 2009 when he punched St. Mary’s (CA) ticket for the NCAA’s in his faux bracket, only to watch in horror when the Gaels were left out of the Big Dance that year. Creighton was the only other school that Lunardi incorrectly invited to the Dance in ‘09.
By mid-February, Lunardi’s bracket predictions start to take shape and at least half-resemble what the actual tournament will look like come March. So let’s take a second to explore what’s been happening out west in the world of college hoops. Who on the left coast should be polishing up their dancing shoes? Some of the names Lunardi has penciled in might surprise you.
Let’s start in the Big Sky Conference, where the Sacramento State Hornets are having their best basketball season in god knows how long. Led by the sensational scorer Mikh McKinny who played JUCO ball in Fremont before transferring up to Sacramento, the Hornets find themselves in second place in the conference just behind Eastern Washington. Lunardi has liked what he’s seen out of Sacramento enough to put them in the Dance as a 16 seed. This would give them a spot in the first-round “play in” game, and their reward for winning would be a matchup with Kentucky. But hey, YOU NEVER KNOW, right? But first things first, Sac needs to make the NCAA tourney, and this will likely require them to win the Big Sky Conference tournament. Traditionally, the team that wins the Big Sky regular season gets to host the conference tournament. Unfortunately, the “Hornets Nest” only seats eleven-hundred folks. So if they host, they’ll host in Reno, Nevada. Trip to Reno for the 2015 Big Sky tournament anyone??
Exemplary basketball is also being played down the road in Davis this year. The UC Davis Aggies are sitting atop the Big West Conference with a 9-1 record. This has impressed Uncle Joe enough to grant UCD a 14 seed in the 2015 Dance.
Since becoming a Division 1 basketball team, UC Davis has not had a winning record. However, I suppose that isn’t such a big deal in Big West hoops when you consider Cal Poly made the 2014 NCAA’s while sporting a losing record. They even won their first tournament game.
Irregardless, Davis is really good this year and it is because of their lights out shooting. Who shoots it for them you ask? Hersey Hawkins' son, Corey. The younger Hawkins sports a similar stroke to his father, and after transferring over from Arizona State, he has finally come into his own as a prolific scorer. If the Aggies can win the Big West Tourney at the Anaheim Pond this March, there’s no reason to believe they can’t ride some streaky shooting to the Sweet Sixteen. Now wouldn’t that be something.
Down the coast in San Diego, Steve Fisher is still kicking at the age of 69 (he turns 70 in March). Suddenly a staple in the tournament, the Aztecs are good yet again, and it is because of their smothering, 40-minutes-of-hell type defense. Colorado State is also a formidable squad this year, thus Lunardi has two Mountain West teams as NCAA contenders (SDSU as a 9 seed and Colorado State as a 10 seed).
College hoops junkies the world over were saddened by the passing of Jerry Tarkanian last week. “Tark the Shark” coached two current Mountain West teams during his career, UNLV and Fresno State. Both of these squads find themselves in the middle of the pack in conference play. Perhaps one of which will make a surprise run at conference tournament title in Tark’s honor? Get out to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas March 12-14 to see for yourself...
That same weekend in March, Vegas will also host the PAC-12 tournament at the MGM Grand. Last year’s winner was UCLA. This year the prohibitive favorite will be Arizona. The Wildcats are seemingly stacked at every position and are currently 21-3. Lunardi only has them as a 2 seed, but this Arizona team reminds some people of the Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Miles Simon 1998 team. Well, maybe they're not quite at that level. But a Kentucky-Arizona NCAA battle in 2015 would be a real treat.
Utah is the second best team in the PAC thus far this year with a 9-2 conference record. Even if Keith Van Horn isn’t walking through that door, Lunardi has them as a 3 seed.
As is usually the case the PAC-12, the middle of the conference standings are quite crowded. Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, and UCLA could all make a case for having a tournament worthy resume. Hell, even the CAL Bears, who are just 6-6 in conference still have a shot at NCAA glory due to their recent five game winning streak highlighted by a slew of last second victories. When the dust settles, Lunardi expects we’ll see just four PAC-12 teams in the Dance. Right now those teams are Arizona, Utah, Stanford, and UCLA.
The conference that boasts the best team on the west coast is Gonzaga. Well, if you think they’re better than Arizona, that is. The Zags are really damn good again, due in large part to a phenomenal backcourt duo in Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos. Coach Mark Few also has brought some bench scoring to Spokane by way of Lithuania. Arvydas Sabonis’ 6’10” son, Domantas, is scoring 10 points a game off the bench for the Zags this season. Naturally, Lunardi has Gonzaga as a 1 seed. Whether they finally make a Final Four run is another story entirely.
The mighty Gales of St. Mary’s have managed to retain the second spot in the conference this year behind 20 points a game from senior Brad Waldow. Senior point guard Kerry Carter has also been a leader for the Gaels. Credit Randy Bennett with putting together yet another solid team Moraga. The coach won his 300th game for the Gaels this year and even though he doesn’t have Aussies Patty Mills or Matthew Dellavedova to work with, he’s still winning games.
As always, we endorse an early March getaway to Orleans Arena in Vegas to watch the grossly underrated WCC Tournament. Not only will Zags and Gaels have high powered teams to watch, but BYU certainly will too. The Cougars gave Gonzaga a run for their money in last year’s tourney, and this year should be no different. Senior Tyler Haws is averaging 22 PPG and his running mate Kyle Collinsworth is one of the best rebounding guards in America.
It won’t be long before Championship Week is again upon us and Dickie V is screaming at you on TV from his living room. And he might just be hollering about the UC Davis Aggies and Sac State Hornets out west. That is if they “pass the eye test” over the next 30 days. But whatever happens in the madness of March, Jerry Tarkanian will be watching from heaven with a towel in his mouth.