You can’t blame East Coast bias for this: The Pac-12 has been shut out of the Final Four for eight straight years, not appearing there since the likes of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook suited up for UCLA.
The conference has an ideal opportunity to break that streak with Arizona, Oregon and UCLA considered capable of championship runs.
“For different reasons, all three teams are capable of making it to the Final Four,” former UCLA and St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said.
Lavin calls games in the regular season for FOX Sports, but after the Big East Tournament ends, he will slide over to CBS/Turner to call NCAA Tournament games alongside Ian Eagle.
Lavin sees parallels between the 1995 UCLA team for which he was an assistant, and the one that has risen up this season in Westwood after several down seasons. Both went undefeated in non-conference play including a win over Kentucky, had coaches on the hot seat (Jim Harrick then, Steve Alford now) and, most importantly, featured an explosive of mix of freshmen and seniors.
“UCLA has the best top seven in the country, hands down,” Lavin said. “There are teams that have more depth or [a] more dominant front line, but there isn’t a better seven than UCLA’s. There’s a lot of firepower. Not only do they have [Lonzo] Ball, but [Aaron] Holiday coming off the bench.”
Lavin, though, has similar concerns with UCLA and Oregon: depth. There is no such issue with Arizona, which has transformed into the most dangerous team out West after being riddled with injuries early in the season.
“Arizona has the most depth of the group. Sean Miller has been to Elite Eights and this group has been solid, and his front line goes four or five deep with Lauri Markkanen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche, Keanu Pinder,” said Lavin, who parted ways with the Red Storm two seasons ago.
While all three teams are in the national title conversation, it’s possible none lands a No. 1 seed when the brackets are announced Sunday. That honor could belong to Gonzaga, which rolled to another West Coast Conference championship this week and has only one blemish — against BYU — on the season.
But a conference season spent beating up on mediocre teams, aside from Saint Mary’s, may not have been the best preparation for the field of 68.
“I love [Przemek] Karnowski, he’s one of those hub-of-the-wheel kind of guys,” Lavin said. “They can throw it to him, and he anchors them offensively. He can create offense through his catches because he either scores off his catches or kicks it out off the doubles to the perimeter for open shots.
“My concern is that they are winning by 25 points a game and that’s not the ideal adversity training for the NCAA Tournament when you’re winning by that much. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not as if you want your kids to not play well. But I think that’s hurt them a few times over the years.”