College basketball’s biggest stage is set.
Most traditionalists probably believe the path is clear for North Carolina to make up for its buzzer-beating defeat in last season’s final and maintain the traditional hierarchy of college hoops. But, a couple of outsiders are looking to prove that there’s good college basketball west of the Mississippi.
“Gonzaga is for real, and so is Oregon,” stated longtime NCAA announcer Bill Raftery in a conference call on Monday. “A lot of people don’t realize what’s going on in the Pac-12; or with Gonzaga because they’re in the WCC people don’t realize how good they are. I think this weekend will open people’s eyes.”
Grant Hill, who will be joining Raftery on the broadcasting team during the Final Four, echoed his partner’s thoughts, “This has been a really good year for basketball in the west coast. Those teams ‘Raft’ mentioned have had great seasons. It’s only fitting that we get representation from these two programs with two talented teams and two great coaches.”
The Final Four will feature unique bi-coastal representation. A pair of schools from the Pacific Northwest taking on the Carolinas. While each of the four teams that will play in the national semifinal this weekend all play with varying styles and approaches to the game, they do have an interesting commonality—each team holds its conference’s respective Player of the Year.
In such a distinguished group, Raftery singled out the reigning WCC Player of the Year when asked who he believed would be most vital to their team lifting the title, “Gonzaga has Nigel Williams-Goss running the show for them. Some of those other guys (Sindarius Thornwell, Justin Jackson, and Dillon Brooks) are catalysts, but not coordinators . . . I lean towards the point guards or lead guards who make the decisions and read the play.”
Williams-Goss has certainly been a vital cog on what Mark Few is now willing to call his best team ever, but have he and the Zags done enough this season to change the perception around the country that they are not a legitimate national powerhouse?
Count Hill among the believers, “I think Gonzaga has been a powerhouse for quite some time. And it (a Final Four berth) validates what they’ve done. There hasn’t been a coach more consistent with their level of play over the last 10-15 years than Mark Few. But because he hasn’t been to a Final Four or won a national championship, people think it’s not valid. It helps move the narrative from being a mid-major, or a major-mid as I like to call them, to a powerhouse.”
That the Zags, playing in their 19th straight NCAA Tournament, have been knocking on the door for so long speaks to just how difficult and unpredictable the contest can be. Raftery, who coached at Seton Hall for 11 seasons before launching an iconic broadcasting career that has lasted 30+ years appreciates the job Few has done, “No one realizes how hard it is to win these six games. Mark Few said after their last game that this is for all the guys who came before that made this possible. Maybe this isn’t a school that has won five (championships) like Duke, but the journey to get here has been very productive. They’ve got unbelievable respect.”
While Gonzaga may no longer be called college basketball’s “Cinderella,” its story is not complete. This Final Four is an opportunity for the Zags to finish the fairy tale transformation that began in 1999. Stated Hill, “I think it’s a chance for the whole world to really watch this team and see just how good they are.”