SAN JOSE, Calif. — Getting to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is nothing new for Gonzaga and Arizona.
The task this weekend for the Bulldogs and Wildcats will be trying to make it out of the West Region and take that next step to the Final Four. The process starts Thursday when top-seeded Gonzaga (34-1) faces No. 4 seed West Virginia (28-8) and second-seeded Arizona (32-4) faces No. 11 seed Xavier (23-13).
“We’re in the spotlight now and we have to make the most of it,” Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews said.
This marks the third straight trip to the Sweet 16 for the Bulldogs and fifth in seven years for the Wildcats. But like the rest of their brethren based in the western United States, they haven’t made a Final Four in that span. Gonzaga is looking for its first trip ever, and Arizona seeks its first since 2001.
No western team has made it to the Final Four since UCLA had three straight trips from 2006-08. But with the top two seeds in San Jose, as well as Pac-12 contenders Oregon in the Midwest Region and UCLA in the South, this could be the year that drought ends.
“I just think sometimes these things are cyclical,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think if you kind of really, you know, drill it down a little bit, the teams are a little bit older and experienced.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller has a national view, having played at Pittsburgh in the 1980s and coached in the East and Midwest before arriving at Arizona in 2009. He said there was little difference in the quality or type of players from different parts of the country.
Any doubts of the talent out West should have been put to rest by the five Pac-12 players in the NBA All-Star game last month.
“The Pac-12 does not get enough credit for the amazing amount of talent that has gone through here,” Miller said.
Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who previously ran the West Coast Conference, credited coaching continuity that has helped keep West Coast talent home and better exposure from television deals that have put more games from both conferences on ESPN’s platforms.
“We’re seeing the fruits of that labor now,” Zaninovich said. “There’s still work to be done. We have three in the Sweet 16. Now we have to get one to the Final Four. It’s been a while now.”
Third round, West region; San Jose, California; 7:09 p.m. (Arizona time).
BOTTOM LINE: Xavier is the lone double-digit seed left in a Sweet 16 filled with power programs. The Musketeers pulled off a pair of upsets to reach the regional semifinals, beating No. 6 seed Maryland and No. 3 Florida State the first weekend of the tournament. To get to the next round, Xavier will have to beat one of the hottest teams in the bracket. Arizona earned a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title, won the Pac-12 Tournament, then beat North Dakota and Saint Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament.
MILLER AND MACK: Arizona coach Sean Miller and Xavier’s Chris Mack will be facing each other in regional semifinals for the second time in three years. The two are close; Mack was an assistant under Miller and was elevated to the head job when he left for Arizona.
The teams met in this round in 2015 with the Wildcats winning 68-60. “My players don’t care about Sean, just as Sean’s players don’t care about me,” Mack said. “It is about our teams.”
KEEP AN EYE ON: Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett and Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen. Bluiett struggled with injuries during the regular season, but has rounded back into form at the right time, leading the Musketeers into the regional semifinals despite a season-ending injury to point guard Edmond Sumner in late January. Markkanen is a difficult matchup for any team, a 7-foot freshman playing with the skills of a guard and can shoot from inside or out.
TURNAROUND TIME: Xavier’s season fell off the rails with a six-game losing streak starting in February. To turn the page, Mack had his players burn the February pages from calendars and put the ashes in a jar that is at each practice and in the locker room for games. The Musketeers have won five of six games since the skid.
“Just a reminder that good things and special things can happen as we look forward and not worry about what happened in the past,” Mack said.