Arizona and Ohio State reaching the West Region’s semifinals was not much of a surprise. Both are loaded with talent, have great coaches and were relatively high seeds.
The rest of the West was a mess, at least in terms of trying to put together a bracket.
New Mexico, Kansas State and Mississippi, seed Nos. 3-5, didn’t get past their first games. Top-seeded Gonzaga struggled in its first game, lost its second. La Salle had to win a play-in game, then knocked off two teams with better seeds.
Of the 12 games in the region, seven were won by teams with the worst seed, by far the most of the NCAA tournament’s four regions.
The West has indeed been wild, so, in a way, it seems fitting that Wichita State and La Salle would play in the nightcap of the regional semifinals Thursday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“It’s not parity. Everyone’s good,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “Maybe no one is great the way Jordan, Perkins and Worthy were, Patrick Ewing’s teams, but everybody is good.”
It’s a hard point to argue.
Gonzaga came into the NCAA tournament as the nation’s hottest team, ranked No. 1 the final two weeks of the regular season and one of four No. 1 seeds in the field of 68.
The Zags labored in their opener before pulling away from Southern University to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Instead, Gonzaga became the first top seed to go down in this year’s tournament, knocked out by the somewhat shocking Shockers of Wichita State.
“I lost it a little bit, just the instant reaction and realizing this was the finish,” Gonzaga senior Mike Hart said after the 76-70 loss. “That’s the brutality of the NCAA tournament, how great it can be and how quickly it can all end.”
That was certainly the case in the wild West.
No. 14 seed Harvard blew up brackets everywhere with a Revenge of the Nerds-type victory over No. 3 New Mexico, a favorite dark horse pick to reach the Final Four.
Wisconsin was unable to build off its Big Ten tournament championship, bounced out of the tournament by Mississippi and its mouthy guard Marshall Henderson.
La Salle didn’t even get its own seeding; the Explorers had to share it with Boise State, earning the spot by beating the Broncos in the First Four. La Salle followed that up by taking out No. 4 Kansas State and made it three wins in five days by bringing down Henderson and the Rebels.
Wichita State pulled off a mild upset in its opening game by rolling over No. 8 seed Pittsburgh, then took down a tournament titan, rallying from an eight-point second-half deficit to beat Gonzaga.
“The way that West bracket’s shook down, they’ve got a great chance of winning a couple more games,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of the neighboring Shockers. “It will be interesting.”
The next chapter in this what’s-going-to-happen-next tale comes Thursday night, when Wichita State and La Salle meet in a semifinal for the little guys.
La Salle got into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992 and hasn’t been this far in the bracket in five decades, before there was a round of 16. With their three wins so far, the Explorers have won more NCAA tournament games in a week than in the previous 58 years combined.
Wichita State has had a bit more recent success, winning 109 games the past four seasons, including an NIT title and consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. Even with their success, the Shockers still don’t make much of a blip on the radar, playing under the shadow of Kansas and Kansas State in their own state and being overshadowed by Creighton and All-American forward Doug McDermott in the Missouri Valley Conference most of this season.
The winner Thursday night in the underdog half of the bracket will get a shot at even bigger glory.
“You keep winning, you’ll get notoriety,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.
Oh, by the way, the other side of the West bracket features one of the best matchups so far in the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State, the West’s No. 2 seed, went to the Final Four last season, has one of the country’s best coaches in Thad Matta and do-everything guard Aaron Craft, who plays defense like a pit bull and hit a last-second 3-pointer against Iowa State to get the Buckeyes to LA.
Arizona appears to be all the way back from its brief fall from grace after the retirement of Lute Olson thanks to Sean Miller, a top-of-the-class recruiter who’s just as good at managing a game. The sixth-seeded Wildcats have a young, deep frontcourt, a pair of big-play guards in Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson, and rolled through their opening two games in the tournament.
“We’re waiting for you in LA,” Miller told Matta, one of his closest friends in coaching, in a text after both teams won over the weekend.
So are the Shockers and Explorers, setting up what’s sure to be another wild week in the West.