HISTORICALLY SPEAKING, IT HAS BEEN A WILD WEST

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What defines a good regional?

Is it the best collection of talent and tradition, such as the grouping of UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse in this year's NCAA South Regional?

Is it one with the best story lines, such as Rhode Island and Valparaiso and the Harrick and Drew families in the Midwest?

Is it any regional without bombastic Indiana Coach Bob Knight?

Throughout the years, the West has usually found a way to qualify in every department--although Knight's Hoosiers did win the region in 1992.

From the dominance of UCLA to upstart Loyola Marymount's touching run of victories after the death of Hank Gathers, the West has seen just about everything.

The foursome gathered for this year's West Regional at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, which ranges from defending champion Arizona to 10th-seeded West Virginia, managed to bring together a little bit of all.

"It goes in cycles," said UC Santa Barbara Athletic Director Gary Cunningham, who has experienced the West Regional from just about every angle, from John Wooden's side during the UCLA dynasty, as a Bruin coach in 1978-79, and as Wyoming's athletic director in the 1980s.

Time to spin backward.

In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, playing in the West meant playing UCLA, which meant the Final Four was a fantasy.

"You want to play the best team," said Dick Garibaldi, who coached Santa Clara in losses to UCLA in 1968 and '69. "Unfortunately, you had to play them in the West Regional all the time."

UCLA won 10 national championships from 1964-1975 and also won the West Regional in 1962, '74 and '76.

Back then teams stayed in their home region, regardless of the way the talent was distributed.

"It would have been nice not to have to play UCLA every year," Garibaldi said.

Also the NCAA didn't have its current rules that prohibit teams from playing on their home courts until the Final Four. When Santa Clara played UCLA in the regional final in 1969, it was in Pauley Pavilion.

"They tromped us [90-52] at UCLA," Garibaldi said. "If we were playing at our place, I would like to play them again with our team. But that's my thinking."

In 1974, Dayton became the first team east of the Mississippi to play in the West since the four-region setup began in 1956. In what might have been an indication of the trouble that was to come from Eastern teams, the Flyers took UCLA to triple overtime before losing.

Cunningham, a UCLA assistant coach from 1967 to '75 and the Bruins' head coach from 1977 to '79, thought the UCLA glory days made the West stronger.

"A lot of young people identified with the Bruins," Cunningham said. "I think it stimulated basketball in the West."

But Western schools did not get to reap all the benefits, and somehow the West Regional became a referendum on the state of Western basketball.

In 1975 the tournament field was expanded to 32 and teams other than conference champions were allowed in. The seeding process was adopted in 1978 and within three years (and with 16 more teams joining the party), the principles for maintaining competitive balance in each region were established.

That led to the days when the best in the West often came from the East. From 1979 to 1986, seven of the eight Western regional winners came from east of the Mississippi.

In 1984, Georgetown held the No. 1 seeding in the West and advanced to the championship game. Another Big East Conference school, St. John's, had the No. 1 seeding in 1985 (when the field was expanded to 64 teams) and 1986. "Where they were ahead was, the Big East was able to get the national TV package," Cunningham said. "They were able to garner a lot of national publicity. Some of the players that were West went East."

That led to situations such as the top three seeded teams in the West going to Eastern schools in 1985 and '86, and sights such as Crenshaw star Stephen Thompson playing for Syracuse in the 1987 Final Four.

"People did talk about it," Cunningham said. "'How do we get stronger in the West?' People were hurt by the fact that we were losing."

Said Arizona Coach Lute Olson: "When our coaches were saying we should have more respect, I was saying people don't give you respect, you earn respect."

Nevada Las Vegas and Arizona emerged in the late 1980s to carry the flag for the West.

UNLV, with Coach Jerry Tarkanian managing to stay one step ahead of the NCAA's investigators, was top seeded in the West three times from 1987 to '91, advanced to the Final Four three times and won the championship in 1991.

Arizona held the West's top seeding and made the Final Four in 1988, and came back with a No. 1 seeding again in 1989.

Midwest schools were seeded first in 1993 (Michigan) and 1994 (Missouri), and Olson complained the NCAA men's basketball committee was sending too many strong teams out to the West.

In 1992, for example, the NCAA shipped No. 5 Indiana, No. 20 Florida State, No. 22 Georgetown, No. 23 Oklahoma, No. 24 DePaul and No. 25 Louisiana State out West to join No. 4 UCLA, which meant the West had more ranked teams than any other region.

And don't think it's an automatic disadvantage for Eastern teams to make the long trip.

Georgetown loved to go west. Two of the Hoyas' three Final Four appearances came through the West.

"I like to go away," Georgetown Coach John Thompson once said. "It's more of an environment to work in."

North Carolina State, one of the all-time Cinderella teams, danced its way through the West in 1993, winning a regional semifinal game against Virginia by one point.

Maryland is in the West Regional semifinals for the second time in four years.

"If they want to put us west, that's fine," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "We're just glad to be playing. It always amazes me when anybody complains about where they're going or whatever."

In 1995 Maryland went directly to the regional site in Oakland after winning a second-round game in Salt Lake City. School was on break that week. This time, the Terrapins flew back from Sacramento after Saturday's game, went to class Monday and Tuesday and came out to Anaheim on Tuesday afternoon.

Olson thinks his team will have an edge because the Pond is so close to Tucson.

"That's why you play the regular season, to have the opportunity to not have to chase all the way across the country to play," Olson said. "Last year, we played in the Eastern time zone every game. That was one of the things [the players] wanted, was a No. 1 seed so they could stay in the West."

Of course, that doesn't explain how the Wildcats could win a championship while they were the seeded sixth in the East last year, and lose in the first round as the second-seeded team in the West in 1993.

Olson sees last year's championship--and UCLA's title in 1995--as proof that the West is back. That comes in addition to the four spots in the Sweet 16 occupied by Pac-10 teams this year and last year. And don't forget Western Athletic Conference representative Utah, whose prominence the past couple of years has given the West another player on the national landscape and this year gave the West another team in the Sweet 16.

Don't get Olson started.

Oops, too late.

"If you take the Midwest and the West, I think our teams west of the Mississippi have done better than teams from the East Coast," Olson said. "I don't know how that can be explained, because obviously East Coast is where the basketball is."

That was Saturday, after Arizona beat Illinois State in the second round. By Wednesday, he was unstoppable.

"Now, when you take a look at what's happened over the last couple of years, maybe it's time for us to say, 'Hey look, we do deserve the respect because we've earned it,' " Olson said. "We're not just yapping about it."

"We went through a down cycle," Cunningham said. "But I think we're back OK."

All of that spinning over the past 30 years has mixed things up.

There's plenty of familiarity, but with all kinds of twists. The Big East is represented by West Virginia, which joined the basketball conference in 1995 and upset second-seeded Cincinnati on a last-second shot in the second round.

The No. 1-seeded team and defending champion is from the Pac-10, only it's Arizona, not UCLA.

As for the Bruins, they're in the South, seeded sixth. They're forced to play on without injured guard Baron Davis and are--get this--drawing pity from Dick Garibaldi.

"Poor UCLA," Garibaldi said, in all seriousness. "I feel sorry for them."

This isn't the same old West.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

West Is Best

NATIONAL CHAMPS BY REGION

* WEST: 24

* EAST: 14

* MIDWEST: 10

* SOUTH/SOUTHEAST/MIDEAST: 10

WEST REGIONAL CHAMPIONS

1939: Oregon*

1940: Kansas

1941: Washington State

1942: Stanford*

1943: Wyoming*

1944: Utah*

1945: Oklahoma State*

1946: Oklahoma State*

1947: Oklahoma

1948: Baylor

1949: Oklahoma State

1950: Bradley

1951: Kansas State

1952: Kansas*

1953: Kansas

1954: Bradley

1955: San Francisco*

1956: Southern Methodist

1957: San Francisco

1958: Seattle

1959: California*

1960: California

1961: Utah

1962: UCLA

1963: Oregon State

1964: UCLA*

1965: UCLA*

1966: Utah

1967: UCLA*

1968: UCLA*

1969: UCLA*

1970: UCLA*

1971: UCLA*

1972: UCLA*

1973: UCLA*

1974: UCLA

1975: UCLA*

1976: UCLA

1977: Nevada Las Vegas

1978: Arkansas

1979: DePaul

1980: UCLA

1981: North Carolina

1982: Georgetown

1983: North Carolina State*

1984: Georgetown*

1985: St. John's

1986: Louisville*

1987: Nevada Las Vegas

1988: Arizona

1989: Seton Hall

1990: Nevada Las Vegas*

1991: Nevada Las Vegas

1992: Indiana

1993: Michigan

1994: Arizona

1995: UCLA*

1996: Syracuse

1997: Kentucky

* NCAA champion.

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