NCAA Tournament in Portland: Local fans have 4 familiar teams to get behind this week

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is back in Portland for a fourth time since 2009, and this year it has more of a West Coast flavor than ever before.

The Moda Center games previously hosted in 2009, 2012 and 2015, but Thursday will mark the first time that all four first-round games will feature a team from the Pacific Northwest or California.

The mix of power programs and upstarts signals the quality of teams in the region, and despite the lack of Oregon and Oregon State from this year’s tournament field, local fans will have familiar teams to get behind this week.

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Reigning Final Four participants Gonzaga and UCLA will be joined by Boise State and Saint Mary’s, which are each enjoying their highest seeding in program history.

If all four win Thursday, Saturday’s second round would feature all four Western teams in action.

Gonzaga and UCLA faced off in the 2021 Final Four, with the Bulldogs winning on a buzzer-beater from just inside halfcourt by Jalen Suggs. But the teams can’t play each other this week, as they are in completely different regions of the bracket.

Gonzaga is the top seed in the West Region, and plays 16th-seeded Georgia State at 1:15 pm An expected victory would pit them against the winner of Boise State and Memphis, who kick off the action at 10:45 am Thursday.

UCLA is the fourth seed in the East Region, and takes on No. 13 Akron at 6:50 pm A Bruins win would set up a meeting with Saint Mary’s or Indiana, who play at 4:20 pm

The Bruins might not be the most popular team in Oregon due to long-standing Pac-12 rivalries with the Ducks and Beavers, but the perennial national power has a significant NCAA Tournament history in Portland. UCLA won the 1965 national championship at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, defeating Michigan 91-80 behind 42 points from Gail Goodrich. In 1975, UCLA won Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games at the Coliseum on the way to coach John Wooden’s 10th and final national title.

Those games are in the distant past, but coach Mick Cronin embraced that legacy at Wednesday’s news conference, arriving at the podium in a replica of a blue and gold sweater jacket with a “UCLA Staff” patch that wooden made famous.

“When you’re part of the best tradition in maybe sports, but definitely college basketball, I might walk out in a Bill Walton jersey tomorrow,” Cronin joked. “We try to embrace it in every way we can.”

Last year’s Bruins made the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, then returned most of that squad and spent much of this season ranked in the top five in the country. A 4-4 stretch in the middle of the Pac-12 schedule dropped their ranking a bit, but they’re still a potentially dangerous team from the No. 4 seed line.

Boise State, the eighth seed in the West Region, goes up against ninth-seeded Memphis. The Broncos are making their eighth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2015, but have yet to win a game.

“It’s great to be in the Northwest,” said Broncos coach Leon Rice. “Hopefully we get a great turnout of Boise State fans.”

Rice noted that his team isn’t feeling the pressure of chasing its first tournament win.

“They’ve wanted to win every game the same way, and they competed that same way,” he said. “It’s business as usual with these guys.”

The Broncos feature two familiar faces for local hoops fans in University of Portland transfer Marcus Shaver Jr. and Oregon transfer Abu Kigab. They’re the top two scorers for a 27-7 team that won the Mountain West tournament title on Saturday. Both are getting their first shot at playing in an NCAA Tournament.

“This is what we’ve been working for the whole year, to get these moments,” said Kigab. “When you stop worrying about outcomes you can’t control and just focus on the things you can control, you can do a lot of special things.”

Saint Mary’s also has received its highest seeding in tournament history at No. 5 in the East Region. The Gaels of Moraga, California, have made the tournament eight times in Randy Bennett’s 20 years as coach, and have been Gonzaga’s main foil in the West Coast Conference over that span. Saint Mary’s handed Gonzaga one of its three losses this season, 67-57 on Feb. 26.

The Gaels will face 12th-seeded Indiana, which defeated Wyoming in a First Four “play-in” game on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.

With San Francisco also making the tournament this season, the WCC put three teams in the NCAA field and two more in the NIT. Between the quality of the league, a 25-7 record and a strong analytical profile, the Gaels were highly regarded by the selection committee.

“I think having a difficult schedule this year prepared us, and obviously this is the best our league has been in a long time,” senior guard Tommy Kuhse said. “And then our nonconference schedule, we were able to play teams like Oregon and also Wisconsin.”

Bennett said it was “nice to be in the same time zone” for the first time in the NCAA Tournament.

“We were excited too when Portland was our site,” Bennett said. “And we all understand what Indiana basketball is and what it means and the type of blue blood program they have been for a long, long time.”

— Scott Sepich for The Oregonian/OregonLive

NCAA TOURNAMENT IN PORTLAND

First-round games Thursday, March 17

West Region

No. 8 Boise State (27-7) vs. No. 9 Memphis (21-10), 10:45 am, TNT | Get Tickets

No. 1 Gonzaga (26-3) vs. No. 16 Georgia State (18-10), 1:15 pm, TNT | Get tickets

East Region

No. 5 Saint Mary’s (25-7) vs. No. 12 Indiana (21-13), 4:20 pm, TBS | Get tickets

No. 4 UCLA (25-7) vs. No. 13 Akron (24-9), 6:50 pm, TBS | Get tickets