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MONTANANS IN MADNESS: Welcome to the most unique Big Dance ever

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Editor’s Note: what follows is the final installment of a five-part series that provides a first-hand account of a trip to Indianapolis for the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament by Colter Nuanez and Riley Corcoran. The co-founder of Skyline Sports and the head of ESPN Missoula was accompanied by the Voice of the Griz to America’s heartland for the most unorthodox Big Dance of all time.

DAY 4 – West Coast connection

What happened to the Pac 12? It’s an omnipresent question around college basketball the last few years.

In Wayne Tinkle’s second season at Oregon State in 2016, the Beavers finished seventh in the Pac 12 yet received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. The following year, four Pac 12 teams got into March Madness, including Arizona getting a No. 2 seed while Oregon and UCLA earned three-seeds.

The following year, only three Pac 12 teams qualified; fourth-seeded Arizona, 11th-seeded UCLA and 11th-seeded Arizona State all lost in the first round. In 2019, the Pac 12 again got just three teams in. Oregon won the Pac 12 tournament and got a 12-seed. Arizona State won a play-in game to get an 11-seed. And regular-season champion Washington got a No. 9 seed.

With more than 700 days between NCAA Tournaments, the league didn’t get much more respect in terms of seeding in the 2021 Big Dance either, yet found a way to steal teh show in Indianapolis.

Oregon won the regular-season championship and received a No. 7 seed. USC went 15-5 in league play, posting the most Pac 12 wins in the league on the way to earning a No. 6 seed. Colorado beat USC in the semifinals of the Pac 12 tournament to earn a No. 5 seed.

UCLA earned a spot in the play-in game and took care of business against Michigan State to earn a No. 11 seed. And Oregon State’s run through the post-season earned the Beavers the tournament title and a No. 12 seed.

The seeds didn’t seem to matter that first weekend in Indy for teams from the West Coast. Unless, of course, that team is top-ranked Gonzaga.

Throw the Zags into the mix and teams from the West dominated the first weekend of the 2021 NCAA Tournament like no other conference. Oregon State was the first to move into the Sweet 16. Monday’s slate of games provided an almost constant run into the second weekend from Western schools.

Former Montana player and head coach Wayne Tinkle, currently the head coach at Oregon State/ contributed

Such a phenomenon is rare. Since John Wooden led UCLA to its 10th and final NCAA championship under the Wizard of Westwood, teams from the East have dominated the college basketball landscape. Only Kansas in 1988, UNLV in 1990, UCLA in 1995, Arizona in 1997 and Kansas in 2008 could be considered “Western” teams to win the NCAA title. And Kansas might be a stretch.

UCLA played for the title in 1980. Houston lost in the title game in 1983 and 1984. Billy Tubbs’ Oklahoma squad lost in the 1988 title game to Kansas. Tubbs passed away earlier this year. Former Montana State head coach Brian Fish worked for Tubbs at TCU before Fish returned to Creighton to work for Dana Altman.

Rick Majerus’ Utah Runnin’ Utes lost in the 1998 national title game to Tubby Smith’s Kentucky Wildcats. Former Northern Arizona head coach Ben Howland led UCLA to the 2006 national title game where they lost to Florida, the first of two straight national titles for the Gators, marking the last time a team has repeated as NCAA Tournament champions.

Roy Williams won his last national title in 2017 when he led UNC past Gonzaga in the first title game appearance for the Zags.

University of Oregon head basketball coach Dana Altman/by Eric Evans Photography

Oregon got this West Coast surge off to an impressive start. A Ducks team that features four potential NBA Draft picks got out in transition early and often, running the overmatched Iowa Hawkeyes into the ground. Oregon looked as fresh as you’d expect for a team off essentially a first-round bye might look in the 95-80 victory.

Luka Garza, the 2021 Wooden Award winner as the National Player of the Year, had a two-year stretch at Iowa that rivals any in college hoops history. He averaged 24 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game for two consecutive years. The son of former Idaho Vandal standout Frank Garza was the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and was voted the Sporting News Player of the Year for the second year in a row, marking the first repeat winner since Michael Jordan in 1983 and 1984.

In what would ultimately be his final college game, Garza looked at the same time dominant on offense and overmatched on defense. The big, strong, coordinated yet slow and lumbering 6-foot-11 power forward poured in 36 points and grabbed nine rebounds. But he also found himself in disadvantageous situations in transition defense and against Oregon’s spread offensive system.

That helped the Ducks never miss a beat in denying Garza and the Hawkeyes a chance to break a 22-year Sweet 16 drought.

Former Montana State head coach Brian Fish/ by Brooks Nuanez

Oregon advancing meant a call from Fish after he received a picture of the Ducks celebrating. He told a story of when he was on an Altman staff that helped lead UO to the Final Four in Indianapolis in 2017.

“We had to call a second timeout less than six minutes into the game just to get our guys to breath,” Fish, a native of Seymour, Indiana about an hour south of Indy, said with a chuckle. “That’s what it’s like to play in that football arena in front of 70,000 people.”

Our newly acquired “personal driver” Hussein awaits outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse to race us straight to the curb to witness the team everyone is talking about: the top-ranked Bulldogs of GU.

It’s been 55 years since Bobby Knight led the Indiana Hoosiers to an undefeated 1976 national championship. Since then, only Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in 1979, Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels of 1991, Greg Marshall’s 2014 Wichita State Shockers, and John Calipari’s last Final Four team at Kentucky in 2015 entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated since Knight’s Hoosiers won it all. None of those teams won the national championship.

A side note: interviewing Knight in August of 2012 remains one of the absolute highlights of this writer’s sports chronicling career.

Bob Knight tells stories of fishing, basketball to joy of Bozeman crowd

Bobby Knight during a talk in Bozeman in August of 2012/ by Nick Wolcott

Yet here was Gonzaga — a private Jesuit school from Washington’s Inland Empire that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament for the first time until 1995 — on the brink of perfection.

The 1999 GU run to the Elite Eight led by memorable characters like Casey Calvary and Richie Fromm set the foundation of what would become one of the most unorthodox and impressive strings of success in college hoops history.

Since 1999, Gonzaga has won all but two West Coast Conference regular-season titles and all but two (2003 and 2010) WCC Tournament titles. GU has been to the Sweet 16 a total of 11 times since 1999, including the last six.

Even though Gonzaga made the Elite Eight in 2019 and its first Final Four two years earlier, even this Gonzaga team felt different.

GU entered this March Madness riding a 26-game winning streak that moved to 27 with the win over Norfolk State in the first round. We pulled up to Hinkle for the second time, admiring the symmetry of watching Gonzaga play in the home arena of Butler, the other and most recent mid-major Bulldogs who bulldogged their way into the Final Four two times in a row last decade.

Gonzaga center Drew Timme/ contributed

In what would ultimately be the last game of Hall of Fame-bound Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger, Gonzaga’s studs Jaylen Suggs and Drew Timme put on a show. Timme, one of the breakout stars of this tournament for his flatfooted dunking, handlebar mustache-pointing celebrations and consistent production, poured in 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Oklahoma hung around but could not find the firepower to match Gonzaga as the top seed raced to an 87-71 win.

We watched the second half of the victory from press row while catching up with Spokane-area TV broadcaster Dennis Patchins and sportswriter Ryan Collingwood, the latter of whom was pulling double duty writing about Eastern Washington and Gonzaga for the Spokesman Review. We all agreed that we were pleasantly surprised that a third West Coast team was into the Sweet 16 before the fourth and final day of the first round was over.

And the hits kept coming. As we made our way back across town from Hinkle, we learned that UCLA would be in the Sweet 16 once again after downing Abilene Christian, 67-47. 

Colorado was the first Pac 12 team to stub its toe as Billings native Raequan Evans and the Florida State Seminoles marched into the Sweet 16 with a 71-53 win over the Buffs.

As we returned to Lucas Oil Stadium for one last game, Riley couldn’t help but feel strange about going to watch Michigan.

After all, perhaps the two most prominent games he’s called as “Voice of the Griz” over the last five years came in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Tournaments when Montana drew the Wolverines in consecutive Big Dances.

We sat next to a local high school principal and rehashed some of those memories as Michigan took on LSU. We also set right below the Colts Ring of Honor homage to Eric Dickerson, a former NFL MVP running back who once was the guest speaker at the Triangle Classic Montana State football fundraiser in Great Falls, Montana.

The local principal asked us about the Grizzlies and about Dave Dickenson, the College Football Hall of Famer who quarterbacked Montana to its first Division I-AA national title. It just so happens that one of Michigan’s best players this season was freshman Hunter Dickinson, a 7-foot-1 phenom who will likely be an NBA Draft pick when he decides to declare.

The latest trend in college hoops is to hire a prominent former player as your head coach, as Michigan has done with former Fab Five member Juwan Howard, who became the head coach at his alma mater in 2019 following a 19-year playing career and six seasons as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat.

The 6-foot-9 Howard can be seen on the UM sidelines dictating the action but is rarely in the middle of the huddle. That’s where Phil Martelli comes in, drawing up plays and forming most of the in-game adjustments.

On this night, the Wolverines made enough adjustments to prevail with an 86-78 win over the Tigers to qualify for the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year.

Montana guard Michael Oguine (left) protects the rim against Michigan’s front line during the 2018 NCAA Tournament/ contributed

We pull off a little more radio magic for Monday’s show, broadcasting the first hour from our vacation rental, busting out the first segment of the second hour from the back of our driver Hussein’s gold Honda Accord and finishing the broadcast from our seats at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Following the end of the Michigan game, we needed to get to Hinkle Fieldhouse as soon as possible. After a quick to-go stop at a pizzeria on the Butler campus — Hussein promised to keep the pizza warm for us while we watched our 14th and final game of the tournament — we arrived back at the mecca one last time.

All of a sudden, we were full circle. We walked around the first floor of Hinkle surrounded by a full wall mural laying out the Butler program’s rich history. It’s the same area where teams emerge from their locker rooms, the same area we gave Tinkle a fist bump on his way back onto the arena floor for the second half of what would be one of the most talked about first weekend wins of the tournament over OK State.

And we were in Hinkle one last time to watch USC, a Pac 12 power led by the Mobley brothers. The first games of this uncertain college basketball season came on November 25. Three nights later, Montana opened up its season with a 78-62 loss at USC. That marked the first game Riley had called following the catastrophic cancellations that altered the sporting world the previous spring.

The Trojans rarely lost the rest of the way, posting 25 wins and surging to a berth in the Elite Eight. Perhaps the most impactful win was the one we were about to witness.

Kansas is one of the most consistently contending programs in all of college basketball. The Jayhawks have advanced to 10 of the last 20 Elite Eights and five Final Fours since 2002, winning it all in 2008 and finishing as runner-up in 2003 and 2013.

USC was looking for its first Sweet 16 bid since 2007 and its first Elite Eight bid since 2001.

Previous tradition had zero influence on the result of our final game in Indianapolis. USC entered the contest as a one-point favorite. Instead, the Trojans handed the Jayhawks the most lopsided loss in the last 50 years of Kansas basketball.

Southern Cal certainly made the West Coast look like the best coast on the way to a dominant, statement-like 85-51 victory.

We walked out of the arena thinking that Eastern Washington gave Kansas a much better run than KU gave USC. And that Evan Mobley looked much more like the projected No. 2 overall draft pick than in previous times watching him. We also confirmed that we saw at least 13 projected first round picks and all three projected Top 3 picks during our jaunt through Indiana’s capital city.

Gonzaga star freshman Jaylen Suggs/ contributed

From Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham to GU’s Suggs and Corey Kispert, to Mobely, Baylor’s Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, Texas’ Greg Brown, Oregon’s Chris Duarte and Kai Jones, Michigan’s Franz Wagner, LSU’s Cameron Thomas, Tennessee’s Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson and Arkansas’ Moses Moody, we certainly saw at least as few future impact NBA players. 

The awesome runs of many of the teams we spent our weekend watching continued after we left Indianapolis. Gonzaga stayed red-hot, easily moving past Creighton and USC to reach its second-ever Final Four on a 30-game winning streak. Baylor looked formidable in solid wins over Villanova and Arkansas to claim its first NCAA Regional title since 1950.

Tinkle and the Beavers pulled one more upset, moving past Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago. It also happens that Wayne’s father, Wayne Sr., was the vice president and dean of students at Loyola during Tinkle’s youth. This latest OSU win helped boost the Beavers into the Elite Eight before losing to Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars. 

Michigan ousted Evans and Florida State before running into UCLA, the tournament’s most scorching team after their 88-78 win over second-seeded Alabama.

The Final Four ended up featuring the West Coast’s most historically successful team (UCLA) losing on a Suggs bank shot at the buzzer and a Lone Star State matchup between the coach with Butte roots (Sampson) against a resurrected Baylor program that had arguably its best ever team playing out on the other side of the bracket. 

Throughout our time in Indianapolis, everyone around us seemed like they were wearing white shoes. But as the final buzzer of an atypical, unforgettable March sounded, the slipper did not quite fit for the Cinderella Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Instead, Baylor’s strength and athleticism powered the Bears to an 86-70 championship game victory in a contest that was never in doubt.

After a weekend in Indy and a March Madness ripe with Montana ties, the last team standing hailed from Waco,Texas, a basketball program with perhaps less direct connection to the Treasure State than any in the tournament field.

The day of our departure following the end of the second round, Hussein arrived to take us to the airport with homemade Somalian breakfast fry bread and homemade Somalian tea courtesy of his wife.

Hussein

Throughout each ride, Hussein had held great conversation, immersing us in the history of the conflicts in East Africa and giving us his perspective on a divided America that has been torn apart by identity politics and differing pandemic mitigation strategies.

He reminded us that, no matter the current strife experienced by many Americans, the living situation in the U.S. is far superior to war-torn countries like the one he hails from.

When asked why he works driving cars outside his full-time white-collar job working in sales for Home Depot, Hussein simply said, “Forty hours is a short portion of your week. If I can make money on another business on the side, why would I not want to work hard to make a better life for my family?”

One of the most polarizing political issues currently in the United States centers upon immigration. And while there are valid arguments on both sides of the political spectrum, Hussein was a staunch example of the greatness that can come from freedom through hard work and relentless perseverance. One still can still turn a life of nothing into one that is prosperous, one that is filled with education and opportunity. 

Even with Gonzaga’s heartbreaking loss, I dwelled on the symbolism of the white shoes and that they somehow represented slippers. Everybody’s Cinderella did not leave the Big Dance as the big winner. 

As we snapped a photo with Hussein from the Indianapolis airport before finding our gate, I realized our new friend also wore white shoes, his made of patent leather. And then it struck me. 

The bell of the ball does not have to be the Cinderella who wins the Big Dance. Instead, Hussein is a great reminder that Cinderella stories are often not a fairytale at all but rather an affirmation of striving to be the best we can be.

MONTANANS IN THE MADNESS

PART I : WELCOME TO THE MOST UNIQUE BIG DANCE EVER

PART II – TINKLE THE CINDERELLA MAN

PART III – JACKIE MOON & NAPOLEON DYNAMITE MEET THE NATION

PART IV – A MILE HIGH, A MILE DEEP

PART V – WEST COAST CONNECTION

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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