For the first time ever, two Northwest teams are playing in the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Both semifinal games are being held in Phoenix, Arizona, Saturday. Spokane’s Gonzaga University plays South Carolina at 3 p.m. PST. Then Oregon plays North Carolina.
KNKX sports commentator Art Thiel talked with 88.5’s Kirsten Kendrick about the matchups and who he thinks will be this year’s college basketball champion.
Thiel said not only is having two Northwest teams in the Final Four unprecedented, it's very cool. But he admitted it's a hard pill to swallow for University of Washington and Washington State supporters.
"I realize there are a lot of Husky fans here and Cougar fans who are gonna go, 'Ick!'
"I'm not going to suggest that you should become great fans of these teams, just suspend your disrespect," Thiel said. "Just enjoy the fact that there are two Northwest teams in Gonzaga and Oregon.
"We also have this weird geographic adjacency: Washington and Oregon [and] North Carolina and South Carolina. I have no idea what to make of that!"
'Novelty' For Northwest
"Certainly, being the epicenter of college basketball is an entire novelty for this region," Thiel continued.
The last time a Northwest team was in the Final Four was 1963 with Oregon State University. "(Then) 1958 with Seattle University. Washington was in in 1953. (The University of ) Oregon's last appearance was in 1939 - 78 years ago, before World War II. And it was also when the NCAA debuted its tournament.
"The big deal back then was the National Invitation Tournament. The NCAA was a sideshow. Now it's a colossus and a gambling vortex, with everybody's brackets probably broken by now.
"It really is fun. And I would encourage Husky and Cougar fans and Seattle U fans, just put it in park and enjoy what we've got here."
Gonzaga Vs. South Carolina
"I think [No. 1] Gonzaga has been very, very solid all the way through," Thiel said. "The main reason [is] they've got something that no one else has, which is a giant center in Przemek Karnowski of Poland.
"When teams collapse their defenses to try to slow him down, he's a very adept passer. He's as good a big-man passer as I've seen since Bill Walton.
"We should also acknowledge Nigel Williams-Goss. He's the University of Washington transfer. He was a star with the Huskies two years ago. Went to Gonzaga. Really put this team together.
"He's their leading scorer. He's also an academic All-American [with] a 3.87 grade point average in psychology.
"He's why this team is 36-1. Really a dynamic force on both ends of the floor.
"So, I think the Zags are going to have their way against an unheralded, seventh-seeded South Carolina team, which had, until this tournament, not won a game in 44 years in the tournament."
Oregon Vs. North Carolina
"The Ducks [are] the Pac-12 dominant team this year. They really did deserve this spot. They're third-seeded and, I think, had the best game in the previous round.
"They beat a very good Kansas team in Kansas City 74-60 and, really, ran the table on them. They were dominant all the way through.
"And they managed to do it without a starting player who was a very dominant defensive force and they've become even better without him.
"The guy to watch on this team is 6'9" Jordan Bell. He really is a defensive force. But I don't think they've got what it takes to beat a very good North Carolina team.
"They are the blue blood in this tournament. The one team with great history. Twenty-four Final Fours. Lots of history. Lots of tradition. Lots of very good players."
Prediction: Gonzaga Over North Carolina In Championship
"I think we're going to have a national champion in the state of Washington," Thiel said.
"I said Gonzaga at the beginning of the tournament. I've seen nothing to dissuade me from the fact that this is, in fact, the best team in the tournament.
"Congratulations now to the champions Monday night, the Gonzaga Bulldogs."