Invitations are finally out for the Valley’s long-awaited college basketball mega party, a decade in the planning.
Preliminary invites that is. There still is the matter of that two-week Hunger Games winnowing from 68 teams selected Sunday for participation in the 79th NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to those earning the right to RSVP for the first Final Four to be held west of Texas in 22 years.
In 12 previous Final Fours in the West, a team from the West — UCLA to be specific — won five, four of those in the John Wooden era. Now, in a remarkable nexus between site and contenders, the West is stacked with four of the best teams in the nation, one just a two-hour drive from University of Phoenix Stadium, where 72,000 are expected for semifinals April 1 and the final April 3.
Pac-12 Tournament champion Arizona (30-4), the last Western national champion in 1997, is the No. 2 seed in the West region behind Gonzaga (32-1), the epitome of a mid-major conference power. Their path to Glendale runs through San Jose provided both advance to the second weekend. For Oregon (28-5) and UCLA (29-4), No. 3 seeds in the Midwest and South regions, respectively, the challenge will be to reach and win regionals in Kansas City and Memphis.
“It would be very exciting to have one of them end up here in Phoenix,” said Dawn Rogers, executive director/CEO of the Phoenix Final Four organizing committee. “A lot of great stories can unfold in the next three weeks. Our No. 1 priority is to provide an unforgettable experience for the four teams and their fans. We want to over deliver on what we told the committee we will do. If we’re able to have flawless execution and provide the experience we’ve outlined, it puts us in a great position to put in a bid and have the event return.”
In addition to Gonzaga, the No. 1 seeds are Kansas (28-4) in the Midwest region, defending champion Villanova (31-3) in the East, North Carolina (26-7) in the South and Gonzaga in the West. No one has repeated as national champion since Florida in 2006-07 and the only other school to do so in the post-Wooden era was Duke (1991-92) so Villanova is looking to carve a piece of history if it can advance beyond the East regional at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The No. 2 seeds are Duke (East), Louisville (Midwest), Kentucky (South) along with Arizona. Other No. 3 seeds in addition to Oregon and UCLA are Baylor (East) and Florida State (West). The No. 4 seeds are Florida (East), Purdue (Midwest), Butler (South) and West Virginia (West).
USC squeaked into the field, giving the Pac-12 four qualifiers. The Trojans play in a First Four game against Providence on Wednesday. After four play-in games, the first full round begins Thursday.
For Rogers, the Final Four is the culmination of a lengthy process that included an unsuccessful bid in 2008 to host one of the Final Fours held in 2012-16. She then was a senior associate athletic director at Arizona State, which as NCAA host institution bid again successfully in 2014.
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“A group of us has been involved right from the beginning, and it such an honor to see this through,” said Rogers, named to her current position in October 2015. “You don’t get to do this very often, put together a bid and get to be involved helping execute the team vision. I’m really impressed by the commitment our region has to this event. We’re in a position where the majority of planning is done and we can tweak the fine details and be in a situation to handle any curve balls that come our way.”
Like for two recent mega sporting events — 2015 Super Bowl and 2016 College Football Playoff championship — a fan fest will be held at the Phoenix Convention Center (March 31-April 3) in conjunction with the games in Glendale. Also there is a March Madness music festival at Hance Park in downtown Phoenix, March 31-April 2 with free admission.
The Final Four is expected to generate $100 million to $150 million in economic impact based on recent performance on the event in New Orleans (2012), Atlanta (2013), Dallas (2014), Indianapolis (2015) and Houston (2016).
Volunteer opportunities still are available at phoenixfinalfour.com.
NCAA Final Four in West
1949, Seattle, champion Kentucky
1952, Seattle, champion Kansas
1960, San Francisco, champion Ohio State
1965, Portland, champion UCLA
1968, Los Angeles, champion UCLA
1972, Los Angeles, champion UCLA
1975, San Diego, champion UCLA
1979, Salt Lake City, champion Michigan State
1983, Albuquerque, champion North Carolina State
1984, Seattle, champion Georgetown
1989, Seattle, champion Michigan
1995, Seattle, champion UCLA
2017, Phoenix, champion to be determined