NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: West Region

I’m going to start of my Regional previews with the West Region, and it’s for no other reason than that each of the eight First Round games in this region will take place on Thursday. So it makes sense for me to get this one out there first.

The West Region is led by the #4 overall seed, the 32-1 Gonzaga Bulldogs, who despite what some people may say, more than deserved to be a 1-seed. They did not play in a very difficult conference this season, but they challenged themselves out of conference, and if you go an entire regular season losing just one game, you deserve to be a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

In the immediate aftermath of the bracket reveal, the popular opinion was that the West is the weakest region in this year’s Tournament. But just because the region is considered “weak” overall, doesn’t mean that the team to make it out of San Jose didn’t earn their trip to the Final Four just as much as the teams in the other three regions. Without any further delay, here is a preview of the First Round in the West Region.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

West Region

Salt Lake City, UT
#1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs #16 South Dakota State (18-16)
Thursday 3/16, 2:00 pm TBS

Overview: The Zags had a really good shot to enter the Tournament undefeated, but BYU had other ideas, defeating them 79-71 in the Bulldogs’ regular season finale. They rebounded though, winning the conference title beating Saint Mary’s, the WCC’s only other Tourney team, for a third time in the finals. Don’t let the past fool you, this team is legit. South Dakota State is in the Tournament for the second straight year after defeating Omaha in the Summit League title game 79-77. The Jackrabbits enter the Dance as the team with the most losses in the Field.

Key Players: Washington-transfer Nigel Williams-Goss is the leader for the Zags, and not only that, but he’s easily one of the best players in the entire nation. Williams-Goss averages a team-leading 16.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. He has lots of help though, as four teammates also averages double-figures, including senior center Przemek Karnowski (12.6 PPG) and freshman big man, and future NBA’er, Zach Collins (10.2 PPG in just 17.1 MPG). The fact that a probable 1st rounder in the NBA Draft comes off the bench for Mark Few is all you need to know about this team’s talent. South Dakota State does have a star of their own though in 6-9 sophomore Mike Daum. Daum is 2nd in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, and he put up 37 points in the title game victory over Omaha.

Why GONZ will Win: The most simple answer is because no 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. I believe it will happen one day, but I don’t see it happening here. This team is a legit National Title contender. SDSU is an extremely poor defensive team, and Gonzaga just has too much firepower. They are 2nd in the nation in effective FG percentage according to KenPom, and they’ll be too much for the Jackrabbits to handle. Gonzaga easily moves on.

Why SDSU will Win: I just said a 16-seed has to beat a 1-seed at some point, so why not South Dakota State? As a legitimate point, there haven’t been many 16-seeds in history with a player as talented as Mike Daum. He could certainly go off for another huge game, and if that happens, it’s possible that the Jackrabbits could keep it close, and maybe even pull off one of the biggest upsets in history.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#8 Northwestern (23-11) vs #9 Vanderbilt (19-15)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:30 pm TBS

Overview: One of the best stories of this entire basketball season is Northwestern finally reaching the NCAA Tournament. The school that hosted the very first NCAA Tournament is dancing for the very first time. They are the last major conference team to play in an NCAA Tournament, and don’t think just making it here is all they wanted. This team believes they can make a run in this thing, and so do I. They drew a tough First Round matchup though in Vanderbilt, a team much better than their record suggests. 15 losses is the most for an at-large team in Tournament history, but Vandy got in based on their strength of schedule (17th according to KenPom) and a number of big wins, knocking off Big 12 champion Iowa State and defeating Florida three times!

Key Players: The straw that stirs the drink for the Chris Collins’s Wildcats is junior point guard Bryant McIntosh (14.4 PPG, 5.7 APG). McIntosh and fellow junior Scottie Lindsey (14.2 PPG) have been on a mission to get this team into the Tournament, and they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to make sure this team makes a great showing in their first trip. Vanderbilt is an extremely talented team as well, led by a couple upperclassmen in senior big man Luke Kornet (13.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.6 PPG, 37% 3PT). Fisher-Davis has struggled down the stretch, and he’ll need to play well if they’re going to win this game.

Why NW will Win: The Wildcats have finally gotten here, and I have a hard time believing that they aren’t going to make the most of it, and that means getting at least one victory. This team is extremely balanced, talented in the paint and on the perimeter. Bryant McIntosh is probably the best player on the floor, and he leads a group of guards that I believe has the clear advantage in this game. They will make enough shots down the stretch to win a tight one.

Why VAND will Win: Northwestern is a great story, but it’s certainly possible that Vanderbilt is the better team. The Big Ten had a down year, and Vandy beat Florida three times, a team that is better than just about every team Northwestern played this season. Luke Kornet is a big man that likes to play on the perimeter, and the floor spacing Vandy brings will open up driving lanes, allowing the Commodores to get to the free throw line, where they shoot over 77 percent, and win a close game, ending the dream season for Northwestern.

 

Buffalo, NY
#5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs #12 Princeton (23-6)
Thursday 3/16, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: The first game of the Tournament this year will pit the only team to reach the Elite Eight in each of the last two seasons against the winners of the very first Ivy League Tournament. Coming into the season, Notre Dame was expected to have a drop-off, picked to finish 7th in the ACC. Instead, Mike Brey reminded everyone why he is one of the best coaches in basketball, leading the Irish to the ACC title game. They’re going to be tested here though by a very experienced Princeton team. The Tigers have a little momentum (19-game winning streak, second longest in the nation entering the postseason) and history on their side as well. The Ivy League representative in the Tournament has won a game three out of the last four seasons.

Key Players: Bonzie Colson is one of the best rebounders in the nation (10.2 per game, best in the ACC), and he also leads the Irish in scoring at 17.2 points per game. Oh yeah, and he’s only 6-5. He does have a 7-2 wingspan though, which definitely helps. ND also has one of the most improved players in the country in point guard Matt Farrell. Farrell came on late last season, playing well in the NCAA Tournament. He put a full season of success together this year, and I’m sure that will carry over to the postseason. I mentioned Princeton’s experience earlier, and they are led by seniors Spencer Weisz (team leading 32.9 minutes per game) and Steven Cook (13.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Cook shoots over 42 percent from 3-point range, one of three starters who shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc.

Why ND will Win: Once again, the Irish are an overlooked team heading into the Tournament. They feel slighted by Committee giving them a 5-seed, and will play with a chip on their shoulders because of it. I don’t think Princeton has a player that can deal with the matchup problem that is Bonzie Colson. Colson and company have way too much talent, and they will overwhelm the Ivy League champs. Notre Dame wins this one going away.

Why PRIN will Win: 12-seeds over 5-seeds is always a favorite upset pick in the Tourney. Over the last five Tournaments, 12-seeds are 10-10 in the First Round. Only four times since the field expanded to 64-plus teams in 1985 has no 12-seed advanced to the Round of 32. What else does Princeton have going for them? There isn’t science to back this up, but a fair amount of upsets in the Tournament tend to happen in the early afternoon games. This game will lead off the First Round, and the Tigers will be fired up to start the Tourney off with a bang. If they can find a way to pressure the Irish on defense while keeping them off the free throw line (ND is the best FT shooting team in the nation), they can score the upset.

 

Buffalo, NY
#4 West Virginia (26-8) vs #13 Bucknell (26-8)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: Early going in the season, I, along with a fair amount of experts, pegged West Virginia as a team that could contend for a National Championship. After that, the season had its ups and downs, with the Mountaineers scoring victories over Virginia, Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa State twice, but also losing Texas Tech and Oklahoma, and blowing a 12-point lead with less than three minutes left in a game at Kansas. On the other side, we have a Bucknell team that dominated the Patriot League, going 15-3 in conference play, defeating Lehigh in the championship game, the team that was responsible for two of the Bison’s three conference losses. This is a very young team, as out of the nine players who average over 10 minutes a game, zero are seniors.

Key Players: A couple junior forwards are the ones to watch out for on the Bucknell side. 6-7 Zach Thomas (16.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG) and 6-9 Nana Foulland (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) are the top two scorers and rebounders for the Bison. West Virginia plays a suffocating style of defense, and that is spearheaded by senior Tarik Phillip and junior Jevon Carter, who average 1.8 and 2.6 steals per game respectively. The Mountaineers have a very balanced scoring attack, with just two players averaging double-figures.

Why WVU will Win: A team with good guard play can give West Virginia problems. They thrive on being able to force turnovers and score quickly off of them. Bucknell’s guard play is not the best, and they are in the bottom half of the nation in offensive turnover percentage. That does not bode well for them. “Press Virginia” will do exactly that, and win this game going away.

Why BUCK will Win: The West Virginia team we have seen lately has not been the same one that many pegged as a title contender at the beginning of the season. If the Bison can limit turnovers and be able to set up their offense, they can dominate WVa on the interior. Big games from Thomas and Foulland are enough to fuel Bucknell to the upset.

 

Orlando, FL
#6 Maryland (24-8) vs #11 Xavier (21-13)
Thursday 3/16, 6:50 pm TNT

Overview: It’s been a tale of two seasons for both of the teams in this game. Maryland started an impressive 20-2 this season, but limped down the stretch going 4-6 over their last 10 games, including a quarterfinal loss to N’Western in the Big Ten Tournament. I believe a 6-seed was a little high for them. Xavier started well also, going 15-6 to start their year. Then star point guard Edmond Sumner suffered a season-ending knee injury. They were able to win their first three games after the injury, but then fellow star guard Trevon Bluiett was injured. He missed just two games, but the team ended up losing six of their last seven, before picking up a couple wins in the Big East Tournament.

Key Players: The Musketeers really miss Edmond Sumner, but they do still have junior Trevon Bluiett, who averages a team-leading 18.1 points per game. The only other Xavier player not injured who averages double-figures is guard J.P. Macura at 14.5 points per game. Maryland is lead by one of the most talented guards in the country in junior Melo Trimble (17.0 PPG). He has five NCAA Tournament games to his credit, and that experience could play a major factor for the Terps.

Why MARY will Win: Xavier, despite having very good outside shooters, tend to try to do their most damage on the interior. Maryland has a lot of size, and it is tough to get good looks in the paint against them. Melo Trimble will be the best player on the floor, and he will take over this game and hit a late shot to send Maryland to the Second Round.

Why XAV will Win: They struggled down the stretch, but they picked up some steam in the Big East Tournament, knocking off Butler and nearly beating Creighton. Trevon Bluiett has a penchant for hitting the big shot. I think this will be a very close, low scoring game, and it could come down to which team has the ball last. If it comes down to one shot, I want Bluiett taking the shot. He hits it, and the Musketeers advance.

 

Orlando, FL
#3 Florida State (25-8) vs #14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:20 pm TNT

Overview: A little in-state Tourney battle, and it’s taking place in their state! I am a fan of this “coincidence.” Florida State earned this high a bid at the beginning of ACC play, going 6-1 to start conference play, with all but the first one against ranked teams (wins over Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville in that span). They had struggles after that, losing to teams like Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Pitt. On the other side, Dunk City is back in the Tournament! You probably remember FGCU from their Sweet 16 run as a 15-seed in 2013, the birth of Dunk City. Believe it or not, they have more dunks this season than they did that year. The Eagles were not playing at full strength for a portion of this season, but they are at their fullest right now, and they are probably better than a typical 14-seed.

Key Players: The Seminoles are one of the most athletic teams in the country, led by star freshman and future 1st round NBA Draft pick, 6-10 Jonathan Isaac (11.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.5 BPG). He has some fantastic teammates as well in guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes (10.4 PPG, 4.8 APG) and Dwayne Bacon (team-leading 16.9 PPG). 6-8 senior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia is a beast for FGCU, but he missed 10 games during the season due to personal issues (team was 6-4 in those games, including single-digit losses to Baylor and Michigan State). He is back (which is HUGE for the Eagles), and in his absence, UCF-transfer Brandon Goodwin became a star in his own right, averaging 18.4 points per game.

Why FSU will Win: For as talented as FGCU is, they don’t even come close to what the Seminoles have to offer. Florida State is great on both sides of the floor, and they should have an easy time playing their style against the Eagles. FSU will run the Eagles to death and simply outscore them en route to victory. No fun for Dunk City this year.

Why FGCU will Win: This team will come into this game thinking that they are the better team. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to push a team over the edge. For as talented as Florida State is, they have really struggled at times away from Tallahassee. Orlando isn’t very far, but it’s still not Tallahassee. Dunk City will prove to be alive and well, getting the Florida crowd on their side, rekindling some of the magic from 2013, and pulling off the huge upset.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#7 Saint Mary’s (28-4) vs #10 VCU (26-8)
Thursday 3/16, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: When you talk about teams that are flying under the radar, Saint Mary’s is one of the first teams that comes to mind this year. They have just four losses this season, and three of them are to Gonzaga, who as it was noted earlier, is an extremely good team. The Gaels did not play a difficult schedule this year, but they know how to win, and KenPom has them as the 14th best team in the country. VCU has flown under the radar a little bit this year as well, finishing second in the A-10 in both the regular season and the tournament. Will Wade is one of the biggest names in coaching right now in terms of major conference openings, and he has done a great job with this team.

Key Players: Saint Mary’s has a player named Jock Landale, and he is a 6-11 junior who is averaging 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and he finished second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings. So yeah, he’s extremely good. VCU has some talented players as well, with senior JeQuan Lewis (14.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 1.7 SPG) and junior Justin Tillman (12.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG) leading the way. They also have a monster in the middle, 6-7 senior Mo Alie-Cox, who I think has been at VCU for 18 years. At least it’s felt like that long.

Why SMC will Win: You can knock the Gaels for playing an easy schedule, but you can’t knock them for losing to Gonzaga three times. They are a much better team than most people realize, led by one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. They are in the Top-15 in the country in both 2-point and 3-point percentage, so it’s not like you can just take one of them away and expect to beat them. They will slow the game down, play their pace, work through their star Landale, and get the victory.

Why VCU will Win: This is going to be a low scoring game, as both teams are better on the defensive side of the ball. Athleticism is going to be a major advantage for the Rams, and I think if they can force some missed shots and get out and run, they can beat Saint Mary’s.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#2 Arizona (30-4) vs #15 North Dakota (22-9)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: A few weeks ago if you asked people who the best team in the Pac-12 was, most probably said Oregon or UCLA. Arizona laughs at those people now, having beaten the Bruins and the Ducks in consecutive nights to win the Pac-12 Tournament and earn the 2-seed in the West. This team’s strength of schedule was not strong, but here are the four teams they lost to: Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, UCLA. All teams on the top four seed lines in this Tournament. They are totally healthy right now, and peaking at the perfect time. North Dakota is in the Tournament for the first time in school history, needing overtime to defeat Weber State in the Big Sky title game.

Key Players: Allonzo Trier might be the best player for Arizona, and he missed the first 19 games of the season. Trier is averaging 17.3 points per game, and his return has transformed this team. Lauri Markkanen is another player you should pay attention to on the Wildcats. The 7-0 freshman is drawing Dirk Nowitzki comparisons, and it’s spot on. 6-0 senior guard Quinton Hooker is the man for the Fighting Hawks, averaging 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

Why AZ will Win: They are playing their best basketball right now, and a lot of times, it’s the teams that get hot down the stretch who go on to make deep runs in the Tournament. North Dakota isn’t great on defense, and they tend to struggle to guard the 3-point arc most of all. Arizona has a bunch of great shooters. They will make more than 10 from behind the 3-point line en route to a huge win.

Why UND will Win: It’s going to be tough for the Hawks to even compete in this game, as Arizona is considered by most to be the favorite to advance to the Final Four out of this region. Arizona likes to slow the pace on offense and set up in the half court, while North Dakota would much rather speed the game up. If they can force some missed shots and push the tempo, maybe North Dakota has a shot to shock the world.

 

Final Four Preview: Syracuse

It has been quite a whirlwind season for the Syracuse Orange. Legendary coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine game due to academic sanctions, and the team struggled mightily without him. Upon his return, they started to turn the corner, and looked like a Tournament team. That was before ending the season losing five of six games, putting their tourney hopes in serious doubt.

In one of a few shockers, Syracuse safely earned a 10-seed in the Big Dance. Many didn’t think Syracuse belonged in the field, and they have clearly been playing with a chip on their shoulder, as they’ve won four games en route to this year’s Final Four. The Orange are the first 10-seed to reach the Final Four, and just the 4th double digit seed to get this far. They’ll match-up with conference foe North Carolina in the National Semis, and they have a legitimate chance to win this whole thing. The following is a look at how Syracuse got here, and why they have a chance to cut down the nets in a few days.

First Round
Def. 7-seed Dayton 70-51
Syracuse made a little bit of a statement in the First Round, quite easily dispatching the 7-seeded Dayton Flyers, winning by 19. Dayton shot just 6-22 from three-point range and 9-19 from the free throw line, helping lead to their downfall. Freshman Malachi Richardson led the way for Syracuse with 21 points, and junior Tyler Roberson notched a double-double with 10 points and 18 rebounds.

Second Round
Def. 15-seed Middle Tennessee 75-50
A fairly large number of people expected Syracuse to defeat Dayton, but just about everyone expected their Second Round opponent to be Michigan State. When the Spartans were upset by Middle Tennessee, Syracuse knew they had a fantastic opportunity to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament, which they did. Senior Michael Gbinije was the catalyst for the Orange, scoring 23 points to lead the way.

Sweet 16
Def. 11-seed Gonzaga 63-60
Syracuse would again benefit from a big upset, meeting 11-seed Gonzaga in the Regional Semis. The Zags controlled most of this game, and looked to have a trip to the Elite Eight all but wrapped up. But a late charge from Syracuse and a few blown opportunities at the end for Gonzaga was enough for the Orange to come away with a 3-point victory and a trip to the Midwest Region final. Freshman Tyler Lydon blocked a Josh Perkins attempt with about 1 second left on the clock to seal the victory.

Elite Eight
Def. 1-seed Virginia 68-62
The friendly match-ups were over for Syracuse, and many expected their magical run to end against 1-seed Virginia. For a second straight game, Syracuse looked dead in the water midway through the second half. But they were able to muster up another late surge, coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit to take the lead with less than five minutes to go. From there they were able to hold off the Cavaliers and advance to the Final Four. It was a very uncharacteristic meltdown from Tony Bennett’s squad, but you have to credit Syracuse for contributing to that meltdown. It was another big game for freshman Malachi Richardson, who scored 23 points to lead the way for the Orange.

How They Got Here: Jim Boeheim
Like him or hate him (most people hate him), Jim Boeheim is an extremely good basketball coach. His players played some really good games, and were able to execute a couple amazing comebacks, but when you look at how they were able to pull this off, you look at the coaching. Boeheim made some genius decisions in the Gonzaga and Virginia games. Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone defense almost religiously, and they rarely pressure in the full court. But down double-digits against both the Zags and Virginia, Boeheim picked the perfect time to dial up the pressure, leading those teams to rush and turn the ball over a ton, helping his team make two incredible comebacks. They players executed the plan, but Boeheim cleary out-coached Mark Few and Tony Bennett, and you have to credit him for it. I don’t think Syracuse would be here if it wasn’t for Boeheim.

Why They’ll be National Champs:
You expect the chip on their shoulder to just disappear? It won’t, especially with some of Jim Boeheim’s recent comments. He has his team thinking that they deserve to be here while nobody else thinks they do. That could be all the motivation that they need to go out and win the National Championship. North Carolina is a tough match-up, and the Tar Heels beat Syracuse twice during the regular season. But the second meeting, which was each team’s second-to-last game of the season, went down to the wire in Chapel Hill, with UNC winning 75-70. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone can give teams fits, and a lot of times, it forces teams to hit perimeter jump shots to beat it. If Syracuse can force UNC to shoot from the perimeter (in a shooting grave of a stadium, as I’ve discussed previously), I think they can win this game, and then do the same thing to either Nova or Oklahoma in the title game. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to think that Syracuse can win the National Championship.

Why They Won’t Win the Title:
From a talent perspective, Syracuse is easily the most over-matched team remaining in the field. Michael Gbinije is an extremely good player, Trevor Cooney is experienced and Malachi Richardson is starting to blossom as a star player, but compared to North Carolina, Villanova and Oklahoma, Syracuse is on a much lower level. When it gets to this point, the cream usually rises to the top, and I don’t think Syracuse is the cream here. On the court, North Carolina has the perfect team to attack and win against the Orange’s zone defense. Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson can shoot over the top, and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson can get to the middle and run the baseline, which could lead to some really easy buckets. Syracuse is going to have a tough time slowing down the Tar Heels, and that could end up meaning the end of this magical run.

Final Four Preview: Villanova

In 2009, Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats made their first trip to the Final Four since winning the National Championship in 1985, riding a red hot point guard named Scotty Reynolds. Villanova has been one of the best programs in the nation in subsequent years, but they have been marred by postseason struggles.

Entering the 2016 Tournament, Villanova had failed to reach the second weekend of the Big Dance since that Final Four trip in ’09. Despite a very impressive season, many were writing off the Wildcats, citing their inability to win when it counts. Well, those people are eating their words now, as Villanova has silenced its critics, reaching the 2016 Final Four as the South Region Champions. Here is a look at how they got here, and why they might be the ones cutting down the nets on April 4.

First Round
Def. 15-seed UNC Asheville 86-56
Villanova has been a slow-starting team for much of this season, and they allowed UNC Asheville to stay in this one for a little while. But the Wildcats were able to pull away big time in the second half en route to a 30-point opening game victory. It was a very balanced effort from Nova, but they were led by senior big man Daniel Ochefu, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 7-seed Iowa 87-68
Many were looking forward to a Villanova-Temple match-up here in the Second Round, but when Iowa knocked off the Owls at the buzzer, they moved on instead. As a Temple fan, I am glad they lost, because Iowa ran into a juggernaut in this game. Villanova went ahead early, and never looked back. They led 56-29 at halftime, putting it on cruise control in the second half, winning by 19 and finally getting back to the second weekend of the Tournament. They shot just under 60 percent from the field, including going 10-19 from 3-point range, and were led by 19 points from junior guard Josh Hart.

Sweet 16
Def. 3-seed Miami 92-69
While the Wildcats had cruised to this point, many expected them to at least have some difficulties with a very good Miami team. That was not the case, as this was the moment that Villanova cemented itself as a legitimate National Championship contender. Nova was the better team from the tip-off, and they dominated from start to finish, winning by 23. If you thought their 59 percent from the field against Iowa was good, wait til you hear what they did in this game. Villanova shot over 62.5 percent (!!!!!) from the field, including an astounding 10-15 from behind the arc (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Miami didn’t stand a chance in this one.

Elite Eight
Def. 1-seed Kansas 64-59
Villanova had been shooting the lights out to this point, but there were doubts about whether or not they could win a game in which they weren’t shooting well, especially against the #1 overall team in the field and the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, the Kansas Jayhawks. The people doubting Villanova forgot just how tenacious they are on defense, as they held senior star Perry Ellis to just four points in a 64-59 victory, sending Nova back to the Final Four. Villanova shot just over 40 percent from the field in this one, and just 4-18 from 3-point range, but they got it done on the defensive end. Freshman Mikal Bridges had 5 steals, including a crucial one near the end of the game with Kansas looking to tie it up.

How They Got Here: Balance
In their first three games in this tournament, it was the offense and the impeccable shooting that was in the spotlight for the Wildcats. In the Elite Eight against Kansas, it was their smothering defense that got them the victory. You can look at a number of reasons why Villanova has made it this far, but it comes down to this: if they need to make shots to win, they can, and if they need to lock you down defensively to win, they still can. There aren’t many teams in college basketball this year that are capable of performing really well on both ends of the floor like Villanova can. KenPom has Villanova rated in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only two teams that can boast that right now (Virginia is the other). This team is among the best in the nation on both ends of the floor, and they’ve showcased that during the first two weekends of this tournament.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
Top to bottom, I’d say the eye test would favor North Carolina as the favorite to win the National Championship, but if you look at all the factors, including (and most importantly in this case) the teams they’ve played so far, it’s hard not to choose Villanova as the favorite to cut down the nets in NRG Stadium. Not only have the Wildcats looked mighty impressive, but look at who they’ve beaten to get here. An Iowa team that was once ranked in the top-5 this season, a Miami team that was at the top of the ACC all year (a conference with two teams in the Final Four), and the undisputed Big 12 Champions, Kansas, who also entered their game with Nova riding a 17-game winning streak. They’ve proven that they belong here, and I have a hard time not pegging them the favorites. If they shoot the ball well, it’s hard to outscore them, and if they aren’t hitting their shots, a lot of times their defense is good enough to make sure you don’t hit yours either. They’ll cut down the nets because I believe that they are the best team in the Final Four.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
Despite everything that I just said in that last blurb, I’d imagine that the last team Villanova fans wanted to see in the National Semifinals was Oklahoma. These two teams played a non-conference game back on December 7 at Pearl Harbor, with Oklahoma absolutely dominating the game, winning by 23 points (and it wasn’t that close). The Sooners made everything and the Wildcats made nothing. Now, this Villanova team is vastly different from the one that played in that game on December 7, and they won’t have to travel quite as far for this one, but if Oklahoma has another thing going for them, it’s Buddy Hield. Hield is proving why he should be the Player of the Year, and there might not be anything Villanova can do to keep him from willing Oklahoma to victory on Saturday.

Final Four Preview: North Carolina

It doesn’t happen often, but all four 1-seeds in this year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight, leaving many to believe that all four could improbably reach the Final Four. It was a crazy season, but it was looking like it could be a chalk finish.

As we should have expected, that didn’t happen. Instead, only one 1-seed was able to advance to the Final Four, and it was the North Carolina Tar Heels out of the East Region. We’re first going to look at how they got to this point, then we’ll discuss why they can win it all, as well as why they might not.

First Round
Def. 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67
It wasn’t a great start to the Tournament for the Tar Heels, as they led by just one point at halftime of their opener in Raleigh, 41-40. The FGCU Eagles, who defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in a First Four game, played inspired in the first half, looking far from a typical 16-seed. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the UNC locker room at halftime, because whatever Roy Williams said to his team definitely worked, as they opened the second half on fire, separating themselves en route to a 16-point victory. Brice Johnson dominated the game with 18 points and a season-high 8 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 9-seed Providence 85-66
It was another lackluster first half for the Tar Heels, as they led by just four points at the break. They again flipped a switch in the second half, distancing themselves and holding off the Friars despite a 29-point performance from Kris Dunn. Brice Johnson tallied a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and UNC got a big game off the bench from Isaiah Hicks, who scored 13 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks.

Sweet 16
Def. 5-seed Indiana 101-86
After struggling early in each of their first two tourney games, North Carolina came out firing in this one, and led wire-to-wire in a high-scoring affair with the Hoosiers. Many thought Indiana would give UNC a lot of problems, but the Tar Heels were well prepared for this one, getting great performances from their stars Brice Johnson (20 pts, 10 reb) and Marcus Paige (21 pts, 6-9 3pt, 6 ast).

Elite Eight
Def. 6-seed Notre Dame 88-74
Most experts said that Notre Dame would have to play one of their best games of the season if they were going to defeat North Carolina for a second time this season. Notre Dame might have played one of their best games of the season, but it still wasn’t enough to get them a victory. Brice Johnson had his best game of the tournament, scoring 25 points to go along with 12 rebounds, leading the Tar Heels to a 14-point win.

Why They Got Here: Paige and Johnson
The Tar Heels have been considered one of the deeper teams in basketball this season, but they become arguably the best team in the nation when seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are at the top of their games. Paige missed the start of the season with an injured hand, and even after he came back, he struggled with his jump shot for much of the season. Luckily for UNC, Paige has figured out the issue. He’s averaging 14 points per game in this tournament, and he’s 13-27 from distance. He is a great floor general, and teams now have to worry about stopping him. They can’t worry too much about stopping him though, because the Tar Heels have Brice Johnson playing some of his best basketball of the season. The First Team AP All-American is averaging 21 points a game in the Tournament, and he has been a force in the paint and in the mid-range game. He’s becoming nearly impossible to stop, and he could definitely lead the Tar Heels to a title.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
North Carolina is the best team remaining, and it’s really hard to argue that. They have looked really good at times in all four of their tourney games, and it’s hard to see anybody being able to stop Brice Johnson enough to beat this team. Even if they can contain Johnson, North Carolina has so many other players who are capable of stepping up. Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, all players who have stepped up for the Tar Heels at different points this season. Another reason they could win this thing, believe it or not, is the venue. In past Tournament games at Houston’s NRG Stadium, teams have had a very difficult time shooting the ball. One of the uglier National Championship games in recent memory, UConn versus Butler in 2011, was held in NRG Stadium. Of the four teams remaining, North Carolina is the one that is least dependent on outside shooting. That screams advantage Tar Heels.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
While North Carolina has looked very good in this tournament, they have had, without question, the easiest road of the four teams. The highest seed they played was 5-seed Indiana, benefiting from early losses for 2-seed Xavier, 3-seed West Virginia and 4-seed Kentucky. They get another low seed in the Final Four when they take on Midwest Regional winners, 10-seed Syracuse, a team that North Carolina beat twice this season. Many see that and think victory for the Tar Heels, but it is very difficult to beat a team three times in the same season, let alone a Syracuse team playing with a chip on their shoulder having barely made the field. Their second meeting came in the last week of the regular season in Chapel Hill, with North Carolina barely escaping with a 75-70 win. The Tar Heels are the clear favorite in this game, but Syracuse knows their playing with house money, and the pressure is totally on UNC. If they struggle under the pressure, the Orange could sneak up and pull off another upset.

NCAA Tournament Preview: Sweet 16

I hope everybody has recovered from one of the most incredible weekends in the history of sport. Every year, the NCAA Tournament delivers tons of heart-pounding action that even non-basketball fans can’t help but enjoy. This year, it upped the ante. A weekend filled with dramatic, emotional games, capped off by possibly the most improbable comeback in basketball history and a fall-away three from the corner as time expired to send a team to this second weekend of action. Those weren’t the only two amazing finishes though, as there were just too many to list. If you missed out, shame on you, but that’s okay, because there’ll hopefully be more this weekend!

Four games each on Thursday and Friday will decide who advances to the Regional Finals for a shot at reaching the Final Four next Saturday, April 2, in Houston. Here is a preview of the Sweet 16!

South Region
Thursday 3/24, Louisville

#3 Miami FL vs #2 Villanova
7:10 pm CBS
Villanova was finally able to exercise some of its demons, as they have reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, when Scotty Reynolds led the Wildcats to the Final Four. They hope to make it back this year, led by Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono. Nova pretty well dominated 7-seed Iowa in the Second Round, winning 87-68. They look like they are clicking at the right time, but they’re going to have their hands full in this one with the Miami Hurricanes. After squeaking past 14-seed Buffalo in the First Round, Miami came out firing in the Second Round against 11-seed Wichita State, and led big in the first half. The Shockers came roaring back in the second half, but Miami was able to hold them off thanks to a big game from point guard Angel Rodriguez, who scored 28 points in the 65-57 victory. These two teams match up pretty well, with Villanova the better shooting team, and also better on the defensive end, but Miami is more experienced and definitely more athletic. This is a toss-up in my humble opinion, and it could come down to which team makes more shots. As they showed in the Wichita State game, if Miami gets hot, it doesn’t matter how good the defense is. That being said, I think Villanova is the better team, and I think they are on a mission to prove their doubters wrong. I like the Wildcats in a close one here.

#5 Maryland vs #1 Kansas
Approx. 9:40 pm CBS
Kansas is the #1 overall seed in this tournament, and they have proved why through the first two rounds. After easily dispatching 16-seed Austin Peay, the Jayhawks took on a red-hot UConn team, and handled them with relative ease, winning 73-61. This team doesn’t have a true superstar, but they are just solid across the board. Their weakness (if they have one) this year has been the lack of an interior presence, but Landen Lucas has really emerged here at the end of the season for them, giving them that inside presence they’ve been searching for. It hasn’t been quite as easy a trek to this point for the Maryland Terrapins, who were able to outlast 12-seed South Dakota State in the First Round, and then used a late-second half surge to defeat 13-seed Hawaii 73-60. Melo Trimble scored 24 points in that one, and it appears that he has saved his best basketball for the end of the season. Maryland is a really good team, and they could give Kansas some fits with their size, but if Kansas is going to lose, I don’t see it being to a team like Maryland. I think the Terrapins can keep this thing close in the first half, and maybe even into the second half, but Kansas will ultimately be too much, and they’ll advance to the Elite 8.

 

West Region
Thursday 3/24, Anaheim

#3 Texas A&M vs #2 Oklahoma
7:37 pm TBS
Remember that improbable comeback I talked about in the opening? The team that was able to make that comeback was Texas A&M, as they rallied from a 12-point deficit with just 44 seconds left in regulation to force overtime against 11-seed Northern Iowa. The Aggies would eventually win the game 92-88 in double OT to move on to the Sweet 16 and send the Panthers home. As amazing as it is to even just read about, it was one of the most mind-boggling things you could ever watch as a sports fan. Texas A&M will look to ride that momentum all the way to the Final Four, but standing in their way here is the 2-seed Oklahoma Sooners, who were able to fend off a strong performance from 10-seed VCU in the Second Round, winning 85-81. The Sooners gave up 50 second half points to the Rams, and that is definitely cause for concern heading into this match-up. Many people expect Texas A&M to use the momentum from their epic comeback on Sunday to propel them to Houston next weekend, but the fact that they needed a comeback like that against Northern Iowa doesn’t give me much faith that they’ll be able to hang with a team as talented as Oklahoma. It’s obvious that the Sooners have some issues on the defensive end right now, but I think they’re the better team, and they have Buddy Hield. That alone may be enough for them.

#4 Duke vs #1 Oregon
Approx. 10:07 pm TBS
Seed wise, Duke has had the easiest road to the Sweet 16 they could have possibly had. But as far as the games have gone, it has been far from easy. The Blue Devils were tested in the First Round by 13-seed UNC Wilmington, with Duke eventually coming out on top 93-85 in a high-scoring affair. In the Second Round, they’d have a re-match with 12-seed Yale, a team they beat by 19 in November. After trailing by 23 at halftime, the Bulldogs came all the way back in the second half, making the game really interesting. Yale just didn’t have enough though, as Duke was able to pull it out 71-64 and advance to Anaheim. Here they will take on the 1-seed in the West, the Oregon Ducks, who came out on top in a slugfest with 8-seed St. Joseph’s, 69-65. The Hawks had a chance at the end of the game, but DeAndre Bembry turned it over, allowing the Ducks to put the game away at the free throw line. Oregon is one of the most athletic teams in the country, and that can cause problems for anybody, but especially for a team as thin as Duke. Coach K has a very short bench, and I expect the Ducks to play a fast pace with that in mind. Duke is a good team, and they could absolutely win this game, but this is a terrible match-up for them, and I expect Oregon to move on to the Elite 8.

 

Midwest Region
Friday 3/25, Chicago

#4 Iowa State vs #1 Virginia
7:10 pm CBS
Many people believe that Virginia is the best team in the country, despite some questionable results during the regular season. They have looked very good through the first two rounds of this tournament though, as they easily defeated 16-seed Hampton, and then were able to grind out a victory over 9-seed Butler, 77-69. They have the ACC Player of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon, and they are arguably the best defensive team in the land. That defense will be put to the test in the Sweet 16 as they take on the Iowa State Cyclones, who scored a 94-81 win over 13-seed Iona in the First Round, and then were victorious over 12-seed Little Rock in the Second Round by a score of 78-61. The Cyclones are very well-rounded, and they look to be playing some of their best basketball when it matters the most. They like to play fast, and they are very efficient on the offensive end. That could definitely give Virginia some fits. This game could come down to Virginia’s offense and Iowa State’s defense, and which one of those can be stronger. I believe it is Virginia’s offense that will be able to do enough to score the victory here, putting the Cavaliers in the Regional Final.

#11 Gonzaga vs #10 Syracuse
Approx. 9:40 pm CBS
The only two double-digit seeds to advance to the Sweet 16 this year will face each other here in the Midwest Region, meaning we are guaranteed a double-digit seed in the Elite 8. One of these teams, Gonzaga, has looked much better than a double-digit seed so far in this tournament. They dominated one of the hottest teams in the country, Seton Hall, in the First Round, and then wiped 3-seed Utah off of the Pepsi Center floor in the Second Round, 82-59. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis look really motivated to get this Zags team to Houston and the Final Four, something that looked far from realistic just a couple months ago. They’re going to take on the Syracuse Orange, who defeated 7-seed Dayton and 15-seed Middle Tennessee to get to this point. After losing five of six down the stretch, the Orange have looked much better in their two tourney wins, and they have a real shot at the Final Four if they can keep playing well. Their zone defense can give any team fits, but Gonzaga is a team built to do well against it. Sabonis is a force in the middle, and the Zags are shooting the ball really well from the perimeter in this tournament. If they keep playing the way they did last weekend, I like Gonzaga to win this one fairly easily, and move on to the Elite 8.

 

East Region
Friday 3/25, Philadelphia

#7 Wisconsin vs #6 Notre Dame
7:27 pm TBS
Each of these teams advanced to Philly in one of the most dramatic ways possible. The Badgers could barely score in their nail-biting First Round victory over 10-seed Pittsburgh, but in the last 15 seconds of their Second Round game with 2-seed Xavier, they got two three-pointers from point guard Bronson Koenig, including a fall-away in the corner at the buzzer to give them a 66-63 win, advancing them to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame meanwhile came back from a 12-point halftime deficit in the First Round to defeat 11-seed Michigan, and then they got a tip-in from freshman Rex Pflueger, his first field goal since March 5, with 1.2 seconds left to give them 76-75 win over 14-seed Stephen F. Austin in the Second Round. You could say that both of these teams are extremely lucky to be here, but that’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. One of these teams is going to have a shot at the Final Four, and I expect it to be Notre Dame. They are the better team, and if they are able to play at least a little bit of defense, their offense should then be able to do enough to push them past the Badgers and into the Regional Finals.

#5 Indiana vs #1 North Carolina
Approx. 9:57 pm TBS
Entering this tournament, North Carolina was a popular pick to cut down the nets in Houston. After the first weekend, that hasn’t changed much. They led 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast by just one point at halftime in the First Round, but routed them in the second half. They used another dominant second half performance to defeat 9-seed Providence 85-66 in the Second Round. They are going to need to have a better first half in their Sweet 16 game, as they take on 5-seed Indiana, who destroyed 12-seed Chattanooga in the First Round, and then outlasted 4-seed Kentucky in the Second Round, winning 73-67 behind 19 points from freshman Thomas Bryant. There aren’t many teams that can match up athletically with the Tar Heels, but Indiana is one of those teams. This might be the game I’m most looking forward to in the Sweet 16, because North Carolina is a title favorite, but Indiana is playing really good basketball right now. The loss to Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Hoosiers. If they play like they did against Kentucky, I think they’ll upset North Carolina. And I do believe they’ll play that well again, and you’ll see a lot of brackets busted with North Carolina being the first 1-seed knocked out.

 

I can only hope that this weekend will provide action half as good as last weekend, but rest assured, it will be exciting no matter what. Enjoy it everybody!

NCAA Second Round Preview: Saturday 3/19

I hope some of you are still breathing after these first two days of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. I’m barely hanging on. I apologize for not posting the last couple days, but with all of the amazing action, I think you can understand why. Just last night, we saw one of the favorites to win the whole thing lose to a 15-seed in the First Round, Northern Iowa down Texas on a half-court heave at the buzzer, and Cincinnati lose in heartbreaking fashion as a buzzer-beating dunk was just a hair late.

It was quite a day, and I’m looking forward to another one today! Here is a quick preview of each Second Round game taking place today.

South Region
#11 Wichita State vs #3 Miami (FL)
Providence, 12:10 pm CBS
The Hurricanes are a popular pick to advance deep in this tournament, but it took a very valiant effort for them to hold off 14-seed Buffalo on Thursday, eventually winning 79-72. Angel Rodriguez was great for Miami, tallying 24 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. He could have a lot of trouble in this one though, as they take on Fred Van Vleet and the Wichita State Shockers, who dominated 6-seed Arizona on Thursday, winning by 10. Van Vleet led the way with 16 points and 5 steals, as the Shockers looked much better than an 11-seed. Wichita State is arguably the best defensive team in the country, and it’s going to take a great game from the Hurricanes for them to advance to Louisville next week. That being said, this Wichita State team looks really good right now, and I think they’ll knock off Miami and advance to the Sweet 16.

West Region
#12 Yale vs #4 Duke
Providence, approx. 2:40 pm CBS
One of the biggest shockers of the First Round was the performance by the Yale Bulldogs, dominating Baylor on the boards and winning 79-75 for their first Tournament win in school history. Makai Mason scored 31 points for Yale, as they held off a late surge by the Bears to pull off the upset. Duke was nearly the victim of a First Round upset as well, but Marshall Plumlee exploded in the second half, and they were able to outlast UNC Wilmington 93-85. Many people had visions of a Yale-Duke rematch when the bracket was revealed, and they’ll get it. The two teams played at Cameron Indoor on November 25, with Duke winning 80-61. Duke was only up two points at half though, and they had Amile Jefferson in that game. Without Jefferson, Duke is a much weaker team inside, and we just saw Yale dominate a good interior team in Baylor. I shudder to think what they may do to Duke on the boards. Yale is a confident team right now, and I like them to pull off the upset.

East Region
#5 Indiana vs #4 Kentucky
Des Moines, 5:15 pm CBS
This is another highly anticipated Second Round match-up, as the Hoosiers and the Wildcats will reignite a rivalry that the two schools refuse to take part in during the regular season (if you didn’t know, Tom Crean and John Calipari are two very stubborn individuals). Both of these teams rolled in the First Round, with Indiana topping Chattanooga 99-74 and Kentucky besting Stony Brook 85-57. This will be one of the best point guard battles you’ll see in this tournament, as Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis will go one-on-one, and it should be highly entertaining. The difference in this game will be in the paint, where Indiana has some talent, led by freshman Thomas Bryant, but where Kentucky overwhelms some teams with the triumvirate of Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere. I think Kentucky will be too much for Indiana down low, and they’ll head to Philly and the East regional semis.

Midwest Region
#12 Little Rock vs #4 Iowa State
Denver, 6:10 pm TNT
Another stunner on Thursday was the Little Rock Trojans taking Purdue to double-overtime before coming away with an improbable 85-83 victory. Purdue had a 12-point lead fairly late and coughed it up when Little Rock started to pressure full-court, bothering the Boilermakers. Iowa State meanwhile was able to outscore the Iona Gaels 94-81, getting a somewhat comfortable win. The Cyclones have very lofty expectations, and they’ll have to play a completely different type of game here in the Second Round. Iona plays very little defense, while Little Rock pressures teams heavily on the defensive end. The Trojans are a nice story, and if they play like they did on Thursday they’ll have a shot, but I think Iowa State is just too talented and too motivated, and they’ll advance to Anaheim.

Midwest Region
#9 Butler vs #1 Virginia
Raleigh, 7:10 pm TBS
Virginia made fairly easy work of 16-seed Hampton in the First Round, winning 81-45 behind 19 points from forward Anthony Gill. Butler was able to come away victorious in a back-and-forth battle with Texas Tech, pulling away at the end and winning 71-61. Kellen Dunham scored 23 points, including 5-9 from three-point range for the Bulldogs. Butler is a very good offensive team, led by seniors Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, who I’m sure will be motivated to keep their careers going. But I just don’t think the Bulldogs have enough firepower to contend with the tenacious defense of the Cavaliers. It’s been a crazy year, and anything can happen here, but I like Virginia to win this one going away.

South Region
#9 UConn vs #1 Kansas
Des Moines, approx. 7:45 pm CBS
Kansas is considered by many to be the best team in this tournament, and they gave us a glimpse as to why in their First Round victory over 16-seed Austin Peay. The Jayhawks put up 105 points, led by 23 off the bench for guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (last name pronunced: mick-hi-look). Devonte Graham didn’t score in the game, which shows you how deep this team is. UConn struggled both early and late in their First Round game, but a good run in the middle of the second half was able to help the Huskies to a 74-67 win over 8-seed Colorado. Based on everything that happened in the First Round, I’d say it wouldn’t be very shocking to see UConn pull off an upset here. Kevin Ollie is a great postseason coach, and UConn is one of the few teams that can actually match-up well with the guard play and depth of Kansas. UConn operates in a similar fashion to the Jayhawks. Kansas will be favored pretty heavily, and for good reason, and I think they will come out on top. But don’t be that surprised if UConn puts together a great performance and moves on to Louisville.

Midwest Region
#11 Gonzaga vs #3 Utah
Denver, approx. 8:40 pm TNT
One of the biggest shockers for me, maybe not for everyone, but for me was how easily Gonzaga dispatched of 6-seed Seton Hall in the First Round. The Pirates won the Big East Tournament and were a trendy pick to advance deep in the tourney. Domantas Sabonis had other ideas, going for 21 points and 16 rebounds, leading the Bulldogs to a 68-52 drubbing of Seton Hall. In the Second Round, they’ll take on a Utah team that got past 14-seed Fresno State 80-69 behind 16 points and 18 rebounds from center Jakob Poeltl. This will be a battle of the big men, as Poeltl, Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer of Gonzaga are all very skilled, and will likely be taken in the First Round of this year’s NBA Draft. Utah is the more talented team, but I was really impressed with how Gonzaga played on Thursday, and I think they’ll get the job done here with another upset.

East Region
#9 Providence vs #1 North Carolina
Raleigh, approx. 9:40 pm TBS
Providence is pretty lucky to be here. Reggie Bullock got wide open for a go-ahead layup, and USC’s Julian Jacobs missed a half court heave, giving Providence a 70-69 victory. North Carolina defeated 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67 in the First Round, but the final score doesn’t tell the story. The Eagles were right there with UNC for the entire first half, trailing by just a point at halftime. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of the Tar Heel locker room at halftime, because they came out with a vengeance in the second half, taking the game over and winning fairly easily. Providence has two bonafide studs in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, and I expect them both to play well, but North Carolina has Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson to match up with Dunn and Bentil, and the Tar Heels have a much more talented supporting cast around their two superstars. Providence could absolutely win this game, but I expect UNC to come out on top and head to Philadelphia next week.

I’ll be back tomorrow with preview of Sunday’s Second Round games. Enjoy today’s action everybody!

 

NCAA Tournament Preview: West

The first two games in the 2016 NCAA Tournament took place last night in Dayton, with Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State advancing to the First Round. Bracketball has been previewing the First Round over the last few days, and today, we’ve reached the fourth and final region, the West Region, which will have its semifinals and finals in Anaheim, California.

The 1-seed in the West is the undisputed 2016 Pac 12 Champions, the Oregon Ducks. Some experts question whether the Ducks were deserved of a 1-seed over the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma and Villanova. You know the Ducks will take that and play with a giant chip on their shoulder.

As with the rest of the previews, any statistics are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom. Here is one more look at the bracket in its entirety.

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West Region

Spokane, WA
#1 Oregon (28-6) vs #16 Holy Cross/Southern
Friday 3/18, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: What an end to the season for the Oregon Ducks. They played terrific in Pac 12 competition, winning the regular season title over Utah, then they went and just wiped the Utes off the MGM Grand Arena floor in the Pac 12 Title Game, winning 88-57, their third victory over Utah this year. This team likes to play fast, and the put up a ton of points. There a difficult match-up for almost any team, and certainly for either Holy Cross or Southern.

Key Players: You can look back to my First Four preview to see the key players for HC and Southern, but for Oregon, they don’t necessarily have a star player, just a lot of really good players. Guard/forward Dillon Brooks is the emotional leader for this group, and he’s their leading scorer at 15.7 points per game. Freshman guard Tyler Dorsey is their sharpshooter, shooting over 43 percent from long range while scoring over 13 a game. And JUCO-transfer forward Chris Boucher is a force defensively, as he blocks 3.1 shots per game, one of the best marks in the country.

Why ORE will Win: As I’ve said in my other previews, a 16 has never defeated a 1, and I don’t see it starting with a team as talented as Oregon.

 

Spokane, WA
#8 St. Joseph’s (27-7) vs #9 Cincinnati (22-10)
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: St. Joe’s looked like a tournament team for much of the second half of the season, but they solidified their spot with a win over VCU in the A-10 Championship Game. This is arguably the most talented group Phil Martelli has had since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the Hawks to an undefeated regular season in 2004. On the other side, you have a Cincinnati team that made the Tournament despite losing a thriller in four overtimes to UConn in the American quarterfinals. Many thought that might eliminate the Bearcats, but they’ve earned a 9-seed instead.

Key Players: The Hawks are led by a legit NBA prospect in forward DeAndre Bembry. Bembry is extremely athletic, and he averages 17.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game this season. Along with Isaiah Miles (18.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg), the Hawks have a really talented frontcourt. Junior guard Troy Caupain is the offensive star for Cincinnati. Caupain this season is averaging 13.2 points and 4.8 assists per game. If he struggles, the team usually does too.

Why SJU will Win: They are playing with all sorts of confidence right now. They were nearly defeated by George Washington in the A-10 quarterfinals, and then pretty easily handled Dayton and VCU. They are extremely athletic, and they value the basketball more than most teams. Cincinnati is very good defensively, especially in the paint, so for St. Joe’s to win, they’ll need to avoid turning the ball over, and they’ll need to make jump shots.

Why CIN will Win: As I just mentioned, Cincinnati has one of the best interior defenses in the nation, and that could cause some problems for the Hawks. St. Joe’s can make jump shots though, so Cincinnati needs to put a lot of pressure on the ball to force turnovers and contested jumpers. That will give them the best chance to come out on top. If Cincinnati can slow the game down to their pace, they’ll be in good shape.

 

Providence, RI
#5 Baylor (22-11) vs #12 Yale (22-6)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: What an incredible accomplishment it is for Coach James Jones and the Bulldogs to be able to get to this point. Yale is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962, and they will take on the Baylor Bears out of the Big 12. Baylor is a very talented team, but they just couldn’t get past the class of the Big 12, going 0-7 against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Key Players: Both teams have several talented players, but for the purposes of this game, the key is going to be on the glass. For Baylor, that is Rico Gathers’s department. Gathers, a 6-8 senior who has already made clear his intentions to pursue a career in the NFL after the season, leads the team in boards at 9.1 per game. He’ll be battling with 6-6 senior forward Brandon Sherrod for the Bulldogs. Sherrod is second on the team in rebounding with 7.1 per, but he is the biggest body on the team, so he’ll be the one banging with Gathers.

Why BAY will Win: These teams play a very similar style. They both want to play a slow pace, and they are both very good on the boards. The difference comes with Baylor being the better offensive team, while Yale is better on the defensive end. I think that is good news for Baylor. The Bears are the more athletic team, and they’re more talented. Yale defends the paint well, but they’ll have trouble with the size of the Bears’ frontcourt. If Rico Gathers and Johnathan Motley play well, Baylor wins this game.

Why Yale will Win: The thing Yale has going for them is that they have nothing to lose. They’re in the Tournament for the first time in over 50 years, so it’s a huge accomplishment just to be playing in this game. If Yale wants to move on to the Second Round, I think they’ll need to make shots. Baylor gives up a lot of open looks from three in their 1-3-1 zone defense, and Yale shoots a good percentage from distance. If they can make shots, they could very easily outscore Baylor and win this game.

 

Providence, RI
#4 Duke (23-10) vs #13 UNC Wilmington (25-7)
Thursday 3/17, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: The First Round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament will kick off tomorrow on St. Patty’s Day with Duke and UNC Wilmington going at it in Providence. It’s been a strange season for the Blue Devils. They lost four of five games at one point, and people weren’t sure if they’d even make the Tournament, but they turned it on eventually. They do limp into the tourney though, having lost four of their last seven games. UNC Wilmington is a hot team on the other hand, having won 16 of their last 18 games, including a victory over top-seed Hofstra in the CAA finals.

Key Players: You probably hate him, but sophomore guard Grayson Allen is the whole show for Duke. Many expected freshman star Brandon Ingram to be that guy, but he’s been way too inconsistent for them to rely on him. Allen averages over 21 points a game for Duke, and he’ll have to shoulder the load if they’re going to make a run. Junior guard Chris Flemmings is the leader for the Seahawks, averaging 16.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. The Seahawks like to play small, and they spread the wealth among their guards.

Why Duke will Win: All season, this has felt like one of those Duke teams that will be overseeded in the Tournament (they are) and will probably go out early (we’ll see). That being said, Duke is just flat out more talented than UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks like to play small, and Marshall Plumlee has played better lately for Duke. I’d expect them to try to play in the paint to take advantage of UNC Wilmington’s lack of size. If they don’t, Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram will just probably take over this game.

Why UNCW will Win: Duke might be the worst defensive team in this tournament. There have been many games this year where it looks like they aren’t even trying to play defense. UNC Wilmington is a very efficient team offensively, and if they come out aggressive, they could get out in front of the Blue Devils. Duke lacks size as well, and they give up a lot of points inside the arc, where UNC Wilmington does most of their damage. They’ll need to be aggressive offensively if they want to pull off the upset.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#6 Texas (20-12) vs #11 Northern Iowa (22-12)
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: Shaka Smart has done an incredible job in his first season at the helm of the Texas Longhorns. They don’t play as fast as his VCU teams did, but they are just as good defensively as those teams were. They have wins over North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia (twice), so they know how to beat the top teams. Another team that has some huge wins this year is the team they’re up against in the First Round, the Northern Iowa Panthers. Northern Iowa also defeated North Carolina this season, and they also have a win over Iowa State, as well as two victories over Wichita State. This will be a great game.

Key Players: The most talented player for Texas is junior guard Isaiah Taylor. Taylor is averaging 14.8 points per game, which leads the team, and he also posts 4.9 assists per contest. He is the straw that stirs the drink for the Longhorns. On the other side, Wes Washpun is a name you’ll want to become familiar with. Washpun averages 14.3 points and 5.2 assists per game for the Panthers, and he is extremely clutch. He hit a jumper from the top of the key as time expired to defeat Evansville in the MVC title game to get Northern Iowa to the Tournament.

Why TEX will Win: Texas played the toughest schedule in the nation according to KenPom, so they will be more than ready for the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament. This team is great defensively, and they don’t give up a lot from the perimeter. Prince Ibeh is a great interior presence, but Texas is best defending jump shooters. Northern Iowa likes to shoot a lot of jump shots, and that should play right into the hands of the Longhorns.

Why UNI will Win: Northern Iowa has lost to teams like Colorado State, New Mexico, Missouri State and Loyola-Chicago this season, but the Panthers play up to their competition. Texas is a really good team, and that means that Northern Iowa is likely to step it up because of that. The Panthers struggle on the offensive boards, so they’ll need to make shots if they’re going to win this game.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#3 Texas A&M (26-8) vs #14 Green Bay (23-12)
Friday 3/18, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: Texas A&M has had a terrific season, losing to Kentucky in the SEC Championship game, but earning a higher seed in the NCAA’s than the Wildcats. That shows you how good certain people think this team is. In the First Round, they’ll take on the Green Bay Phoenix, who are one of the most fun teams to watch in this field. Green Bay plays faster on offense than any team in the country according to KenPom, and they’ll look to turn this game into a track meet.

Key Players: A pair of transfers lead the way for the Aggies. Danuel House started his career at Houston, and now he is one of the leading scorers for Texas A&M at 15.5 points per game. Also averaging 15.5 points per game this year for the Aggies is SMU-transfer Jalen Jones. These two guys are really good, and they’ll look to lead Texas A&M deep into this tournament. On the other side, Green Bay is led by a couple seniors in guard Carrington Love and forward Jordan Fouse. Fouse scores 12.8 points and corrals 8.4 rebounds per game, while Love is terrific both offensively and defensively, scoring 17.7 points per game, and getting over 2.5 steals a game.

Why A&M will Win: Texas A&M is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they’ll have to be on Friday if they’re going to slow down the Phoenix. Green Bay likes to play at the rim, and Texas A&M has some really good interior defenders in Jones and freshman Tyler Davis. If the Aggies can slow the game down a little, and force Green Bay into contested jump shots and not allow them to get into the lane, they should get the victory.

Why GB will Win: Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the defense you’re playing is when you play at lightning speed like Green Bay does. They will take the first open shot they get, so it will be paramount for Texas A&M to keep the pressure on. If Green Bay can speed this game up and not turn the ball over, I could definitely see them pulling off the upset.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#7 Oregon State (19-12) vs #10 VCU (24-10)
Friday 3/18, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: The Selection Committee was very kind to the Pac 12 this year, and one of the biggest beneficiaries were the Oregon State Beavers. A team with 12 losses, that I had pegged as a true Bubble team ended up with a 7-seed, way out of Bubble territory. They’re a good team, but maybe not 7-seed good. They’ll take on the VCU Rams who haven’t skipped a beat after losing coach Shaka Smart to Texas. New head man Will Wade is bringing another really good defensive team into the Big Dance.

Key Players: The point guard for Oregon State has a name that may be familiar. Gary Payton II runs the show for the Beavers, and as you can tell by the name, he is the son of “The Glove.” Payton is a fantastic player across the board, averaging a team-leading 15.9 points per game to go along with 7.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game. For VCU, senior guard Melvin Johnson will be finishing off his stellar career in the NCAA Tournament, but he may be less than 100 percent, as he banged up his foot in the A-10 Tournament. Johnson leads the Rams in scoring at 17.4 points per game.

Why OSU will Win: Gary Payton II is more than capable of shouldering the load for the Beavers, and if he takes over this game, there might not be anything VCU can do. Oregon State may be without second leading-scorer Tres Tinkle, who has not played in the last four games. If Oregon State can take care of the ball and make threes, something that they are very efficient in doing, they can defeat VCU.

Why VCU will Win: If Oregon State is without Tinkle, the coach’s son, in this game, the pressure that VCU’s guards will put on Payton and Tinkle’s replacement could be too much to handle. Despite being 6-8, Tinkle is a great ball handler. VCU may be licking their chops if Tinkle doesn’t play, and that spells bad news for the Beavers. VCU likes to play at the rim, and Oregon State can struggle to defend the paint at times. That should be the gameplan for the Rams if they want to move on to the Second Round.

 

Oklahoma City, OK
#2 Oklahoma (25-7) vs #15 CSU Bakersfield (24-8)
Friday 3/18, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Seniors and shooting. That is how Oklahoma has gotten it done this season, and they are National Championship or bust. An early season blowout of Villanova set the tone for how this season could be for the Sooners, and then wins over Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor proved that this was one of the best teams in the nation. It has been a rough start in Division I basketball for D-II power CSU Bakersfield, but they have finally made the NCAA Tournament for the first time this year after knocking off New Mexico State in the WAC finals.

Key Players: Buddy Hield is likely the National Player of the Year, and for good reason. Hield averages 25 points per game for the Sooners, most of any major conference player. He also shoots an incredible 46.4 percent from three-point range. Along with fellow seniors Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler, this group is looking to make a deep run in the tourney this year. The Roadrunners are one of just a couple teams in the field who have five players averaging double-figures in scoring, led by senior forward Aly Ahmed at 12.9 points per game. 5-10 junior point guard Dedrick Basile was huge for the Roadrunners in the WAC final against NMSU, and he’ll need to be spectacular once again if Bakersfield has any shot in this game.

Why OU will Win: I just cannot imagine Buddy Hield losing the NCAA opener in his final season to a 15-seed. It just won’t happen. Oklahoma has too much firepower on offense for the Roadrunners to handle.

Why CSB will Win: While Oklahoma is a great team, all it will take is one off shooting night from the Sooners and they could be done. KenPom rates CSU Bakersfield as one of the top-30 defensive teams in the nation, but they are best at defending inside the arc. Oklahoma is deadly from behind the arc. If the Roadrunners can force some missed jumpers, they have a slight chance in this one.

 

And we have now previewed each of the First Round games in this year’s NCAA Tournament! Thursday and Friday are going to be jam packed with excitement, so make sure you have your sick voice ready when you call into work to get the day off! We’ll have another post on Friday with a preview of the 2nd round games taking place on Saturday.