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*
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.