No matter what happens in the West Regional, Gonzaga's dominance during the regular season should not be ignored when we catalog and index the 2018-19 season in college basketball history. This year's Zags had the best offense in the country for most of the year, a handful of players that could end up playing pro ball and absolutely obliterated the West Coast Conference on the way to a perfect 16-0 record in league play during the regular season.
Oh yeah, and it's the only team in the country to be able to say it beat a full-strength Duke.
There is a ton that points to this year's team being the one that can get Mark Few his first national championship, but even reaching the Final Four looks challenging with a draw that features no less than a handful of teams that present a test for Gonzaga unlike anything it's faced since back-to-back losses against Tennessee (on a neutral) and North Carolina (in Chapel Hill) in December.
It's unfair that the value of Gonzaga's entire 2019 season will be judged, at least in the eyes of many college basketball fans, on whether or not the Bulldogs make it out of the West Regional and to Minneapolis for the Final Four. But that's the reality of the conversation around this program and its relationship to this tournament. Gonzaga has already overcome the initial early-exit tournament narratives with four straight Sweet 16 appearances, including an Elite Eight run in 2015 and Few's first Final Four and a national runner-up showing in 2017. If Gonzaga gets bounced early, it's not a reflection on anything other than a good team's inability to get a win on a neutral floor against another good team.
But that's not the way we'd talk about it if Gonzaga falls before the Sweet 16. If Gonzaga wanted or wants an "us against the world" angle, it's got it, because the West Regional is packed with potential landmines for the field's fourth No. 1 seed.
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Best first-round game
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State: An old adage -- proven and disproven from year to year -- goes that you need great guard play to win in the NCAA Tournament. Well Marquette's Markus Howard and Murray State's Ja Morant are two of the most dynamic scoring guards in the entire field and we get to see them both go head-to-head in the first round. In addition to the matchup of two future pros, the style of both teams should set up for an incredibly entertaining game. It's also somewhat of an upset alert spot for Marquette after stumbling to the finish line in the regular season.
Top potential matchup
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State: A potential rematch from last year's Sweet 16 stunner, the Seminoles enter this year's tournament in much better form than when they were a 9-seed in 2018. This is also a much better Gonzaga team, and the thing that makes this potential matchup so intriguing is that Florida State has the size and length to keep the Bulldogs from playing bully-ball down low like they were able to do in so many conference games.
Upset lock of the regional
No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette: Markus Howard might go for 40+ points and yet I'm not all-in on Marquette based on the way they finished the season. In losing five of their last six games, the Golden Eagles showed a form that struggled in the closing moments of close games and that doesn't set up well as a four-point favorite against a hot Murray State team that just won its conference tournament.
Cinderella team that will surprise
None: I think Murray State will knock off Marquette, but the thing that makes the West Regional different is the storyline has the major conference teams playing underdog to the mid-major powerhouse. Other regionals have dangerous double-digit seeds from smaller conferences that could make a run into the Sweet 16, but in the West it's national championship-winning programs like Syracuse (9) and Florida (10) that appear to be the closest thing to a "Cinderella" potential.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
Michigan: At the start of February, I had the Wolverines as one of four teams I thought could win a national title, but the offense was far too inconsistent down the stretch to think we're about to see another deep run from John Beilein's team. I think the draw is really tough with Nevada, Florida and Texas Tech all in the potential path to an Elite Eight showdown against Gonzaga, and would pick any of those three teams against the Wolverines on a neutral floor right now.
Five players to watch
- Brandon Clarke, F, Gonzaga: Teammate Rui Hachimura gets a ton of attention, but when it comes to efficiency and production, Clarke has been as much if not more impressive this season. In addition to nearly double-double averages (16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds per game), Clarke has also proven to be an elite shot-blocker on defense.
- Ja Morant, G, Murray State: There is a discussion that Morant has joined Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett as a lock to be one of the top picks in this summer's NBA Draft. Get your eyes on that first round game against Marquette in case its his last in college hoops.
- Markus Howard, G, Marquette: The tournament loves game-changing guards that can pour it in, and Howard is averaging 25 points per game while hitting on 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. It's a bummer that matchup against Morant isn't a best-of-seven series, but I've got a hunch we'll get to see more of them facing off for years to come at the next level.
- Jarrett Culver, F Texas Tech: Just a freshman on last year's Elite Eight team, Culver averaged 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game in the regular season as the Red Raiders elevated their level of play to a championship caliber despite being picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll.
- Jordan Caroline, F Nevada: After missing Nevada's Mountain West Tournament semifinal loss to San Diego State, Eric Musselman said the Wolf Pack's best player is back to 100 percent and will play on Thursday against the Gators. It's a huge update for Nevada's chances of making a run as a 7-seed team with a roster that stacks up against anyone in the top-10 based on talent.
West Regional winner
Texas Tech: When the bracket starts to bust and top seeds start to fall, the teams that usually make it to the Final Four are ones with elite coaching. Chris Beard, to me, has already proven to be an elite college coach and the Red Raiders' deep tournament a year ago might have paved the way for this year's team. The core of last year's group is gone, sure, but the fact that Texas Tech can lose five of its top six scorers and still be in the hunt for a Big 12 title only reaffirms my belief in Beard and the expectation that Jarrett Culver can lead this year's group to Minneapolis.
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