Since this unique NCAA Tournament is taking place in one geographic location, the West Region had a chance this season to be more balanced than in most years. Normally, the NCAA tries as best as it can to put West Coast-based teams in the West Region on the No. 1-4 seed lines. But often times, there aren't enough good teams in the Mountain Time Zone and beyond to make that happen, so the West is usually a bit of a hodgepodge, and thus, the weakest region.
Despite having the favorite to win the national title in undefeated Gonzaga, I'm afraid that is again the case. The top-seeded Bulldogs were gifted with No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Virginia. Gonzaga has defeated all of those teams already. And while there's no guarantee they'll face any of them again, broadly speaking, this is the weakest of the four corners of the bracket.
But there's still more than enough interesting stuff. A couple of dangerous No. 6 (USC) and No. 7 (Oregon) seeds. Multiple lottery picks, the likely National Player of the Year, the reigning national champions, and a No. 5 seed (Creighton) that's had a lot of drama around its program in the past two weeks.
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Best first-round game
(8) Oklahoma vs. (9) Missouri: Maybe not best, but certainly most interesting. Two teams that have shown us so much good and so much "huh?" in the past four months. Oklahoma was ranked as high as seventh in the AP Top 25 poll, while Mizzou's high-water mark was 10th. But both enter this tournament unranked. Missouri went 7-6 against Quad 1 opponents; Oklahoma 5-9. This is the biggest 8/9 toss-up of the four regions because both teams come in stumbling, having gone a combined 4-11 in their last 15 games. Flip a coin -- nobody knows!
Top potential matchup
(2) Iowa vs. (7) Oregon: A couple of offenses that get it done in different ways but are effective in their own respects. This is the best potential matchup, from a viewing standpoint, we'll have for any No. 2 seed going up against any 7 or 10. Oregon is more talented than its seed line and has a wing attack that will make a really great defensive challenge for Iowa, which has been better on defense in the past month. Iowa would be favored in this game, but the line might not be more than 4.5 points.
Upset lock of the region
(12) UCSB over (5) Creighton: If this isn't the most popular 12-over-5 pick in the bracket, it's a close second to Winthrop over Villanova. The Gauchos are 22-4 (13-3 Big West) and in their sixth NCAA Tournament. They're hoping to get their second win in school history (first was in 1990) and have won 18 of their past 19 games. Ten of those 11 wins have come by double digits. As for Creighton, it scored just 48 points in an embarrassing Big East title game loss to Georgetown. It was the lowest points scored by the Bluejays since 2016. This one seems ripe for the picking.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(14) Eastern Washington: We'll see how fresh Kansas is, given we don't even know if it will have its full complement of starters for this game. Those details will emerge later in the week. Eastern Washington is the perfect No. 14 seed that's getting overlooked in this spot. The Eagles have one loss by five points since the middle of January. They rank sixth nationally in free throw shooting percentage. I'm just lobbing it out there.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(2) Iowa: For this category, I try to pick a No. 1, 2 or a 3 seed to lose at least a round earlier than expected. Iowa could have a rough matchup in the second round against No. 7 Oregon. So that's the first issue. If it moves on there, I like No. 6 USC to make the Sweet 16. With Trojans center Evan Mobley being a challenging matchup for Luka Garza, my pick is for USC to upset Iowa in the regional semifinals and end the Hawkeyes' season.
Six players to watch
- Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga: Gonzaga has four players that could be on this list, but we'll whittle it to the one whose game is the most irresistible. Suggs (14.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg 4.5 apg, 2.0 spg) will be a top-five pick in this year's NBA Draft. Physical yet smooth, he is the player that upgrades the Bulldogs from a great team to a potentially immortal one.
- Luka Garza, Iowa: The National Player of the Year needs no introduction. Garza (23.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) can play inside or out. The best player in the history of Iowa basketball, and one of the best four-year careers in the Big Ten of the past 15 years.
- Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton: He'll need to shine to get Creighton to the second weekend. The lead guard averages 15.7 points, 4.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 41.2% from 3-point range. One of his best attributes is his availability -- he's not foul-prone.
- Evan Mobley, USC: The West could have the No. 2 and No. 3 2021 NBA Draft picks in Suggs and Mobley. USC's star freshman was the best player -- and best defender -- in the Pac-12. Mobley (16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.0 bpg) has next-level instincts and is an unselfish center with a keen eye for passing. He'll be a matchup nightmare in every game the Trojans have.
- Jason Preston, Ohio: College hoops diehards know Preston's story, but the national audience is about to learn. He never expected or intended to play college basketball. Ohio took him after he randomly joined an AAU team, which led to an opportunity to play at prep school, and eventually Ohio offered. Now he's an NBA prospect averaging 16.8 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds. Watch him.
- Chris Duarte, Oregon: The former junior-college national player of the year has been as good as advertised, averaging 16.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.9 steals for a dangerous Ducks' team. Duarte's shooting efficiency is among the best of any guard in the tournament: 61.6% from 2, 43.0% from 3-point range and 80.3% from the foul line.
West Region winner
(1) Gonzaga: We are guaranteed to have a huge story in the West. Either Gonzaga gets out of the region and is into the Final Four as an undefeated team, or it suffers a sizable upset and becomes the latest team to fail to conquer the NCAA Tournament both with an undefeated record and the No. 1 overall seed. I lean the former. Weirdly, this region has the teams seeded second, third and fourth all with losses to the Zags this season. That's a bit unfortunate, as it doesn't leave a bit more room for variety. Iowa, Kansas and Virginia lost to Gonzaga by 11, 12 and 23 points respectively. Of all the No. 1 seeds, Gonzaga got the easiest draw. Corey Kispert wins West Region Most Outstanding Player and Gonzaga gets to 30-0.
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