The West has as much intrigue in that region as we’ve seen in four or five years. Gonzaga being a No. 1 seed will come with plenty of attention, but Arizona being the No. 2 after winning the Pac-12 tournament will possibly give us one incredible regional final.
Of course, it’s far from a guarantee. This region has a bunching of smartypants schools, a team that’s made two straight Elite Eights, a No. 3 seed that very few people believe in, and a stealthy No. 7 seed that I haven’t seen any pundit pick to make the Sweet 16.
But it could happen.
Let’s look around the West and talk this out.
Three initial thoughts
1. If Gonzaga is going to make the Final Four, it will absolutely have to earn it. The Bulldogs rate as the No. 1 team in college hoops at KenPom. I think they breeze past South Dakota State, then shouldn’t have trouble with either Vanderbilt or Northwestern. The opening weekend should be stress-free. Then it gets interesting. Notre Dame has the personnel to beat Gonzaga, of this I’m sure. If WVU is the team that awaits the Bulldogs, then that pressing style could present some problems. Get through that, and then Arizona or ultra-talented Florida State would likely be the regional final opponent. The West isn’t the toughest region, but people are downplaying the hurdles facing the Zags.
2. Saint Mary’s is a really dangerous No. 7 seed. The Gaels lost just four games this season, three of them to a team that’s actually in their bracket: Gonzaga (and it’s a little strange that the committee put the only two WCC teams in the same region). But if the Gaels get Arizona, they’ll have a good chance to pull the upset. This team was ranked every week of the season, is balanced and has a very good player in Jock Landale.
3. The Northwestern story is great. Vanderbilt lost 15 games against a very tough schedule, but the Commodores have no business being a single-digit seed. They’re really more of a No. 11 in terms of resume, so here’s Northwestern with a great opportunity to win a game in its first NCAA Tournament ever. I’m interested to see how the Wildcats prepare for this week, and if they’re overtaken by the moment or are businesslike in this game. Vandy can shoot from deep -- that’s the thing that could push NU out right away.
Bold prediction: The top four seeds will win their first-round games by a combined average of 25 points. High seeds will be scared on Thursday and Friday, but I just don’t think this is the region that will see it. Gonzaga shouldn’t have any issue with South Dakota State, and Arizona greatly outclasses North Dakota -- a first-time tourney invitee. Florida State probably has too much size and too good a defensive fingerprint to get a push from a solid Florida Gulf Coast team. And while Bucknell is a fun rep from the Patriot League, I have a feeling WVU is going to blitz the Bison.
Five best players
1. Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga): Played on the level of a First Team All-American, in my opinion. Gonzaga’s lead guard is averaging 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He’ll have his team ready. Will not let you down. Fun, smart player. I’d take him on my team before anyone else in this region.
2. Lauri Markkanen (Arizona): The 7-foot Finnish 3-point specialist is also a great rebounder (7.1 per game) and unlike any other player in college hoops.on him a few weeks back that I think you’ll enjoy. He’s the best player to ever come out of that country. Averages 15.6 points.
3. Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame): My friend Gregg Doyell of the Indy Star tweeted earlier this week that Colson is, something to the effect of, “the tallest 6-5 man on earth.” I agree. Notre Dame’s got Steve Vasturia, who nearly qualifies for this list, but Colson has been a top-15 player of overall value in college basketball this season. The last “positionless” frontcourt player that played this well and was so vital to his team: Draymond Green at Michigan State.
4. Melo Trimble (Maryland): Now a junior, Trimble is one of the more recognizable names in college basketball. He’s had a pretty good junior season, certainly a step up from his sophomore slump. Trimble averages 17 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He’s absolutely spectacular in end-of-game situations.
5. Jock Landale (Saint Mary’s): I’ve got Landale just ahead of Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett for the final spot. The versatile frontcourt weapon averages 16.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and ranks as one of the most efficient players in college hoops. Landale has a strong foursome around him in SMC’s starting lineup, but he is The Guy. Most college basketball fans don’t know about him. This could be his moment.
Three most interesting potential matchups
1.The Gonzaga-Arizona game is one I’d really like to see. Remember when those two faced off in that epic second round game in 2003, Arizona as the No. 1 and barely getting past Gonzaga, 96-95? I’ve got more thoughts on Wildcats-Zags below.
2. Notre Dame-Gonzaga would be high-scoring and maybe the most entertaining Sweet 16 of all. Mike Brey’s offense is space-and-pace with Matt Farrell running point. He’s one of the most improved players in college hoops this season. I’d love to see that out in San Jose.
3. Saint Mary’s-Arizona could be a second-round classic. The Gaels have to get by VCU first, and that’s not a given, but I think that’s the toughest possible test any top-three seed could face in the second round, with the exception of Kentucky going up against Wichita State.
The biggest first round upset will be … Xavier over Maryland. The Musketeers are a perfect candidate. X does well in the tournament, has a very good player in Trevon Bluiett, can ride the disrespect card, and Maryland’s over-seeded.
Another fun possible upset to watch for ... Dunk City, Part II? It’d be an awesome story if Florida Gulf Coast pulled off another Cinderella run. People will be rooting for that across the country. I don’t have that happening in my bracket, but it’s certainly within reason.
The lowest-seeded school to make the Sweet 16 will be … No. 5 Notre Dame. I expect the West to be entertaining, but fairly chalky, at the start of the regional semifinals. If I had to pick the team most likely below ND to break through, I would say Xavier.
The player the country doesn’t know now but will know by Saturday is … Jonathan Isaac. Florida State’s freshman is a top-15 draft prospect, a skinny stretch-four who can shoot. He’s a great team player, and if anything, needs to be more selfish. If FSU makes the Sweet 16, his national profile will bloom.
The Elite Eight showdown will be … No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 Arizona. The Bulldogs and Wildcats will give us another great iteration in their quasi-rivalry. Remember, Gonzaga beat Arizona on Dec. 3 on a neutral floor in Los Angeles. Key distinction in that game: Arizona did not have Allonzo Trier. Trier is Arizona’s second-best player. Having him back changes things. Which means ...
The champion of the West will be … No. 2 Arizona. Sean Miller, famously, has never made a Final Four. He coached Arizona to a No. 1 seed and the Elite Eight three years ago and lost an epic to Wisconsin. He coached Arizona to a No. 2 seed and the Elite Eight two years ago and lost another great game to ... Wisconsin. But the Badgers aren’t in this bracket. Arizona has Markkanen, Trier, a promising young point guard in Kobi Simmons and a supreme glue guy in Kadeem Allen. The metrics don’t love the Wildcats, but I do. Talented enough to flirt with the Final Four, coached well enough to get them over the edge.