West Region preview: Arizona's path clear to Final Four
The road to Arlington seems clear for Sean Miller's team, but it's rarely that easy.
If anything breaks as it should, Arizona should have a relatively easy path to its first Final Four since 2001.
News flash: Things rarely break as they should in the NCAA Tournament.
The West Region isn't loaded with overly-intriguing matchups like the Midwest or teams loaded with talent like the East. But what the West lacks in those areas it makes up for with some staggering individual talent. Certainly Sean Miller's Wildcats have the upper hand on paper, but when has that mattered much in March?
Here's a deeper look at the West Region.
Three initial thoughts on the region
1. Arizona was clearly the committee's second-best team: Behind Florida, Arizona has the clearest path to the regional final. Its second round matchup against either a dangerous Oklahoma State team or everyone's favorite underdog, Gonzaga. Still, the Wildcats have a very favorable draw, given they show up -- and there's no reason to think they won't.
2. Lots of offense: Whoever makes it out of this bracket will have to power through some pretty stout defenses. But then again, there are also the offenses that can do it. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Creighton, and Louisiana-Lafayette are all in the top 25 nationally in points per game, and Gonzaga is not far behind. Still, Arizona and San Diego State are among the top five in defensive points per game, so something has to give.
3. Creighton, Wisconsin could go either way: It's easy to look at this bracket and think Wisconsin could make it out. Same for Creighton. But, by the same token, it's easy to see both of them going home before the Sweet 16. Obviously, for Creighton, Doug McDermott's play will be key. And Wisconsin will need to maintain its offensive efficiency, especially with a potential matchup with a high-scoring Oregon team in the round of 32.
Five best players in the region
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: The nation's leading scorer has notched 20 points or above in all but four games, and hasn't scored less than 20 since January. His scoring output in the last four games: 45, 35, 32, 27. He's also shooting over 45 percent from three. Figure out a way to stop him. No one else has.
2. Nick Johnson, Arizona: The Pac-12 player of the year, Johnson was strong on both sides of the ball this season. He averaged nearly 17 points per team, but the junior also showed the ability to shut down the opposing team's point guard.
3. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Widely considered one of the nation's best players coming into the season, Smart had something of an up and down year. Still, he's plenty capable of leading the Cowboys to a win over any team in the country.
4. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Like Johnson, Thames was the conference player of the year and a solid defensive presence, also being named first team all-defense in the Mountain West.
5. Aaron Gordon, Arizona: One of the nation's top recruits, Gordon's athleticism is, at times, mind-boggling. His play could be key in determining how far the Wildcats go.
Five bold predictions for the region
The biggest round of 64 upset will be ... No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette over No. 3 Creighton. This is an insane pick. I realize this. But the Ragin' Cajuns can put points on the board, and they've lost just twice since February. With a 1-2 punch of Shawn Long and Elfrid Payton, ULL is certainly capable of making some noise.
The lowest-seeded team to make the Sweet 16 will be ... No. 11 Nebraska. The Huskers drew a pretty favorable 6-seed in Baylor, and they've been hot since getting wrecked by Michigan by 29 in early February, winning eight of their last 10. If Creighton does indeed bow out early, the road to the Sweet 16 will be clear for Tim Miles' team.
The player the country the country doesn't know now but will know by Saturday is … North Dakota State's Taylor Braun. The Summit League player of the year led the conference in scoring, and dropped 30 points or better four times this season. If he's able to get free on a regular basis against Oklahoma, the Sooners may be in big trouble.
The Elite Eight showdown … No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 7 Oregon. You know when you're filling out a bracket and you have two teams in the Sweet 16 and you think, 'I can't imagine either of these two in the Elite 8'? Well, that's what's happening here. The Wildcats should cruise, and the Ducks may just be the last team standing on the bottom half of the bracket. And why not? Oregon played Arizona close on the road, beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, and dropped 'Zona in Eugene. In addition, the Ducks are somewhat hot, winning eight of their last nine.
The champion of the West Region will be … No. 1 Arizona. OK, playtime's over. Arizona is just too strong for anyone in this region. The Wildcats could struggle some in the round of 32 and forward, but it's tough to see any team toppling Sean Miller's squad who has looked poised for a Final Four run since the season began.
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