by Paul West
After a regular season with no clear top dog but also a relatively small bubble, the 2017 March Madness tournament holds some interesting matchups and a lot of potential upsets. The West Region holds the 1 seed that seems to have the most the prove.
1 Gonzaga vs. 16 South Dakota State
The Gonzaga Bulldogs continue to remain in the upper echelons of college basketball, and they continue to be doubted as championship material. The ‘they don’t play anybody’ line of reasoning, along with the handful of times they’ve actually been highly touted only to disappoint in March, have led many to dismiss this year’s squad as just another example of false hope. But this year could be different. They score 84.6 points a game and only surrender 61.2, good for 18th and 6th in the country respectively; they average 16 assists a game, tied for 34th; and they average 40.3 boards a game, tied for 9th. They can beat you from inside or outside. Nigel Williams-Goss, a 6’3″ junior guard and First Team All-American, leads the Bulldogs with 16.9 points and 4.8 assists a game, and he also averages 5.7 rebounds. Przemek Karnowski, 7’1″ and 300 pounds, controls the paint with a big presence as well as a deft touch. They have another seven-footer in Zach Collins, allowing them to play against big front lines. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits are only 18-16 overall on the season, though they’ve won six straight games going into the tournament. They score 77.6 a game, and their ace in the hole is Mike Daum. At 6’9″ and 245 pounds, Daum is averaging 25.3 points a game along with 8.2 rebounds; he’s a legitimately elite talent who can take over a game by himself. He’ll have to have a huge game if the Jackrabbits are going to have a chance. Pick: Gonzaga
2 Arizona vs. 15 North Dakota
The Arizona Wildcats are a tough, athletic team that outlasted the Oregon Ducks to win the Pac 12 title game on Saturday. They like to get out in transition, led by guard Allonzo Trier and his 17.3 points a game, but their real strength is a tough team defense that only allows 65.4 points a game. Seven-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen is developing at just the right time; he’s a versatile big man who averages 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, can shoot from the perimeter, and shoots 82 percent from the free throw line. The North Dakota Fighting Hawks like to get out and run, as well; they scored 80.5 points a game, on 15.1 assists a game. The good news is they’ll be comfortable playing an up-tempo game with the Wildcats; the bad news is they’re relatively lacking in depth, and the Wildcats are hard to beat in a wide open game. Actually, the Wildcats are hard to beat, in general. Pick: Arizona
3 Florida State vs. 14 Florida Gulf Coast
The Florida State Seminoles finished second in the ACC’s regular season. They have both size in the paint and capable shooters, averaging 82.5 points a game. 6’10” freshman Jonathan Isaac is a space-eater with tremendous length, and he averages 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. 6’7″ Dwayne Bacon averages 16.9 a game as a lengthy guard-forward hybrid. Their leading assist man is Xavier Rathaan-Mayes is a shooter who only averages 10.4 a game but once went on a legendary scoring binge, scoring 30 points in the last 4:38 of a game–though, curiously, he’s only hitting 54 percent of his free throws this year. They can be streaky, but when they’re clicking, they’re a threat to beat almost anyone. The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles first arrived on the map in 2013, with their thrill-a-minute “Dunk City” squad; they not only still use the moniker, they more than adequately live up to it. 6’5″ sophomore guard Rayjon Tucker might have delivered the dunk of the year in all of basketball, when he broke the shot clock with a stupefying two-hander back in early March. And the Eagles are a potent offensive squad: they score 79.4 a game while only allowing 68.8, and they attack the glass to the tune of 37.7 boards a game. With 15.4 assists a game, they pass it around to set up those dunks, as well. This has the potential the be a high-octane thriller, and Florida State better not show up flat. Pick: Florida State
4 Virginia vs. 13 UNC-Wilmington
The Virginia Cavaliers still employ their signature defense, a gap-closing pack line which cuts down opposing players’ ability to drive the lanes. But they’ve lost Malcolm Brogdon, a scoring threat whose air of calm helped manage the team’s energy even as he took over the offense–and they’ve also lost Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill, and other current pros who gave them the interior presence to prevent teams from getting second chances on offense. Before Brogdon, Joe Harris was the level-headed and underrated scoring threat that could take over the offense when needed. Sensing a theme here? This year’s Cavaliers can still lock it down on defense, but they often really struggle to score. Senior guard London Perrantes has been asked to take over a larger role an an anemic offense, but this belies his true value as a crafty, efficient playmaker who hits threes in big moments but not in high volume. The x-factors for the Cavs are two freshmen: 6’5″ Ty Jerome, who can score off the dribble and has decent shooting range, and Kyle Guy, an athletic energizer who can score in bunches and plays as if he’s never seen a shot he didn’t like. The Wahoos will need to further integrate their shooters into the plan, or they won’t be able to build a run into next weekend. The UNC-Wilmington Seahawks have a balanced lineup with depth, multiple scoring threats and a willingness to share the ball; they’re tenth in the nation in scoring with 85.2 points a game, and 29th in the nation with 16.1 assists a game. Just last year, as a 13 seed, they had 4-seed Duke on the ropes on their last tournament appearance. This will be an interesting strength vs. strength matchup, and UVA coach Tony Bennett–a sagacious, stabilizing strategist who helps his players maximize their talents–has his work cut out for him. Pick: UNC-Wilmington (sorry, Casey)
5 Notre Dame vs. 12 Princeton
Notre Dame lost to a red-hot Duke team in the ACC title game, but they’re going to be dangerous in the big dance. 6’5″ Bonzie Colson is a force, averaging 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds a game and using strength, brawn and grit to play beyond his 6’5″ frame. 6’10 Martinas Gebben is emerging as a presence in the paint, which is good news for a team that’s 274th in the country in rebounding. Their main strength is scoring: Notre Dame puts up 78 points a game, good for 67th in the country, and when they get hot from the perimeter, they can go on a run against most teams. The Princeton Tigers are a team that relies on stout team defense and perimeter shooting; they give up only 61.6 points a game, good for 10th in the country. They like to slow the pace down, but they’ll have to control the boards if they’ll have a chance against Notre Dame. Pick: Notre Dame
6 Maryland vs. 11 Xavier
The Maryland Terrapins finished the regular season second in a tough Big Ten Conference, and for a young team, they’ve shown an ability to work well under pressure. But they often seem like a one-man show: junior guard Melo Trimble, averaging 17 points, 3.7 boards, and 3.7 assists a game, is often asked to carry the team for long stretches. The Xavier Musketeers finished 7th in the Big East, and like the Terps, they sometimes seem to rely too heavily on one player. That player is Trevon Bluiett, a junior guard averaging 18.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. This is one of the fuzziest crapshoots in the entire bracket. Pick: Maryland
7 Saint Mary’s vs. 10 VCU
The Saint Mary’s Gaels are another team that’s kept its program on the national radar after being a mid-major Cinderella story just a few years ago. They battled Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, finishing a game behind them for the regular season title and losing to them in the tournament’s championship game. They allow only 56.5 points a game, and they play a tough pack-line type of defense akin to UVA’s. The VCU Rams are also a team that prides itself on defense; in the tradition of the “Havoc” defense once implemented by wunderkind coach Shaka Smart, they play a hectoring, pressure-oriented defense that holds opponents to 6.3 points a game. If they can force turnovers, they have a chance at the upset; this won’t likely be a high-scoring game. Pick: Saint Mary’s
8 Northwestern vs. 9 Vanderbilt
By way of some dramatic wins, the Northwestern Wildcats have finally made it to the big dance. Nothing about them really jumps off the screen, except their tenacity and their ability to hit clutch shots. The Wildcats only gave up 65.1 points a game this season, and they’ve been battle-tested by a tough Big Ten Conference. The Vanderbilt Commodores come in at 19-15, and that’s a lot of losses even if you account for their impressive strength of schedule. They love to shoot from the perimeter, and they’re good at it, too; and their sharpshooting helps spread the floor for 7’1″ senior Luke Kornet, who’s a shooting threat as well. This is a game that could go either way. Pick: Northwestern
Upset alert: UNC-Wilmington. If they can get out and running, and minimize turnovers, they’ll outrun the offensively challenged Wahoos. Also keep an eye on Florida Gulf Coast.
Sleeper team: Florida State. If they get clicking, they can make a big splash; but they’re also liable to throw up a clunker on any given day.
You might not have heard of: Mike Daum. The second-leading scorer in Division, I, Daum is the kind of player that can carry a team to an upset. if nothing else, he’ll likely put himself on the national stage after this weekend.
Who makes the Final Four? Gonzaga. This is the year they finally make it out of their region.