by Paul West
More and more in recent years, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a wide open affair, with a number of credible title threats and no clear frontrunner. This year’s March Madness bracket is no different. Here’s a look at the West Region, the toughest path of the four.
1 Xavier vs 16 NC Central/Texas Southern
The Xavier Musketeers score 84.3 points a game, and with 16.6 assists per game and 38.4 rebounds per game, they’re a ball-sharing squad who attacks the glass. Trevon Bluiett is a 6’6″ senior guard who puts up 19.5 points, 5.7 boards, and 2.5 assists a game, and can take a game over against anyone. 6’10” x-factor Kerem Kanter is a lefty version of his older brother, Enes Kanter: relentless on the offensive glass, with good hands and putback ability–only with slightly more agility, and the added matchup advantage of being a lefty.
The Texas Southern Tigers began the season 0-13, which makes their 15-19 record look a bit less brutal. Another mitigating factor is that their non-conference schedule was absurdly tough for a mid-major; this–along with their current seven-game win streak, and the fact that they seem a perennial lock to win the SWAC Tournament–make them a tougher out than they might seem at first glance.
The NC Central Eagles won the MEAC Tournament as a 6 seed, mirroring their first round opponent; unfortunately, they didn’t have nearly as strong a non-conference schedule. Still, they’re on a five-game winning streak, and this bracket’s play-in will be a battle of aspiring Cinderellas. Pick: Xavier
2 North Carolina vs 15 Lipscomb
The UNC Tar Heels are experienced, balanced, and talented. They’re first in the country in rebounding, with 42.5 a game, and they score 82 a game, on 18.2 assists. Their leading scorer and rebounder is a big man, 6’8″ junior Luke Maye, who also embodies the team’s excellent interior passing ability. Senior guard Joel Berry II has big game experience, and knows how to come up big down the stretch. This might be the strongest 2 seed of the four.
The Lipscomb Bisons secured their first-ever tournament berth with a 108-96 win over Florida Gulf Coast. They score 82.6 points a game, fueled by 15.7 assists a game and 39 boards a game. 6’5″ junior guard Garrison Mathews is feisty and rangy, puts up 22.1 points a game, and helps spark an offense that likes to get up and down the floor. The Heels better not snooze on this one. Pick: UNC
3 Michigan vs 14 Montana
The Michigan Wolverines might be under-seeded as a 3. They’re stocked with shooters, they play a strong zone defense, and they won the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden to cap a nine-game winning streak. Moritz Wagner, a 6’11” 245 junior from Berlin, averages 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds a game. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rankman is their second leading scorer with 12.6 a game, but that number belies how well he can shoot when he heats up from the floor. The Wolverines’ biggest issue is beating beat on the boards, and over-reliance on the perimeter shot. But they can go on a run if they get clicking.
The Montana Grizzlies are a confident, high-scoring team that won the Big Sky Conference and can match most teams shot for shot. 6’1″ guard Ahmaad Rorie, the team’s leading scorer and assist man, advised viewers to ‘be ready for a lot of points, and a lot of defense;’ the Wolverines should be ready for a duel. Pick: Michigan
4 Gonzaga vs 13 UNC-Greensboro
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are in the top 50 in the country in scoring, rebounding, points allowed, and assists; and as usual, they combine size, skill, and tournament experience. They’re a 4 seed in what might be the toughest of the four regions, and if they can get to the final weekend, they’re a threat to go all the way.
The UNC-Greensboro Spartans opened the season by playing UVA tough in a 60-48 loss, and ended it by beating Eastern Tennessee 62-47 to win the Southern Conference Tournament. They’re a tough defensive team that doesn’t score much, and they got a tough draw in the under-seeded Zags. Pick: Gonzaga
5 Ohio State vs 12 South Dakota State
The Ohio State Buckeyes had a strong season in a stacked Big Ten Conference, thanks to good team defense and the elite play of junior Keita Baites-Diop, who averages 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds and is a huge interior presence. The Buckeyes drew one of the tournament’s most dangerous double-digit seeds in the Jackrabbits, and they’ll have their work cut out for them to avoid an upset.
The South Dakota State Jackrabbits score 84.9 a game, and they love an up-and-down game. Junior Mike Daum is one of the best big men in the country, averaging 23.8 points and 10.4 boards a game, while shooting over 85 percent from the free throw line and making 42 percent of his threes. This is the biggest sleeper in the bracket. Pick: South Dakota State
6 Houston vs 11 San Diego State
After a five-game run which included wins over SMU, UConn, and Wichita State, the Houston Cougars battled Cincinnati to a virtual standstill in the AAC Tournament final, losing 56-55. The Cougars are a tough team that can beat you in a number of ways, and they’ve got an electric guard in 6’1″ senior Rob Gray.
The San Diego State Aztecs are a dangerous team that won the Mountain West Conference Tournament with a string of surprisingly convincing wins, including a blowout of the Nevada Wolf Pack. They do everything pretty well, and have a bunch of players who are capable of going off–like Troy Kell, who dropped 28 points in the berth-clinching win, and 6’10” senior forward Malik Pope. Pick: Houston
7 Texas A&M vs 10 Providence
The Texas A&M Aggies are an unpredictable squad who are one of eight SEC teams to make the tournament this year. They get out in transition, they’re 5th in the nation in rebounding with 41.3 a game, and when they get to playing downhill, they can be hard to stop. If an opponent gets jump shot-happy and said jump shots don’t fall, look out.
The Providence Friars are tough, hard to put away, and capable of battling their way back against anyway. They scrapped their way to a Big East Tournament Final in which they lost to eventual 1-seed Villanova, and now that they’re in, their tournament experience will serve them well along with said toughness. Senior guard Kyron Cartwright is cool under pressure, and this team could get hot and go a few rounds. Pick: Providence
8 Missouri vs 9 Florida State
Like the Oklahoma Sooners, the Missouri Tigers are likely only in the tournament because of the star power of one player. Freshman sensation and aspiring lottery pick Michael Porter, Jr. returned late in the season from injury, and the committee seems to gambling on the notion that he can carry an otherwise underwhelming team.
The Florida State Seminoles are 8-8 since opening the season 12-2, a hot start which included wins over Florida and UNC. They’ve got length, experience, and balance, with eight players averaging seven points or more; but the ACC’s 8th-place finisher will have to overachieve to go anywhere in the tournament. Pick: Florida State
Upset alert: South Dakota State.
Sleeper alert: Yep–South Dakota State.
Best player you might not have heard of: Garrison Mathews, Mike Daum.
Who makes the Final Four? North Carolina–but man, what a tough road.