by Paul West
After a Championship Week in which top seeds had a rough time (winning only two of the first eleven of the week’s tournaments) and there weren’t any widely lamented snubs, this year’s March Madness feels both wide open and top-heavy. The West Region is action-packed, with the nation’s two top scorers facing off in the first round and some folks who can really light it up.
1 Gonzaga vs 16 Fairleigh Dickinson
The Gonzaga Bulldogs lost the WCC tournament final to St Mary’s, but still landed a 1 seed with good reason. The Zags have multiple scoring options, led by Rui Hachimura‘s 20.1 points a game, and put up 88.8 points a game while holding opponents to just 65.1. Coach Mark Few will help his seasoned crew use their loss to St Mary’s as fuel, and they’ll come ready to compete for a shot at Dayton. The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights took first in the NEC despite 13 losses, then won their conference tournament and their play-in game. Senior guard Darnell Edge scored 33 points, in what was an emotional win for the Knights and coach Greg Herenda, a year removed from being hospitalized with life-threatening blood clots. They drew one of the best teams in the bracket, and they’ll need to continue their sharpshooting ways–they’re one of the nation’s best from behind the arc–if they’ll advance past the first game. Pick: Gonzaga
2 Michigan vs 15 Montana
The Michigan Wolverines took Michigan State to the wire in the Big Ten Tournament final, and when they’re clicking, they can beat anyone. They have no real primary scorer, which is a blessing and a possible curse; 6ft junior guard Zavier Simpson dropped a triple-double on Ohio State in late January, and he’s fifth on the team in scoring. Their balance, tenacity, and energy make them a threat to go all the way to Dayton. The Montana Grizzlies have drawn Michigan in the first round for the second straight year–something which isn’t supposed to happen–and, unfortunately for them, that favors the Wolverines. The Griz shoot 38.2 percent from behind the arc, which is probably their only chance in pulling this one off. Pick: Michigan
3 Texas Tech vs 14 Northern Kentucky
The Texas Tech Red Raiders won the regular season title in the Big 12 Conference. 6’5″ junior guard Jarrett Culver is a dynamic force, and was the Big 12 Player of the Year. They struggled in the middle stretch of the season, though, and whether they advance could depend on which version of them: the one which began 10-0 and finished hot in February and early March, or the one that went 7-5 after the hot start. The Northern Kentucky Norse Drew McDonald is a nearly a 20-10 player, averaging 19.1 points and 9.5 boards a game, and he has range: he hit 40 percent of his three-pointers this season. The Norse have size, they can score in the paint to complement McDonald’s shooting, and this is their second berth in two years. Keep an eye on this one to get interesting. Pick: Northern Kentucky
4 Florida State vs 13 Vermont
The Florida State Seminoles won 27 games in the tough ACC, and beat Virginia Tech in overtime in early March to clinch a double-bye in the conference tournament. As seems to be the case with them in more years than not, they’re a very athletic and talented team that often lacks consistency and cohesion. The Vermont Catamounts won the America East Tournament after winning its regular season title, and they’re a physical team that can space the floor and defend. 6’6″ junior forward Anthony Lamb is a versatile scorer and solid defender with a good midrange game and the ability to hit from three; he puts up 21.4 points and 7.8 boards a game. If the Catamounts can slow things to a grind and control the flow of the game, they could pull off the upset–though Florida State’s length can give them problems. Pick: Florida State
5 Marquette vs 12 Murray St
This 12-5 matchup features the top two scorers in the bracket: the Marquette Golden Eagles‘ Markus Howard, and the Murray State Racers‘ 6’3″ sophomore guard Ja Morant. Morant is ridiculous, averaging 24.6 points a game, 5.5 rebounds a game, and an even 10 assists a game. He’s an explosive leaper, a skilled midrange scorer, and a creative but effective passer. Meanwhile, check out this Markus Howard stat line from January ninth: 53 points, 15/26 FG, 10/14 from three, 14 points in OT. It was the junior’s third 45-plus point game of the season, and he became the only D1 player with multiple 50-point games over the last 20 seasons. Unfortunately for Howard, the Golden Eagles had a rough time down the stretch, losing four in a row before clobbering Saint John’s in the Big East quarterfinal and losing to Seton Hall in a chippy semifinal game. They’re an excellent team from behind the arc, though, and they can put up points on anyone. The Racers come in on an eleven-game winning streak, capped by a 77-65 win over Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference final, and they’re clearly the hotter team. One way or another, we’re all looking forward to this duel. Pick: Murray State
6 Buffalo vs 11 Arizona State
A year after knocking off 4th-seeded Arizona as a 13, the Buffalo Bulls are back. 6’3″ senior guard CJ Massinburg is their engine, and they Bulls are an experienced team that gets after it in the paint and scores 84.9 points a game. They’ll face the man who was their head coach during their rise to prominence in recent years: Bobby Hurley, now the coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Sun Devils beat a hot-and-cold Saint John’s team in their play-in game, and they’re are a team that looks like they can beat anyone when they get hot. 6’4″ freshman Montrealer Luguentz Dort is their most dynamic player, and they’re a high-scoring bunch…unfortunately, they struggle to defend, which plays into the Bulls’ hands. Pick: Buffalo
7 Nevada vs 15 Florida
The Nevada Wolf Pack suffered a surprising loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament semifinal, which is likely why they aren’t a higher seed. They’re a balanced, experienced team, led by seniors Caleb and Cody Martin. Caleb is the scorer of the two, leading the team with 19.2 points a game, while Cody leads the team in boards and has a more balanced stat line–but also hit a go-ahead three with 4.5 seconds left against Boise State in early January. They appear to be the biggest sleeper in a region filled with potential Cinderella teams. The Florida Gators were hosed by mysterious calls and non-calls against Auburn in the SEC semifinal, and finished the season at 19-15. They’re 2-3 in their last five games, struggled for much of the season, and have many doubters to silence against a tough first round draw. They’ll need to put it together in a hurry if they’re going to advance. Pick: Nevada
8 Syracuse vs 9 Baylor
The Syracuse Orange might only be here because they beat Duke, 95-91, when Duke was at full strength. They’re dangerous and talented, and Jim Boeheim‘s patented zone is always an x-factor; but the Orange have been up and down all season. The Baylor Bears are tougher than their 19-13 record might imply, but they come into the tournament having lost their last four and seven of their last eleven. 6’1″ senior guard Makai Mason scored 31 points for Yale in a 2016 upset up his current team, and the Bears have beaten tough teams this season–they’ll just have to get back on track in time to advance. Both teams are talented but erratic, both teams can shoot the three, and both teams are under 70 percent from the free throw line. This is a hard one to predict. Pick: Syracuse
The bracket’s biggest sleeper is: Nevada. They’ve got experience, scoring, balance, and depth, and they can make a deep run.
Upset alert: Northern Kentucky. They have size, they have a shooter who can take over a game, and they have an opponent who’s gone cold for long stretches.
The best player you might not have heard of is: Jarrett Culver, who led the Red Raiders in scoring and assists, and his first-round opponent Drew McDonald, nearly averaging 20 and 10. There’s also Vermont’s Anthony Lamb, a midrange scorer who can also work inside and outside.
Who makes the Final Four? Gonzaga. They’re playing close to home, and they match up well with the teams they’ll likely face at the end.