by Paul West
After a remarkably unpredictable season in which the upper rankings shuffled like a deck of cards, it’s my pleasure to once again present my annual bracketological breakdown. This promises to be a wide open bracket, and the West might be the most upset-laden region. Be advised: this breakdown is a unique blend of standings-watching, numbers-noting, and eye test; enjoy the tournament, and appreciate every moment you can–both on and off the court.
1 Gonzaga vs 16 Georgia State
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are pretty clearly the best team in the country. They score, rebound, defend, run the floor, and they’re balanced and experienced. 6’10” junior Drew Timme went from a roleplayer on last year’s runner-up to West Coast Conference Player of the Year, and he’s not even their biggest name; that would be 7-foot freshman sensation Chet Holmgren, an explosive stat-stuffer who’s built like a rail but might be next year’s first overall pick in the NBA draft.
The Georgia State Panthers are a solid team that’s gotten red-hot, winning ten in a row to end the season as the Sun Belt champs. They got a tough draw here.
2 Duke vs 15 Cal State Fullerton
The Duke Blue Devils beat the Zags by 3 in November, and have the talent to go all the way. They’ve got a talented frontcourt that can change a game, led by 6’10’ freshman Paolo Banchero. They’re also a young team (which doesn’t necessarily preclude a run) that’s looked a lot more beatable of late, has struggled to close out games, and hasn’t got the level of guard play that’s carried them through other tournaments. They should be fine in the first round, but things could get interesting later on.
The Cal State Fullerton Titans won a scrappy game against Long Beach State to win the Big West Tournament. They battle at both ends, they can run up and down the floor, and they play a loose, fearless style of ball. That loose style of play, unfortunately, leads to a lot of turnovers; and that should make it hard for them to upset a much more loaded Duke team.
3 Texas Tech vs 14 Montana State
The Texas Tech Red Raiders have lost 2 of their last 4 and 3 of their last 6, and they barely survived a big 12 battle against the Oklahoma Sooners, a good team but also a tournament snub. They’ve also beaten Kansas & Tennessee once, and Texas & Baylor twice. The Red Raiders depend on their stout defense & slowing the game’s pace, and that’s a combination that’s fueled plenty of deep runs in the past.
The Montana State Bobcats have struggled at the starts of games, which could be a problem; otherwise, they have scoring punch and could be a wild card to steal a game. 5’8″ senior point guard Xavier Bishop is a great finisher who’s confident and patient, and the Bobcats have big men who can finish in the paint. They hit their free throws, too, which will come in handy if the game stays close. If they can keep the Red Raiders from turning the game into a slog, keep an eye on this one.
Pick: Montana State
4 Arkansas vs 13 Vermont
The Arkansas Razorbacks‘ shooting can be spotty; but they hit the boards, battle at both ends, and attack passing lanes on defense. They’ve beaten some good teams, but their streakiness and scoring difficulties could be problematic.
The Vermont Catamounts play a tough man-to-man defense, they get after it on the defensive boards, and they play a deliberate game; they’re experienced, they move the ball, and they have a bunch of players who can shoot from deep. If they get hot, they can take down most of who’s in this year’s draw–but they’ve also lost to Providence by 10 and Maryland by 11. Senior Ryan Davis is 6’8″ 250 and a legitimate scoring threat, but serious physicality seems to give him trouble. If the Catamounts’ shooters get going and they control second chances against the poor-shooting Razorbacks, this could go their way. This is a classic contest of styles.
5 UConn vs 12 New Mexico State
The UConn Huskies have put it together at the right time, playing some of their best ball since early February and battling Villanova to the wire in the Big East Semifinal. They rebound well (40.9 boards a game, 18th in the country), especially their backcourt, and that’s a huge x-factor in March. They don’t shoot particularly well, though, and if they face a hot-shooting opponent they could be in trouble.
The New Mexico State Aggies also rebound well, and they have a tall backcourt that could battle the Huskies’ guards on the board. They’re led by 6’6″ junior guard Teddy Allen, Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year–also WAC Newcomer of the Year, having transferred from Nebraska–who’s nicknamed ‘Teddy Buckets’ and led the Cornhuskers in scoring last year. This year, he averages 19.3 points a game along with 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists. The Aggies are dangerous.
Pick: New Mexico State
6 Alabama vs 11 Notre Dame
The Alabama Crimson Tide have lost 3 in a row and 4 of 6, and are one of the most debatable picks in this draw. They’re dangerous, having beaten Gonzaga, Houston, Miami, and Baylor; but they’ve also proven they can lose to anyone, as when they lost to Iona or 6-26 Georgia. They score 80 points a game, grab 40 boards a game…and give up 76.4 a game. A team that porous on defense can only go so far in March.
The Notre Dame Irish went 22-10 to finish second in the ACC regular season, and it’s likely why they’re here; then they beat Rutgers in a double-overtime thriller in the play-in game, staying hot to come into the tournament. Nothing about them jumps off the page, and they’ve have to play close to their ceiling to make it very far–but if they can control the pace and hit the boards, they might give the Tide trouble.
7 Michigan State vs 10 Davidson
As long as Coach Tom Izzo is at the helm, the Michigan State Spartans are not a team to summarily count out in March; but after a somewhat rough regular season, they went on a mini-run in the Big Ten Tournament and that–along with their brutal schedule and the aforementioned Izzo–is likely why they’re here. They’ve lost to Baylor by 17, Kansas by 13, and Iowa by a whopping 26; but here they are, looking to continue their newfound momentum.
The Davidson Wildcats are exactly the kind of team that could blow up a bracket. They can shoot, they’re balanced, and they’re tenacious; they beat Alabama 79-78 on a neutral floor. 6ft guard Foster Loyer averages 16.6 a game and is a good shooter with a quick release and playmaking ability; 6’7″ junior Hyunjung Lee is a double-double threat who’s played international ball and can score from anywhere on the court. If the Wildcats face a ‘throw it at the rim’ team that limits their possessions, they could lose in a slog; but they could also run & shoot their way to the round of 16.
8 Boise State vs 9 Memphis
After finishing first in the regular season, the Boise State Broncos won the Mountain West Tournament thanks to a tough defensive stand in the final seconds against San Diego State. The Broncos are a stingy defensive team that relies on rebounding and a controlled pace, and that’s their recipe for success this March.
The Memphis Tigers had a 9-8 start, but put it together and went 10-1 to close out the season and made it all the way to the American Conference Tournament final. They’re long on talent, literally and figuratively, with a tough defense that relies on length and athleticism; their initial matchup against Boise State could be a mosh pit, and could go either way.
Pick: Boise State
Best player you might not have heard of? Xavier Bishop; Teddy Allen
Bracket sleepers? Davidson, New Mexico State, Montana State
Final Four? Gonzaga