by Paul West
This season was a months-long testament to college basketball’s ever-increasing parity. By Tuesday night of Championship Week, six top seeds had been knocked out of their conference tournaments. The West Region is loaded with tough teams, with a handful that could win it all.
1 Kansas vs 16 Howard
The 27-7 Kansas Jayhawks got worked over by Texas–their second straight blowout loss to the Longhorns–in the Big 12 final, but they’re a dangerous team who was in the conversation for the top overall seed. The defending champs are a balanced team that can put up points and defend; they’re led by 6’8″ junior forward Jalen Wilson and his 20.1 points, 8.4 boards, and 2.3 assists a game. They can get beat up on the boards, which could be a problem, but this is still a team that can go all the way.
The Howard Bison won a thrilling MEAC final against Norfolk State to seal their first tournament bid since 1992. They feature balanced scoring and solid three-point shooting, and they turn it over a fair amount while forcing a lot of turnovers on defense. They can keep it close if they get hot from behind the arc, but they’ll have to limit the turnovers to have a chance. Pick: Kansas
2 UCLA vs 15 UNC Asheville
The 29-5 UCLA Bruins took Arizona to the wire in the Pac-12 final, despite recently having lost starting point guard Jaylen Clark to a season-ending achilles injury. They also lost 6’10” forward Adem Boma, their primary big man, to a shoulder injury in the semifinal, which means the Bruins are limping into the big dance. Still, they have the Pac-12 Player of the Year: 6’7″ senior Jaime Jaquez Jr., who does it all for the Bruins to the tune of 17.3 points, 8.1 boards, and 2.3 assists a game; and they’re an experienced team that plays solid defense and doesn’t turn the ball over.
The 27-7 UNC-Asheville Bulldogs are a dangerous squad. 6’10” senior Drew Pember (and former Tennessee Volunteer) averages 21.2 points, 9.4 boards, and 2.3 assists a game; he scored 29 in the Big South final, hitting clutch free throws down the stretch. Pember is the Big South Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the Big South Tournament MVP. 6’5″ senior Tajion Jones hit a bunch of huge shots in the final as well, and can take over the scoring in bursts. Pick: UCLA
3 Gonzaga vs 14 Grand Canyon
The Gonzaga Bulldogs went 28-5 in a really tough West Coast Conference, and smoked St Mary’s in the conference final after splitting the previous two meetings. 6’10” senior Drew Timme is now the Zags’ all-time scoring leader and a matchup nightmare, and when the Zags get flowing they can beat anyone; but their free throw shooting can be dicey, and they don’t always defend well. This season, the Zags hammered Kentucky and Alabama, but were hammered by Texas and Purdue…they can win it all, but they’ll have to lose their streakiness.
The Grand Canyon Lopes are a tough team that crashes the boards and can play beyond their size. They run an iso-heavy offense, but were also the best three-point shooting team in the WAC this season, which will be an important x-factor. The Lopes are coached by Bryce Drew, who was the Horizon League Coach of the Year three times at Valparaiso. Pick: Gonzaga
4 UConn vs 13 Iona
The UConn Huskies began the season 14-0, lost 5 of 6, then won 9 of 11 before a hard-fought loss to Marquette in the Big East semifinal. They crash the offensive glass, they move the ball and can shoot, and 6’9″ forward Adama Sonogo is a game changer who puts up 16.9 points and 7.3 boards with 1.3 assists a game. They looked like a top-five earlier in the season, and can go on a deep run if they click.
The 27-7 Iona Gaels are, as usual, a team that likes to put up points; the thing is, they actually play some defense this season. Walter Clayton, Jr. is the MAAC Player of the Year; 6’9″ junior Nelly Junior Joseph averages almost a double double, and can impose his will in the paint. The Gaels are on a 14-game winning streak, and playing with confidence under coach Rick Pitino. Pick: UConn
5 St Mary’s vs 12 VCU
Shaka Smart might no longer coach the VCU Rams, but his influence on the program lingers: they hassle you on defense, and cause a lot of turnovers. They don’t shoot it particularly well, though, so they’ll have to dictate the pace to pull off a win.
The St Mary’s Gaels have a team of mobile bigs who crash the boards, pass freely, and move without the ball. In early February, they tied Gonzaga with 5 seconds left in regulation and went on to win 78-70 in overtime, going 10-0 in conference play and two up on the Zags for the conference lead; they met the Zags in the conference final, where they were demolished 77-51. This experienced, defensively solid team is as dangerous as it gets when they get hot. Pick: St Mary’s
6 TCU vs 11 ASU/Nevada
The 21-12 TCU Horned Frogs have beaten a bunch of tournament teams this year, and boast a tough defense that creates turnovers. They struggle to shoot the ball, so they rely on transition for a lot of their scoring–so if they face a disciplined offense, it could spell trouble; but this team brings the pressure.
The 22-12 Arizona State Sun Devils might be here on the strength of the halfcourt buzzer-beater that gave them an 89-88 win over Arizona; but here they are, and they’ve hung close with a couple of other tournament teams this season. They have three players averaging 12 or more points a game and they play well on the road, both of which could help them get hot enough to win one.
The Nevada Wolfpack come in on a three-game losing streak, but they’re a tough squad that limits turnovers and hits their free throws. 6’4″ Oregon State transfer Jarod Lucas puts up 17.3 a game and can get hot from behind the arc, and the Wolfpack are looking to get back to their early-season form. Pick: TCU
7 Northwestern vs 10 Boise State
The Northwestern Wildcats are a bit under the radar, but they’ve beaten Purdue, Illinois, and Iowa, and Indiana twice. They’re an elite defensive team that doesn’t turn it over on offense, but 65 points is their witching hour: they’re 20-1 when they hold opponents to fewer, and 1-10 when they allow more. They’ve lost four of five since going on a five-game heater against the rest of the Big Ten, so they’re looking to right the ship.
The 24-9 Boise State Broncos have lost three of five, including two double-digit losses to Utah State–the second coming in the Mountain West semifinal. They’re a strong defensive team, and they run a balanced offense, with all five starters averaging double-digit points; but they lack depth beyond those five, so they better avoid foul trouble. They’ll be playing much closer to home than their first-round opponents, which could be the difference in a tight matchup. Pick: Boise State
8 Arkansas vs 9 Illinois
The Arkansas Razorbacks win with physicality in the paint, shooting at one of the highest field goal percentages in the draw. They’re beaten Missouri, Auburn, UNC-Asheville, and Texas A&M, and were blown out 75-57 at Tennessee. They’ve also lost four of five and six of nine, and are largely here by way of conference association: the SEC has a whopping ten teams in the draw.
The 20-12 Illinois Fighting Illini have lost three in a row, though their last two were close ones against Purdue and Penn State. They rely heavily on defense and rebounding; but they struggle to shoot, including from the free throw line, which could spell trouble. Pick: Illinois
Bracket busters? This region has a few. Keep an eye on St Mary’s and UNC-Asheville.
Best player you might not know yet? UNC-Asheville’s Drew Pember, and Iona’s inside-outside duo of Walter Clayton Jr. and Nelly Junior Joseph.
Who makes the Final Four? Gonzaga. This is this year’s ‘group of death’ by a long shot, and it’s lined up for a clash of titans in the Round of 16. Drew Timme and the Zags will claw their way out of the mosh to make the Final Four.