Of all the regions, the West is the most wide open in my opinion. The reasoning starts and ends with Gonzaga, the weakest of the #1 seeds. When you take a hard look at Gonzaga’s resume, you start to wonder how they became a #1 seed. It’s nice that they ran through their conference’s regular season and tournament without losing a game, but Saint Mary’s and BYU were their toughest conference foes and those two schools weren’t as good as previous years. Gonzaga has three wins to truly hang their hat on. (I’m discounting the wins against Saint Mary’s, whose only top 50 win is against Creighton at home.) Gonzaga beat three Big 12 teams in a down year for the Big 12. While all three of those teams made the tournament, Gonzaga also has two losses against Illinois and Butler. So they’re 3-2 against top 50 RPI teams not named Saint Mary’s. That’s not so good.
It’s also meaningful that Gonzaga hasn’t played a real opponent since December. Sure, that’s not their fault because they play in a crummy conference, but it is what it is. (They should also move to a real conference like the Mountain West at some point. Butler, VCU, and Creighton have all showed you can move out of a mediocre conference to a better one.) All this said, they have a nice team. Kelly Olynyk is the best big man in the country you’ve never seen play. He can score inside and outside. He pairs with Elias Harris to create a dynamic frontcourt duo. The problem is they’ve done a lot of their work against mediocre West Coast Conference frontcourts. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. turn the ball over less than 3 times a game combined, which is pretty impressive for a backcourt. In the end, just like St. Joes back in 2004, I see Gonzaga coming up short of the Final Four.
So who’s grabbing that Final Four spot? Ohio State seems poised to return to the Promised Land. It amazes me how effective Aaron Craft is for a guy with obvious offensive deficiencies. We know he plays great defense, but his ability to take over games offensively like he did recently against Indiana and in the last two contests against Michigan State. He’s a tough S.O.B. who’d you’d take leading your team any day of the week. Deshaun Thomas can score with any player in the country. The rest of the guys fill their roles, but I was extremely impressed by LaQuinton Ross in the Big Ten conference tournament final. The Jersey kid showed the talent and aggressiveness you’d expect out of a top recruit. Ohio State has the experience of their Final Four trip last year and they’ll head back there again this year.
Sadly New Mexico got placed in a region with Ohio State. The wing duo of Kendall Williams and Tony Snell is of NBA caliber. If they end up getting through Ohio State, I see them coming out of the region, but the experience edge for Ohio State pushes the Buckeyes ahead of them. People will look at Wisconsin as an option as well. Their size will certainly cause Gonzaga trouble if that matchup happens. Wisconsin is too heavily reliant on the three-pointer for my liking and they always seem to fall flat when the expectations are there. Arizona is as talented, if not more talented, than any school in the region. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein is even calling for them to make it to the Final Four in Atlanta because of the coaching of Sean Miller. I just don’t like the way they’ve finished the season losing three of their last five games. And there’s just something about Kansas State that makes me feel like they’re an overrated #4 seed after they lost to Kansas all three times. They only have two top 50 RPI wins against teams not from the state of Oklahoma.
First round upset that will happen: Iowa State over Notre Dame
I honestly don’t have any upsets in the first round of the West region, but this would be the one that I think has the best chance of happening. Notre Dame is notorious for playing much worse outside of South Bend. They’re only 8-7 in road and neutral floor games this year. Given that Notre Dame is a mediocre defensive team, Iowa State is set up well to pull off the upset because they lead the league in three pointers made per game. Bombs away!
First round upset that won't happen: Belmont over Arizona
There are a lot of people talking about Belmont potentially upsetting Arizona because of how well Belmont can shoot the three and how poorly Arizona defends the three. The x-factor here is Sean Miller. As we saw with how Arizona dissected Duke in the Sweet 16 a couple years ago and from Miller’s previous Elite Eight run with Xavier, Miller can coach with the best of them. He’ll have his team prepared for Belmont’s fast-paced offense with a week of preparation.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
New Mexico (-10.5) over Harvard – I really liked what I saw from New Mexico over the weekend in the Mountain West tournament and Harvard just doesn’t have the horses to run with them.
Arizona to make the Final Four (+1200) – The Wildcats are worth a look at these odds given their talent and coach.
Iona (+13.5) over Ohio State – While I do have the Buckeyes making the Final Four, I think Iona can run with them for a while behind former Arizona guard Momo Jones.