While the other three regions may boast more exciting on-paper matchups, the West is still highly competitive, with several teams having legitimate chances at making the Final Four:
Best Opening-Round Matchup: #9 Wichita State vs. #8 Pittsburgh – With all the high-scoring shootouts that are likely to happen in the opening rounds of the tournament, this game is likely to be a very physical, low-scoring affair. Wichita State has four players of at least 6’8″ and hold opponents to 40% from the field. Pittsburgh holds opponents to just over 55 points a game and is one of the best teams in the country at not giving up offensive rebounds. If the Shockers can disrupt the Panthers’ high-percentage shooting and crash the boards with Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, they can stay in the game. Whichever team wins will face Gonzaga, which is likely the weakest of the #1 seeds in the field, giving the victor a chance to advance into the second week of the competition.
Player to Watch: Marshall Henderson, Mississippi – Passions run deep among college sports fanbases. That’s why teams like Duke or Notre Dame have as many detractors as fans. It’s rare, though, for an individual player to be persona non grata to an entire area of the country. Marshall Henderson is that player for just anybody that roots for an SEC team besides Ole Miss. The Rebels’ expressive guard has made enemies of every team he’s faced this year, but he’s much more than a big personality. He’s one of the best pure scorers in the game, making 131 three-pointers so far this season, and attempting almost 11 a game. Between his histrionics and his penchant for making big plays when Ole Miss needs them most, there isn’t a single player more fascinating or polarizing to watch than Henderson.
Upset Alert: #11 Belmont vs. #6 Arizona – After a 20-2 start, Arizona is just 5-5 in its last ten and comes into their game against Belmont struggling to stop three-point shooting teams. It doesn’t bode well for the Wildcats that the Bruins are a fantastic shooting team, with four players scoring in the double figures. They are an undersized team, however, and if Arizona can get productive games out of Solomon Hill and freshman Kaleb Tarczewski, they could dominate the glass and temper Belmont’s offense. Should Belmont light it up from behind the arc, and their active corps of guards can continue to gather steals at the rate they did in the regular season, they could become the latest #11 seed to make it into the round of 32.
Vocabulary Word: “Zags” – Even though Gonzaga has become a staple of the NCAA tournament (making 15 straight) and a household name nationwide, it’s likely that many people mistakenly think that their team name is the Zags, thanks to the shorthand of a thousand newspaper and blog headlines. Their true name is the Bulldogs, though they have eschewed the use of real bulldogs, unlike many other schools with the same mascot. It’s likely that many more people will discover the truth this season, now that Gonzaga is ranked #1 in the country and sits as the top seed in the West. They have thrived for a long time as the lovable underdog, but now have a huge target on their back. Behind upperclassmen Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, the Bulldogs are the complete package, consistent offensively and excellent on defense, and they have lost only one game, to a Butler buzzer beater, in the last four months. It’s enough to make people take notice and, perhaps, get their name right.
Regional Champion: #2 Ohio State – Because of the more half court-oriented style of play preferred by its teams, the Big Ten often goes underrated. This season, however, it had the best RPI of any major conference, and sent 7 of its 12 teams to the tournament. Ohio State plays textbook Big Ten basketball; with strong defense, good ball control, and capable players coming off the bench. The Buckeyes are experienced (their roster contains only one freshman), and they are led by a future star in Deshaun Thomas. They have only lost one game all year when holding opponents under 70 points, and are in one of the weaker parts of the bracket in terms of competition. All signs point to Thad Matta’s team making their second straight appearance in the Final Four.