The NCAA Tournament’s West Region features a fascinating dossier of teams and programs who will be biting at the opportunity to make a legitimate run in the dance.
The issue? Well... only a couple actually can. And the thing is, there are plenty of teams capable of doing so in this region, who’ll have their dreams either fulfilled or in some cases, completely stymied on the first days of action.
Let’s try and make sense of the wild, wild West Region.
The Zags rule the world
Despite a clunker in the West Coast Conference Tournament Final, the Gonzaga Bulldogs still earned a No. 1 seed from the committee. This wasn’t too surprising, as the Zags were clearly one of the best teams int eh nation all season long, and had the resume to back that up. Between the play of Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, Mark Few’s got quite a stew going and they are legitimate championship contenders again. They came ever so close in 2017 of course, and now in 2019 they have the opportunity to achieve their dream 20 years after they first burst onto the scene.
Given how their half of the bracket looks, they should be able to make it through to the second weekend. Neither the Syracuse Orange (now without Frank Howard) nor the Baylor Bears probably have the juice to take down the Zags. Then you look at the combination of options around them. The Marquette Golden Eagles and Murray State Racers certainly have dynamo players in Markus Howard and Ja Morant (more on that later!). The Florida State Seminoles, of course, knocked off the Zags last year, and FSU did make it into the ACC Tournament Final. They could pose a threat, but we’ll see if they can get through either of the aforementioned opponents. Or, hey, the Vermont Catamounts in the first round.
The Zags have an array of talent and the world is certainly theirs to rule in this region.
Now, how about Michigan and Texas Tech
Two teams with stout defensive profiles earned the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the West. Those being the Michigan Wolverines and Texas Tech Red Raiders. Michigan couldn’t beat Michigan State in the finals of the Big Ten Tournament, but still pieced together a very terrific year in Ann Arbor. Texas Tech couldn’t make it to the Big 12 Tournament Final, but Tech certainly had themselves a year with Jarrett Culver leading the way.
It will be all about what kind of offensive spurts these teams can piece together. Michigan ranks 18th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, while Texas Tech ranks 35th. Tech rates better offensively in most categories than Michigan, but Michigan certainly has runs where they can really get it going offensively. Getting star Charles Matthews in rhythm after his return from injury will be vital to their successes.
The problem with Michigan and Texas Tech isn’t so much in themselves, but who their competition is. They have unenviable tasks ahead of them in the Round of 32. For Michigan, they will play either the Florida Gators or the Nevada Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack have an assembly of talent that didn’t quite finish strong with a loss to Utah State in the Mountain West Tournament Final. But they certainly are no stranger to strong runs in the NCAA Tournament and have definitely looked great at times. Tech, meanwhile, could face either Luguentz Dort and the Arizona State Sun Devils or a feisty Buffalo Bulls squad who won 31 games this season.
If Michigan or Texas Tech want to make runs in the Tournament, they are going to have to get through their opening weekend tests. Defense will be the name of the game for both, but offensively, they will have to combat some feisty, feisty oppositions.
But what about Florida State?
FSU is certainly an intriguing squad. Their defensive profile is very strong and they have lost just two games since mid-January. Those losses were to the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils, two of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. So, not too shabby, right?
Consistency on offense will be key. And from a shooting perspective, this team hasn’t really gotten it done this season. They rank 218th in 3-point percentage and that could spell trouble right out of the gate against a solid Vermont squad. And it could definitely do so against Marquette or Murray State, especially the former (We don’t need to tell you that one).
Things will have to be shaped up pretty well for FSU to make a serious run. They could be a fun pick to make things happen, but piecing it all together will be vital for this club.
Okay, talk about the main event now
Yes, let’s go.
The best game of the first round should likely be the one between the Murray State Racers and Marquette Golden Eagles.
Why? Because it features two of the best players in the entire NCAA Tournament: Ja Morant and Markus Howard.
We’re a little biased (Ha! They said it!) but when Markus Howard is on, he is really on. The man can shoot the lights out from anywhere in the gym and his scoring prowess knows almost no bounds. He has put together some of the best and most prodigious efforts anywhere in college basketball this season and is basically appointment viewing.
Ja Morant, meanwhile, is an NBA lottery prospect from one of the Ohio Valley Conference’s best squads. Morant is one of the best assist-makers in the nation, in fact he leads the country in Assist Rate at 51.6 percent. Everything the Racers do goes through him and he, too, has put together big numbers. That includes the 36 points he had in the OVC Tournament Final against the Belmont Bruins. He scored 27+ points in all three OVC Tournament games and has gotten at least 30 six times this season, including 40 back on January 19 against SIU-Edwardsville.
Clear. Your. Schedule.
You will want. To see. This game.
Beware the lower seeds
Among all the regions, the West might have the most amount of lower seeds who could do serious damage in this tourney.
A 31-win Buffalo squad has plenty of firepower to let fly. They rank 20th and 29th in Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency and 22nd in AdjEM heading into play on Thursday. They do a lot right, and play really fast. They’re an exciting team to watch and could navigate through to the Sweet 16 if all goes right.
The 7-10 matchup between Nevada and Florida will be fascinating to watch. Nevada still has plenty of talent all around them and even while the spotlight may have pulled away from them, don’t overlook these dudes. This is a Final Four-good squad that may very well go and make that dang run this year. Florida has its offensive struggles but they are elite defensively and should pose a threat against the Wolf Pack right from the get go.
And hey, every year we get a First Four squad making a deep run. Who says it can’t be ASU? And who says Murray State can’t make a run either?
Gonzaga over Fairleigh Dickinson
Baylor over Syracuse
Murray State over Marquette
Florida State over Vermont
Buffalo over Arizona State
Texas Tech over Northern Kentucky
Nevada over Florida
Michigan over Montana
Gonzaga over Baylor
Murray State over Florida State
Buffalo over Texas Tech
Nevada over Michigan
Gonzaga over Murray State
Nevada over Buffalo
Nevada over Gonzaga