Make sure the popcorn is stocked for the West regional games, because this corner of the bracket is fascinating and stacked with storylines.
Out west we have a mid-major turned national powerhouse, two of the best scorers in the sport, a couple potential Cinderellas, some of the best mid-majors, and a program that was in past year’s title game.
But what makes this region so interesting are the varying styles that could be matched up against one another. The stout defenses of Michigan and Texas Tech, high-powered offenses in Marquette and Nevada, Syracuse and Baylor’s zones, Gonzaga’s balance; all of it should make for entertaining products on the court.
Let’s take a look at each of the first-round matchups (it will always be the first round to me, NCAA), and preview some potential upset specials and who could make it to Minneapolis for the Final Four.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson/Prairie View A&M
Forget about the WCC championship game against St. Mary’s, this Gonzaga team is legit. The Bulldogs possess the most efficient offense in the country according to KenPom, at 125.1, which is two points higher than Virginia, five points higher than Duke, and seven points higher than the Zags team that went to the title game two years ago. Rui Hachimura is an All-American candidate and few are playing better than Brandon Clarke has this season.
No. 8 Syracuse vs. No. 9 Baylor
This is where Jim Boeheim thrives, with Syracuse riding under the radar as a high-single-digit or low-double-digit seed. Meanwhile, Baylor is riding a four-game losing streak and will have to figure out a way around the Orange’s patented 2-3 zone.
No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State
Markus Howard (25 ppg) against Ja Morant (24.6 ppg). Yes, please. Two of the best scorers in the country will be putting on a show in Hartford, Connecticut. One thing to watch for: Howard injured his wrist in the Big East Tournament. That could hamper the Golden Eagles’ offense.
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 13 Vermont
Last week, Florida State accomplished the rare feat that had previously only been attainable by Duke: it beat Virginia. The Seminoles are playing well, only losing to UNC and Duke since Jan. 20. Meanwhile, Vermont brings in a fairly efficient offense led by Anthony Lamb, who averages 21.4 points and 7.8 boards per game.
No. 6 Buffalo vs. No. 11 St. Johns/Arizona State
Buffalo has been in the spotlight since November when it knocked off West Virginia and Syracuse. The Bulls are no fluke, sitting at 22nd in KenPom, which is ahead of Maryland, Kansas State, and Nevada. Meanwhile, Arizona State and St. Johns are limping to the finish in uninspiring fashion.
No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 14 Northern Kentucky
After a surprising exit in the Big 12 Tournament, it’s difficult to foresee that happening again to Texas Tech in the first round. Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky has a decent offense, but doesn’t shoot many threes or get to the free-throw line. That’s not a way to get past this Tech defense.
No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Florida
The Wolf Pack may not have lived up to the ridiculously high expectations coming into the year, but still posted a 29-4 record with an offense and defense in the top 33 in KenPom. Meanwhile, Florida is coming in with 15 losses. Don’t be surprised if Florida is up double digits early and Nevada comes back in the second half. It’s the Wolf Pack’s M.O.
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Montana
The craziest storyline of the region, and maybe of the tournament without a game being played, is that Michigan vs. Montana is a rematch of... last year’s round of 64. A statistician can calculate the actual odds of two teams meeting in the first round in consecutive years if you really want to know, but I can tell you with confidence that number is tiny. I’m not sure it’s even ever happened before. Last year, Michigan won 61-47. So we should probably root for one of two outcomes: Montana claims its revenge by winning 61-47, or Michigan again wins 61-47 proving we’re in The Twilight Zone.
Most Likely Cinderella: Murray State
Murray State is the most popular double-digit-seeded upset pick, and for good reason. The Racers have a potential NBA lottery pick and a top-41 offense, and we still don’t know how Markus Howard’s wrist injury is going to affect the Marquette star’s performance.
Favorite to Advance to Minneapolis: Gonzaga
The Zags check all of the boxes. Great offensive team? Check. Solid defensive team? Check. All-American? Check. Future hall-of-fame coach? Check.
The Bulldogs don’t turn the ball over, are the best two-point offense in the country, and also don’t give up easy baskets as the nation’s sixth best two-point defense (and 27th in 3-point percentage). Florida State can give Gonzaga a real challenge, as could Michigan, but it’s hard to find any real flaws in the Zags that could keep them from Minneapolis, outside of the usual bad shooting night or bad luck.