Why Gonzaga Makes it to the Final Four:
There’s plenty of reasons why Gonzaga figure to emerge from the West Region of this year’s NCAA Tournament. For one, they’re clearly the most talented team in the region. Rui Hachimura can handle the load on the offensive end. He scores over 20 points per game while shooting at a 61% clip. Brandon Clarke can score as well, but is usually found cleaning up any rebound in his area. Josh Perkins is an experienced floor general who dishes out 6.5 assists per game. Zach Norvell Jr. does a little bit of everything on both ends of the court, and oh yeah, talented forward and outside threat Killian Tillie is back.
With Tillie back in the lineup, every team in the West will be trying to avoid Gonzaga for as long as possible. Mark Few’s team won by an average of over 23 points per game (best in the country) thanks to their nation’s best 53.6 FG% and were boasting a 21-game win streak going into their conference championship.
While the Bulldogs’ offense is the highest scoring group in the nation, their defense is arguably just as intimidating. Throughout the season, Gonzaga’s opponents shot just 38.9% from the field. They also recorded 7.5 steals per game and 5.5 blocks per game (3rd in the country).
Possibly the best aspect of this Gonzaga team is that they don’t rely on one person to carry the weight of the offense every night. They can afford to have players have off-nights. As long as they don’t have a repeat performance of the conference championship where seemingly everyone had a bad game, the Zags should be on the fast track to the Final Four.
Why Gonzaga Won’t Make it to the Final Four:
While there’s a lot to love about the Bulldogs, there’s also some cause for concern. All the stats I listed above are essentially void if you buy in to the narrative that it’s only because of the quality of opponents that they played in the WCC. The Zags did beat Duke early in the season, but the other “top-tier” opponents they faced were losses to both Tennessee and North Carolina, proving they may not be prepared to face some of these tougher opponents.
Gonzaga is also vulnerable on the offensive glass. Opponents out-rebounded the Bulldogs on the offensive end 357-315. This may be in part due to the sheer number of attempts, but it proves they are at least vulnerable in one aspect of the game. A team who has a higher level of physicality or sheer size may hold the key in beating Gonzaga.
Possibly the biggest reason why Gonzaga wouldn’t make it to the Final Four is because they ultimately figue to cross the paths with either Michigan or Texas Tech, who both pose different threats. Michigan is battle-tested and have more experience playing elite competition this year while Texas Tech has the second-best scoring defense in the country which could give Gonzaga’s powerful offense some issues. It’s not an easy road to the Final Four for the Bulldogs and it’s March, so anything can happen.
Best Non-#1 Seed (A):
The Wolverines were regarded as one of the top teams in the country for basically the entire year. Sitting at 28-6 on the season, half of their losses came at the hands of Michigan State and the other three to Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Michigan also has dominating wins over North Carolina, Villanova and Purdue on their resume.
Michigan was ranked as high as #2 in the AP Poll but has recently fallen to as low as #10 due to their late season “struggles.” The Wolverines are behind only Virginia and Texas Tech as best scoring defenses in the country and also post a top-20 average scoring margin.
One of the best aspects of this Michigan team is its diversified offense. They don’t need one man to score 25+ a game for them to achieve success. Ignas Brazdeikis leads the team with just over 15 points per game while shooting the three ball at a 42% clip, Jordan Poole is the highest volume three-point shooter who hits at a 37% rate, Charles Matthews is a proven veteran who finds a way to come up clutch and "Captain Hook" Zavier Simpson is a triple-double threat every time he touches the court.
John Beilein has made an effort to spread the floor this year and it gives defenses issues. Their top seven players, in terms of minutes played, are all capable of hitting the three, which is sure to cause some issues for teams that like to play big. Michigan is definitely the prime threat to Gonzaga in this West region and could very well be the team who ends up cutting down the nets.
Best Non-#1 Seed (B):
Florida State Seminoles
The easy pick here would be the #3 seed Texas Tech, and while the Red Raiders are very possibly a better team in terms of talent, Florida State is playing as well as anyone in the country leading into the tournament. In the month of March alone, the Seminoles have a pair of wins over Virginia Tech, a convincing win over Virginia and a great matchup with Duke in which they hung around for the majority of the game.
FSU is a team with some dogs on it. Mfiondu Kabengele leads the team in scoring despite playing just 21 minutes per game, Terrance Mann is the best player with the most talent who can beat you in a variety of ways and Christ Koumadje is an absolute unit when on the floor standing at 7’4”.
The Seminoles are the most slept on team in the ACC and if opponents don’t take them seriously, they’re going to be sent packing by this scrappy Florida State squad.
Sweet 16 Sleeper:
The Bulls will probably get dismissed by a lot of people due to the fact that they play in the MAC. However, when you look at it, their road to the Sweet 16 isn’t too tough. Buffalo will play the winner of Arizona State and St. John’s and while Arizona State could pose a threat, St John’s should be a cake-walk. Next, they would play the winner of Texas Tech and Northern Kentucky. While Texas Tech is a good team, so is Buffalo. This team went 31-3 and won their conference. Do not, I repeat, do not, sleep of the Buffalo Bulls this March.
Final Four Sleeper:
Murray State Racers
This will probably be met with some skepticism because a 12-seed has never made a Final Four before but this might be the team to do it. For starters, Murray State will play Marquette, who is playing a terrible brand of basketball at the moment as they have lost 5 of their last 6. The Racers will likely be one of the most picked 12-5 upsets and rightfully so. Next up would likely be Florida State. A team I just hyped up, but still a beatable team. Florida State is still the same team who lost to Pittsburgh and Boston College. Awaiting them would be Gonzaga, their toughest test to date. If anyone could get them past the Zags, it would be Ja Morant and his electric ability to take over games.
Is this realistic? Maybe, maybe not. It’s March, literally anything can happen. But if there one team I would put my money on to make some history it would be Morant and Murray State Racers.
Top First Round Matchup:
No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Florida
This is something I’ve been waiting to see all season. Is Nevada legit. For a good portion of the season it looked like Nevada was going to be a 2 or 3 seed at worst, but then their season slowly began to fall apart. I can not wait to see if all the doubters (myself included) of the Wolfpack will be proven correct or silenced.
On the other hand, you have Florida. A team which many people, including, John Calipari think are under-seeded at the 10 spot. People may also forget Florida was on the wrong end of a controversial call that could’ve sent them to the SEC championship game instead of Auburn.
I think this will be one of the game that helps settle future debates on if mid-major teams are more deserving than relatively “mediocre” power conference schools.
Top Potential Prospect Matchup:
The top potential matchup is actually a matchup that we know we will get. Ja Morant and Murray State will square off with Markus Howard and Marquette in the opening weekend as a 5-12 matchup. Howard averages 25 points per game and leads the Power 6 conferences in scoring. Howard has gone for 40+ on multiple occasions this year also leads Power 6 players in three-pointers made per game at 3.52.
Howard will be facing off against a potential number one pick in this year’s NBA draft in Ja Morant. Morant is right behind Howard with 24.6 points per game and he also leads the nation in assists by a landslide with an even 10.0 per game. Morant has taken college basketball by storm, drawing comparisons to Russell Westbrook due to his athleticism and his contributions in all aspects of the game (one of two players with multiple triple-doubles this year).
These two dynamic point guards will be going head to head in their first game of the NCAA Tournament which could turn into one of the most intriguing games of the whole tournament.
Top 5 Pro Prospects:
1. Ja Morant – Murray State
I just talked about Morant a little bit, but there’s a lot to say about this kid. The 6’3” sophomore probably has the most electric highlight type of anyone in the country, and yes, that includes Zion Williamson. He’s also making a strong case to be the No. 2 pick, with an outside chance to challenge Zion for number one.
One thing about Morant is that even though he scores in bunches, he doesn’t take that many shots. He only takes 16 shots per game which is low in my eyes because of the school he plays at. Hopefully we get to see a game where Morant decides to shoot 25 teams to see him go for 40. If anyone hasn’t seen this kid play this year, make sure you tune in to the Murray State vs. Marquette matchup.
2. Rui Hachimura – Gonzaga
Rui Hachimura is another potential top-five pick in the upcoming draft. He measures at 6’8” but when you see him on the floor you would be convinced he’s 6’10”. The junior forward shoots an efficient 62% from the floor and while he hasn’t developed the trust in his three-ball yet, when he does decide to shoot them (only 1.0 attempts per game) he does hit at a 47% clip.
If Gonzaga is going to go as far as we all think they will, Hachimura is going to need to be at his best. Watch out for Hachimura and the Zags in this tournament.
3. Jarrett Culver – Texas Tech
The Red Raiders have a star on their hands with Jarrett Culver. The 6’5” sophomore has been far and away the best player on the highly successful Chris Beard team. It’s no secret that Texas Tech is an elite defensive unit, but the offense had been playing at a high level as well largely in part to the play of Culver. He is a potential Top 10 pick in this year’s draft and will try to take his team on a deep tournament run.
4. Brandon Clarke – Gonzaga
Brandon Clarke is possibly the most consistent player on Gonzaga, who was the most consistent team for a good portion of the season. Clarke is the leader in the country for field goal percentage, mostly because he takes a lot of shots from within 5 feet from the basket. He is the team’s best rebounder and second option on the offensive end who will surely have a profound impact on Gonzaga as he pushes to garner attention as a potential first-round pick.
5. Markus Howard – Marquette
Despite being ridiculed for his 5’11” frame, Howard has emerged as one of the best scorers the country has to offer. The road to success for the Golden Eagles lies almost solely in the hands of Howard. I’ve already spoke on how special Howard is so I won’t be redundant but let me just say he is potentially the most important player to any team in the tournament.