From an analytical standpoint, the west region is by far the most loaded in this year’s tournament. The top five seeds all rank in the top-11 in KenPom’s database, but the storylines don’t stop there. The west features the defending national champions, everyone’s favorite mid-major (Gonzaga), the last Cinderella team to reach the Final Four (UCLA) and an electrifying team known for its March heroics (UConn). The West also features by far the most high level NBA prospects of any region, with guys like Jalen Wilson and Jaime Jaquez narrowly getting edged out of our top 5 prospects.

Why Kansas Advances:

Because they’re the defending national champions and Bill Self just knows how to win in March. Jalen Wilson (pictured) is in the NPOY discussion for a reason and Dajuan Harris is one of the most well rounded and proven point guards in the nation. Their ability to flip a game on its head, as they showed in last year’s national championship and this season against Baylor, cannot be overlooked. Even if they face an early deficit, this is not a team that gets rattled easily and has a number of players with Final Four (championship) experience, not to mention one of the best tournament coaches of all time.

Why Kansas Goes Down:

Because they are the hunted. A defending champion hasn’t reached the Final Four since Florida repeated as national champions in 2007. It’s also been seven years since a defending champion reached the second weekend. But it isn’t just history that is against the Jayhawks. They are also in arguably the toughest region. Arkansas is a team loaded with NBA talent and has the size to disrupt the short roll action that Kansas loves to run with KJ Adams. Beyond that, there is no shortage of high-level teams who can knock them off in UConn, or in an Elite Eight match up with either UCLA or Gonzaga. And lastly, the Jayhawks expect Coach Bill Self back after his medical issue that forced him to miss the Big 12 tournament, but if Self has any lingering effects or misses time it could be a factor.

Sweet 16 Sleeper

Arkansas Razorbacks, No. 8 Seed

I love both first weekend matchups for Arkansas who have reached the Elite Eight in each of the last two seasons under Eric Musselman. The man knows how to win in March and has done it before as a dark horse with Nevada in 2018. With two lottery prospects and a style of defense that makes teams uncomfortable, the pressure of the Hogs can become insurmountable as this team has the potential to reach not just the second weekend, but also the Final Four.

Final Four Sleeper

Connecticut Huskies, No. 4 Seed

It might be a stretch to call the Huskies a sleeper, but with premier teams like Kansas, UCLA and Gonzaga rounding out the top four seeds, it’s hard to imagine people buying into a team that didn’t even reach their conference championship. Not me. I have UConn reaching the Final Four in my bracket and as long as they survive Rick Pitino and Iona in Round 1, they will build on that momentum and find the form that helped them start the season 14-0 and climb to the 2nd ranking in the AP Poll.

Top 1st Round Matchup

No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 Illinois

There aren’t two teams in this bracket who are more unpredictable than Arkansas and Illinois. I trust the Razorbacks a little bit more because of how much talent they have, especially in the backcourt with Anthony Black and Nick Smith back to full strength. Illinois won’t be able to get into a rhythm with the Razorbacks elite perimeter defense and the Hogs advance for a thrilling matchup with No. 1 Kansas.

Top Potential Player Matchup

Jalen Wilson vs. Jaime Jaquez

Wilson and Jaquez have been dominating college basketball over the last two seasons and a 1-2 matchup featuring the pair of them would be a dream scenario for fans of the sport. The craftiness and leadership of Jaquez against the clutch play and versatility of Wilson is a fascinating matchup on the wing to complement another terrific point guard matchup between Dajuan Harris and Tyger Campbell.

Top Under the Radar Matchup

No. 5 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 12 VCU

This game doesn’t feature the household names of the rest of the region, or the legendary coaches, but it’s potentially the game I am most looking forward to watch. This isn’t the Shaka Smart era of VCU basketball, but the Rams have the talent and style to make a run similar to 2011. Randy Bennett is a terrific coach on the other sideline who is doing another sensational job for the Gaels. Aidan Mahaney is a guy who can take over in the blink of an eye, but the press of VCU could prove to be a lot for St. Mary’s to handle.

Top 5 NBA Prospects

1. Nick Smith, Arkansas Razorbacks

Smith has endured an injury-riddled freshman season for the Razorbacks, but his emergence has him rising up our draft board. His latest outing against Texas A&M was far from efficient, but his explosiveness and scoring are valuable skills that can grow astronomically in the right situation at the next level. Arkansas is the sure-fire team to watch for scouts and NBA fans this March.

2. Anthony Black, Arkansas Razorbacks

It’s a toss up between the Razorbacks backcourt duo, but Smith edges out Black on upside. The young prospect is one of the most disruptive guards on the perimeter with the versatility to wreak havoc on the defensive end. Offensively, his athleticism and vision is special, and if he can shore up his shooting stroke the sky is the limit for this young playmaker.

3. Gradey Dick, Kansas Jayhawks

As one of the best shooters in the country, it’s easy to see why Dick finds his way onto this list. But he’s more than just a shooter. Dick is an intelligent help defender with the length and quickness to create deflections and block shots around the rim. He’s an improved slasher as well, solidifying his status as a lottery pick in the upcoming draft despite a minor late season slump from beyond the arc.

4. Julian Strawther, Gonzaga Bulldogs

While Strawther is the third best shooter in the region, he’s still a projected first round pick and deserving of recognition here. Drew Timme has been one of the most consistent players in the country over the last three seasons, but Strawther is emerging as the go to scorer for the Zags when it matters most.

5. Jordan Hawkins, UConn Huskies

There are things that Hawkins does from beyond the arc that nobody else can who will declare for the draft. UConn’s star sophomore has gained a lot of confidence and proven to be a great shooter on the move in the upcoming draft class. His movement around screens and ability to catch and shoot gives him intrigue in the late first round area.


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