If you’re looking for players who will be top ten draft picks, this region probably isn’t for you as it doesn’t boast top shelf individual talent. However, if you want to see squads that thrive because of superior teamwork, communication, coaching, and intangibles, you’re in the right place. There will be plenty of quality big men in the region that could make for some absolute battles in the paint. Any number of teams could win this region and each team presents a unique challenge for its opponents. The contrasting styles of the teams in this region should make for some very interesting matchups and, if we’re lucky, some of the best games of the tournament.
Why the Number 1 Seed Will Make the Final Four
Gonzaga is a really good team, as evidenced by the fact that they are owners of the best record in the field at 31-2. The popular logic for why they won’t win has to do with the fact that they are a mid-major and thus didn’t play anyone of consequence during the regular season. However, with Gonzaga, that isn’t the case. They beat tournament teams Oklahoma, Davidson, Pacific, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Saint Mary’s (three times). Their only two losses? They came to tournament participants Illinois and Butler (who are on the opposite side of the bracket and unlikely to get the opportunity at a rematch with the Bulldogs. Gonzaga averaged 77.6 points per game, putting them just outside the top ten nationally, and clamped down on opponents to the tune of 59.4 points per game given up.
The biggest reason Gonzaga is sitting pretty at this stage of the season is their star seven-footer, Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk can do just about everything and his versatility makes him even more difficult to match up with. Add to him a talented forward in Elias Harris and guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell and it makes for a very talented and balanced lineup. Even if Olynyk gets in foul trouble, which can so often derail the title hopes of teams that rely on stellar big men, Mark Few can throw in seven foot one freshman Przemek Karnowski and six foot nine junior Sam Dower. That kind of size will keep opposing frontcourts busy all night.
Why the Number 1 Seed Will Fall Short
Gonzaga played good teams this season, but they haven’t played any great teams yet. They haven’t had to matchup against a team that earned a top three seed in the tournament, so questions remain to if they can hang with the big boys in college basketball this season. The Bulldogs’ stable of big men could potentially face a challenge in their second game as Pitt’s Steven Adams could cause them trouble inside. There are also questions as to if their guard play will be good enough to push them all the way through the Final Four. Pangos and Bell can hurt teams from the perimeter, but can they do enough on the nights that they can’t find their shot? Teams will look to run them off the perimeter and force them to beat the defense off the dribble. How well they do that could be the key to Gonzaga bringing home the first title in school history.
Best Non-#1 Seed: #3 New Mexico
New Mexico came out of the Mountain West, which was overshadowed by the Big Ten despite the conference having the top conference RPI in the land. The Lobos lack big name guys but they don’t lack big guys. They are very difficult to match up with. Point guard Kendall Williams stands 6-4 and leads the team in scoring and assists. Starting alongside him in the back court is Tony Snell, a 6-7 wing that can create for himself and score over smaller defenders unfortunate enough to get matched up with him. Inside, they also boast the 7 foot Alex Kirk who averages a very respectable 11.9 points, and 7.9 rebounds per contest. They lock you down on defense, allowing opponents to shoot under 39% against them. Coming out of the Mountain West has prepared New Mexico for a deep run, as they had to compete with 4 other NCAA tourney teams and a Wyoming team that was 13-0 before conference play beat them down.
Sweet 16 Sleeper: #13 Boise St./La Salle
Remember when VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four? Don’t be shocked if the winner of Boise St. and La Salle ends up making a run and becoming the nation’s Cinderella team. They’re both quality teams that played in good conferences (Boise St in the Mountain West, La Salle in the Atlantic 10). The key for them is their possible route to the Sweet 16. They would face a Kansas State team in the so-called second round. One of the most overlooked aspects of the tournament is preparing for teams on a short turnaround. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber is very good, but he’s also predictable. In addition, the next round would present them with either an Ole Miss team that has proved to be inconsistent or a Wisconsin team who’s playing style isn’t conducive to taking advantage of the weaknesses of either Boise St or La Salle.
Final 4 Sleeper: #5 Wisconsin
Wisconsin went toe to toe with the best the Big Ten had to offer this year and more than held their own. They advanced all the way to the conference championship game before dropping one to Ohio State. Bo Ryan is one of the best (albeit underrated) coaches around. He doesn’t have top shelf talent, but he has a roster full of guys that fit his style and are capable of taking opponents out of their comfort zone on both ends of the floor. Forwards Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren can pull bigger opponents outside, creating room inside to operate for their teammates, including Ben Brust who not only can knock down jumpshots with regularity but also go inside and mix it up. He racks up an impressive 5.2 rebounds per game despite his small stature.
Top First-Round Matchup
#6 Arizona versus #11 Belmont
It seems as though every year the nation picks one higher-seeded mid-major and deems it the next Cindarella. For the last few years it seems like Belmont has been a popular pick. Will this year be the year the Bruins finally break through? Arizona is, without a doubt, a tough opponent. However, Belmont has stellar guard play thanks to the contributions of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson. Will Mark Lyons be able to keep up? While Arizona will have difficulty containing Belmont’s guards, The Bruins will struggle to contain Soloman Hill, Brandon Ashley, and Kaleb Tarczewski on the inside. This matchup will pit big and little against each other as the guard-oriented small school takes on the large frontcourt that the major conference power brings to the table.
Top Potential Matchup
#3 New Mexico versus #6 Arizona
Assuming Arizona is able to make it past Belmont, they will be tasked with playing New Mexico, who should be able to match up with the large frontcourt of the Wildcats. It will likely come down to how well Arizona’s guards play against the Kendall Williams/Tony Snell combination. If Arizona can limit their production, they’ll be in position to advance to the Sweet 16. However, if the Lobos can limit the offensive droughts they tend to fall into at times they may be able to ride their mighty defense past this Pac-12 opponent (assuming we’re lucky enough to see this matchup).
Top Potential Player Matchup
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga versus Steven Adams, Pittsburgh
It isn’t very often that college basketball fans get the opportunity to see two seven footers this skilled square off. The beauty of this matchup is that there is about a 50-50 chance it actually happens. Gonzaga will almost assuredly be there, meaning Pitt just has to get by Wichita State in order for this matchup to come to fruition. Adams isn’t quite the player Olynyk is, but that can be said for just about anybody in the West region. Adams finds ways to come down with rebounds, especially on the offensive end, and his shot blocking prowess deters opponents from taking the ball inside. NBA scouts will be hoping for this matchup, as it will give them an opportunity to assess how well each player plays against somebody their own size.
Thad Matta, Ohio State
Mark Few, Bo Ryan, Jamie Dixon, Mike Brey, and Sean Miller are all very good, big name coaches. However, Thad Matta may just be the cream of the crop. He’s won over 77% of his games at places like Butler, Xavier, and Ohio State. He gets talent to Columbus, and then puts it together. This year his team was built around the offensive abilities of Deshaun Thomas and defensive prowess of Aaron Craft. Despite the rest of the team being fairly limited, he led the Buckeyes to the Big Ten Championship. He’s been to two Final Fours and that kind of experience could be the difference between coming up short of a title again and taking the Buckeyes all the way to the promised land.
Rick Byrd, Belmont
You won’t throw anything at Coach Byrd that the man hasn’t seen before. He’s been coaching for 32 years. While at Belmont he’s led the school from NAIA status to a division 1 team that has made the Big Dance in 6 of the last 8 years. They’ve been unable to live up to their billing as Cinderella material, but Byrd can never be counted out. He has been a fantastic coach for a long time and should he be able to steer his Bruins past Arizona in the round of 64, he’ll gain the recognition he’s deserved for quite some time.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga
Olynyk has come on to the scene in a hurry. He used a redshirt year to develop both his game and his body and boy did it pay off. As good as he is, there is a very real chance that he could have a huge tournament and vault himself in to the discussion for a top ten selection in this year’s NBA draft. We currently have him pegged as a lottery pick. His mixture of size, skill, and athleticism make him tough to deal with on both ends of the court. He is the key to Gonzaga’s hopes in this tournament.
2. DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State
Thomas is one of the most dangerous scorers in the field. He averaged 19.5 points per game this season. He isn’t going to beat you with his inconsistent jumper, but he’ll use his 6-7, 215 pound frame to attack driving lanes and get into the paint for buckets. He’s also a capable rebounder, averaging over 6 per game. Ohio State really relies on him for their scoring as Aaron Craft is more of a defensive specialist and nobody else on the roster is capable of carrying the team on offense. He is such a focal point of their offense that he led the Big Ten in shot attempts. He will be attempting to play himself into a first round draft selection.
3. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona
Tarczewski is a big body in the paint. He stands seven feet tall and weighs in at 255 pounds. His stats don’t look imposing, but the young Wildcat has the skills to produce in the NBA (just not next year in all likelihood). He plays just under 22 minutes a night, which makes his stats look a little light, but with a rebound percentage of 16.7%, he shows that he has a nose for the ball. Rebounding is usually a skill that translates well to the next level and while he doesn’t rebound at an elite level, he also has enough of an offensive game to make him a desirable commodity for NBA teams in the future.
4. Steven Adams, Pittsburgh
Adams isn’t going to carry you with his offense, but he can block shots and rebound. His offensive game is raw, but he does seem to be improving and he has some athleticism which helps compensate for his inability to beat his man with his back to the basket game. He’s not great right now, but he’s still young and should develop into a player that is coveted by NBA squads. He could stand to add some muscle to his frame still, but that shouldn’t hold him back too much in his potential second game matchup with Olynyk. Don’t expect to be blown away by him now, but if he continues to improve he could find himself a lottery pick in a year or two.
5. Tony Snell, New Mexico
Snell is far from a household name and doesn’t get a ton of publicity. This tournament could change that. He has the ability to lead this team to great heights. He is an absolute matchup nightmare. At 6-7, he is able to shoot over smaller defenders but at the same time is very comfortable driving hard to the rim and finishing with a pull up jumper or scoring through contact. If he has a big tournament the junior could play himself into a draft pick. His combination of size, strength, and ability make for a near impossible matchup. His jumpshot draws defenders out on him too, as he hits nearly 40% of his long range shots. His mixture of NBA size and high level skills could surprise fans that didn’t get the opportunity to see the Lobos play this season. New Mexico will be looking for a big tournament from him if they’re going to go far.
Other under consideration: Kendall Williams, New Mexico, Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss, Aaron Craft, Ohio St., Solomon Hill, Arizona