Pundits everywhere are saying the South and Midwest Regions are the most stacked. But the West region could have the most potential for pandemonium when the ball is tipped. It’s a fun little mix of the uber-consistent favorites (Arizona, Wisconsin, San Diego St.), the hot teams (Baylor, Gonzaga, Oregon), the teams with that star player who we’ve seen go off time and time again (Creighton, Nebraska, Louisiana-Lafayette)…and The Curious Case of Oklahoma St. Four teams will emerge and face off in Anaheim. Here’s a breakdown of the favorites, the other guys, and which players from this region are most likely to be NBA-bound.
Why # 1 Seed Arizona Will Make the Final Four
For a good chunk of the season, the Arizona Wildcats were thought to be the best team in all the land. For two-and-a-half months they maintained their unblemished record. But then the injury to star forward Brandon Ashley happened and Arizona struggled a bit down the stretch. But for all intents and purposes, an Ashley-less Arizona team is still more than deserving of a #1 seed. They got four wins over tournament-bound teams without Ashley and currently sit atop Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They are first nationally in Pomeroy’s adjusted defense rankings, as well as second nationally in adjusted scoring margin. They are outscoring their opponents by nearly 15 points per game. This is an Arizona team that beat Duke on a neutral floor and San Diego State, Michigan, UCLA, Colorado, and Stanford on the road. They can win games away from their home court as well as anyone in college basketball and have a friendly trip through California to the Final Four, meaning their fans should pack the house for each of their games in the West Region. Ultimately, this team has superior talent, even without Ashley. They have Nick Johnson, a high-flying, playmaking guard who is a serious contender for the Wooden Award. They have the super-athlete freshman phenom, Aaron Gordon. They have a heady point guard in T.J. McConnell, exactly the type of player a Final Four team needs running the ship. And they have a host of other talented guys making up their 7-8 man rotation, including Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Gabe York. This team is skilled, athletic, plays at a blistering pace, and isn’t prone to losing.
Why Arizona Will Fall Short
When Brandon Ashley went down, no one knew what to expect of the Wildcats for the rest of their schedule. They didn’t fulfill the best-case scenario of completing an undefeated schedule. But they didn’t collapse altogether, either. They finished 9-4 in that stretch and played decently. But this team has certainly appeared more susceptible to defeat without Ashley. It’s a crapshoot as to which Arizona team will take the floor. Consider this: in the quarterfinals of the Pac 12 tournament, they destroyed Utah by 32 points. But on February 19th, it took overtime to beat Utah. Utah is NIT-bound. The teams Arizona will face in the Big Dance will be tougher. Right out of the gate, they will have to get past either Oklahoma St. or Gonzaga to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, and neither of those are favorable matchups for a 1 seed. They’ll also likely have to go through either an always-tough Wisconsin team, the Creighton Doug McDermotts, or a big, talented, hitting-their-stride-last Baylor team in the Elite Eight. The road will not be easy for the Wildcats, the only 1 seed to not win their conference tournament.
Best Non-#1 Seed: #2 Wisconsin
It wasn’t a great Big Ten tournament for the Badgers, who fell in the semifinals to Michigan State, but when a team is getting called the “best offensive team Bo Ryan has ever coached”, you can’t help but take them seriously as a Final Four contender. They have a nice set of road wins over Michigan, Virginia, and Iowa and have only lost two games since their skid in late January and early February. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are big, versatile guys who come to play every game and conference Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes, a freshman, it’s getting better and better as the year goes along. They would be an interesting matchup with Arizona as the two have very different styles of play. Bo Ryan hasn’t always had the postseason success to match his regular season success, but this year he could have his best team yet.
Sweet 16 Sleeper: #11 Nebraska
I’ll be honest: I was one of the most reluctant people out there to jump on the Nebraska bandwagon after seeing them struggle mightily in the Big Ten up until this season. But they proved that they’re a good but not great Big Ten team a la Ohio State and Iowa on a good day. And yet they’re only an 11 seed, which is indicative of their tournament resume, but not their actual level of play at this point in time. Their road to the Sweet Sixteen has its bright spots. Baylor has been very hot of late and they have the size to potentially overwhelm the Huskers…but the past couple years, they’ve had a knack for underachieving and not doing themselves justice. If Terran Petteway takes over and Baylor struggles to defend and make shots as they sometimes do, Nebraska will move on to likely face Creighton in the next round. Creighton is much more consistent, but their last five losses were to team seeded no higher than 11th in this tournament, if they’re in the bracket at all. A good weekend for Nebraska could spell a road to the Sweet Sixteen, which would be a marquee accomplishment for this program.
Final 4 Sleeper: #9 Oklahoma St.
Coming into the year, I believed OSU had the talent to earn a 1 seed. With an All-American backcourt of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, along with versatile forward LeBryan Nash and Phil Forte III, a deadly outside shooter, the talent has always been there for the Cowboys. They began to lose their way with three straight losses to a trio of hot teams in Oklahoma, Baylor, and Iowa St., then Marcus Smart got suspended for shoving a fan in the loss to Texas Tech and, next thing you know, the Cowboys accumulated seven straight losses. But Smart came back and the magic was rekindled. In the past month, OSU beat Kansas, took ISU to overtime on the road, almost beat Kansas again in the conference tournament, and locked up their bid. Now they stand as the ninth-ranked team in this region, though they could be a top-three most talented team in this region. Marcus Smart is an incredible point guard and he could carry them to great things this season. They have weaknesses inside since their center, Michael Cobbins, went down for the year, but if they handle Gonzaga, whose best win is over BYU on a neutral court, and upset a weakened Arizona team, anything is possible for these Cowboys.
Top “Second”-Round Matchup
#8 Gonzaga vs. #9 Oklahoma St.
With a nod to Baylor and Nebraska, I like this 8-9 matchup. Gonzaga is back to its underdog status after being a 1 seed last season and they’re always a threat to make a run in the tournament. Oklahoma St., as noted above, has incredible talented for a 9 seed. Look at all the fantastic veteran players on these two teams. Marcus Smart. Kevin Pangos. Markel Brown. Sam Dower. Le’Bryan Nash. And of course, David “John’s Son” Stockton runs the point for the Zags. Gonzaga will be put to the test as they can finally record a win over a good team. Oklahoma St. wants to begin a run that will end the season on a good note after a disappointing mid-conference season stretch. Both teams have their eyes set on that matchup with Arizona and beyond. Should be a good one. Or perhaps a blowout, with two teams as talented and as intriguing as these.
Top Potential Matchup
#2 Wisconsin vs. #3 Creighton
While Arizona-Wisconsin would be a great matchup, and Oklahoma-Oklahoma St. would be fun, I like this potential Sweet Sixteen matchup between two rock-solid teams. Doug McDermott is always fun to watch, but Bo Ryan’s teams can frustrate anyone. With McDermott, Frank Kaminsky, and Sam Dekker on the floor, there will be a lot of interesting matchups and a lot of big men shooting threes. Which I like (Peja Stojakovic is among my favorite players of all time, by the way). Both teams are in Pomeroy’s top 5 in Adjusted Offense, and who doesn’t like watching good offense. If Arizona slips before the Elite Eight, which they are prone to doing, then this will be a battle for Final Four frontrunner. Two great coaches, several great forwards, several underrated, scrappy guards. And so much potential for madness with this matchup.
Top Potential Player Matchup
Marcus Smart vs. Nick Johnson
If Doug McDermott and Marcus Smart were anywhere near the same position, then they would be the matchup here. But, this matchup of two stellar scoring guards is absolutely tantalizing and if OSU beats Gonzaga, we will more than likely get to see it in just the round of 32. Perhaps the two best guards in the nation, particularly if you exclude the guard-heavy American Conference, Johnson and Smart average a combined 34 points per game and maybe 5-10 highlight reel plays per game. They may not be matched up on each other as Smart is a point guard and Johnson is a shooting guard, but we could see a scoring duel between the two. Or we could see a distributing duel as each set up their talented cast of teammates.
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Every November, analysts take a look at the Wisconsin basketball team, say how the talent on the roster doesn’t jump off the page, then explain that it doesn’t matter who’s on the team, Bo Ryan always finds a way to put a top 25 team (at least) on the court. And every March, they’re proven right as Wisconsin ends up as one of the Big Ten’s most successful teams. It could be time for Ryan to take his regular season success to the next level and cap off his 13th straight tournament appearance (every year he’s been at UW) with an elusive Final Four berth.
Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
The Sooners earned a 5 seed this year in an incredibly quiet fashion. Without any players garnering big-time NBA buzz or even putting up a lot of points, they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in the top half of the Big 12. They earned a pair of wins over Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma St. and boasted one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. Kruger has turned this team into a 5 seed after they went 15-16 in his first year a mere two seasons ago. He experienced similar success with UNLV, getting a single digit seed in four of his last five years as UNLV coach. With nine of their victories coming away from home this season, Kruger knows how to get this unheralded group of players to win basketball games anywhere against anyone.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Smart’s stock may have dropped a bit after A) his three-game suspension for shoving a fan and B) his sharing of the leading role with Markel Brown. But he’s still the best point guard in this draft, and any team looking for a heady, skilled, NBA-ready player who can make an immediate impact is going to jump at the chance to take Smart. Many questioned his decision to return to school after his freshman year, but he is still a likely top 5 pick and this tournament will likely be his final time to show the league what he has to offer.
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton
The Wooden Award race appears to be Doug McDermott’s to lose, and an All-American with McDermott’s combination of size, shooting touch, basketball IQ and experience won’t have trouble finding a niche in the NBA. With his amazing play in conference season, McDermott has jumped up into lottery consideration. He leads the nation with 26.9 PPG in one of the tougher conference, averaged 7 rebounds per game, and had staggering shooting percentages of 53/45/87%. McDermott is the real deal. He’s not a stellar athlete, but he’s too skilled to fail at the next level. He should carry his team to multiple wins this tournament.
3. Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette
Payton is a fantastic player who has spent all year flying under the radar, but now he has a chance to make a name for himself. He makes his team one of the darkest of dark horses in this region, and he and teammate Shawn Long are a 37.8 PPG-scoring dynamic duo that could be the FGCU of this tourney. Payton is a big, athletic point guard who’s great at getting to the rim and finishing. He’s all over the passing lanes and gets a lot of steals and he has a lot of overall defensive potential with his 6’7” wingspan. He could be the top mid-major prospect in the land and may make a Damian Lillard-style impact as a rookie.
4. Aaron Gordon, Arizona
The freshman super-athlete isn’t projected to go quite as high as he was earlier in the year, but he’s still a lottery-caliber talent. But Gordon is more than just leaping ability and dunks. He leads the #2 team in the nation in rebounding with 7.8 and despite not being a skilled offensive player, he finds ways to score. He can get up and down the floor very well for a power forward and will create lots of matchup problems at the next level. And yes, he knows how to energize a crowd with some truly breath-taking dunks.
5. Nick Johnson, Arizona
Johnson is a leading all-American candidate and has been The Guy for Arizona this season. He leads the Wildcats with 16.2 PPG and is their go-to guy when they need a bucket. He’s a bit undersized for a shooting guard (6’3”) and his defense and play-making ability isn’t spectacular, but he could find a spot in the first round. Regardless, he’s a stud at the college level and is expected to lead Arizona to the Final Four this year.