The West Region boasts numerous teams that are hitting their stride at the right time of the year. 8 teams (Wisconsin, Arizona, VCU, Wofford, Harvard, Georgia State, Texas Southern, and Coastal Carolina) won their conference tournaments. Another (Oregon) had an incredible turnaround to get in the tournament discussion then lock up a bid with weeks to spare in the regular season. And 16 players from eight different teams in this region can be found on this site’s Top 100 Prospects Big Board. Wisconsin and Arizona are perhaps the two teams most equipped, of the entire field, to knock off Kentucky, but first, one of them must traverse a field that has its fair share of Final Four-capable contenders.
Why #1 Seed Wisconsin Will Make the Final Four
The talent is there (Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes all made the Big Ten All-Conference team). The size is there (Wisconsin’s front line boasts a 7-footer and a 6’9” and 6’7” forward, and 6’9” Duje Dukan plays a prominent role off the bench.) The experience is there (3 seniors start and 7 of 8 rotation players from last year’s Final Four team return). There aren’t a lot of flaws to be found on the resume of this Wisconsin Badgers team. Bo Ryan is one of the game’s elite coaches, and Frank Kaminsky is, by all accounts, leading the race for National Player of the Year.
If we take a look at what Wisconsin has done thus far, we see that they have accrued only three losses all year. The first was a tough home loss to Duke, one of the three teams seeded above Wisconsin. The second was an absolutely astonishing loss to Rutgers, which is being written off by most pundits because the Badgers were without Kaminsky due to concussion and lost senior point guard Traevon Jackson shortly after halftime due to the fractured foot that has kept him out to this point. But a team led by Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes should be able to beat one of the worst teams in all of the major conferences. But since that anomaly, Wisconsin has won 16 of 17, losing on the road to Maryland, who finished second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin. With wins away from home against Oklahoma, Georgetown, Michigan State, and Ohio State (and in last year’s NCAA Tournament), they have proven they can win anywhere. Frank Kaminsky is an unstoppable player, and, as usual, Bo Ryan has his team absolutely allergic to turnovers. Kenpom.com rates Wisconsin as #1 in the nation in offensive efficiency and lowest turnover percentage. Their 7.4 turnover per game average is 1.4 TPG lower than the next team and is a lower turnover rate than any team has posted since Wisconsin itself in the 2010-2011 season. This team is big, it’s efficient, and it’s well-coached, and it’s going to take a very mistake-free performance to knock them off.
Why Wisconsin Will Fall Short
Well, for starters, the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona may have the most raw talent of any team in the nation outside of Kentucky, and they’ll be looking for revenge after Wisconsin put them out of the tournament with a 1-point overtime victory in last year’s elite eight. But as for Wisconsin’s deficiencies themselves, the Badgers are not the most athletic bunch and they rarely force turnovers. Their slow pace is punishing for most teams, but a quick, athletic team (like Arizona or North Carolina or Arkansas) could take advantage and get a lot of points in transition. Wisconsin also is not a great perimeter defending team and ranks 261st out of 351 Division I teams in 3-point defense. In their losses this season, they got destroyed by quick, strong guards like Tyus Jones, Dez Wells, Melo Trimble, and Myles Mack. Marcus Paige of North Carolina definitely fits the mold and could be the type of player that would give Wisconsin fits if Wisconsin meets UNC in the Sweet Sixteen, especially if Traevon Jackson continues to be out or limited. Wisconsin is not infallible, but not a lot of teams are built to knock them off. The number one obstacle for the Badgers by far is the length and athleticism of the Arizona Wildcats, as well as the excellent post players that Arizona has that could give Kaminsky trouble. But a hot shooting night by a team such as North Carolina or Arkansas or even Oregon could give Wisconsin a run for their money even before they get a chance to face Arizona or Baylor.
Best Non-#1 Seed: #2 Arizona
As we touched on above, Arizona has the most talent and athleticism of any team in this region. They’ve notched wins against Gonzaga, San Diego State, Utah (Home AND Away), and Oregon (another sweep). They’ve won 11 straight games. And their NBA prospect-loaded roster returns 6 players from last season’s near-Final Four team and adds super-freshman Stanley Johnson to the mix. The main concern here is the fact that all three of Arizona’s losses were more than a little bit perplexing. The Wildcats dropped road games to Arizona State, UNLV, and Oregon State, a trio of slightly-above-average teams, so they aren’t the most consistent of teams on the road. But this is a group that has really gelled and joins Wisconsin as one of a select few teams that comes in to the Dance as a serious national title contender.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper: #11 Brigham Young
If not for a 3-point victory over Gonzaga on February 28th, Brigham Young would pretty much be a guaranteed NIT team. But here they are, facing an opening round matchup in Dayton against the sharp-shooting Ole Miss Rebels for a chance to face a bruising Xavier team and then likely a more bruising Baylor team. The scouting report for coach Dave Rose’s squad will basically begin and end with the dynamic duo of Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth, the scoring machine and the triple-double machine. The two are accompanied by an array of big men and good outside shooters and have won 8 of their last 9 games. Though this BYU team will have to win one extra game to make the Sweet Sixteen, they have a very unique set of talents and did not lose a game by more than 7 points prior to the WCC championship game against Gonzaga, which was close for most of the way. Ole Miss and Xavier have lost a combined 25 games, and Baylor has its fair share of weaknesses (and could even lose to Georgia State). BYU is getting hot at the right time and, with their shooting ability, can give any team a run for its money. Tyler Haws may have the ability to become one of those transcendent scoring guards who absolutely takes over in March. But first, they have to concentrate on getting a spot in the Field of 64 on Tuesday in Dayton.
Final Four Sleeper: #10 Ohio State
Maybe I’m putting too much stock in the name on front of the jersey and in the supernatural scoring abilities of freshman superstar D'Angelo Russell, but this Ohio State team feels like one of the more dangerous 10 seeds that I can remember. Yes, they had plenty of inconsistencies in Big Ten play, but they also scored wins over Maryland, Purdue, and Indiana. I know that those three wins don’t jump right off the page, but it basically comes down to this: Ohio State has D’Angelo Russell. D’Angelo Russell is very good. Perhaps even better than any other player in this region outside of 7-footers who play in Madison, Wisconsin. As a freshman, he could be a little thrown by the bright lights of March Madness, but he’s an absolute stud who can single-handedly knock off the VCUs and the Arizona’s and the Baylor’s of this world when he and his sharp-shooting, high-rising teammates (Sam Thompson, Marc Loving, Jae'Sean Tate, and Shannon Scott) are bringing their A-game and making shots. Despite the lack of high-profile wins, I’m still a believer in this team and their coach, Thad Matta, who has a great track record in the month of March, and I could see them pulling off some upsets as they most likely are playing their final games with D’Angelo Russell.
Other Sleeper Candidates:
(Because, in this region, there are a lot of them, as well as a lot of #3-#7 seeds with major weaknesses.)
Oregon: The Ducks are a very attractive sleeper candidate. After turning their play around dramatically, they are probably playing at a level much higher than what their 8 seed suggests, a seed that was dragged down by their early-season stumbles. Oregon won 11 of their final 13, and Joseph Young is an electrifying scoring guard who is averaging 20.2 PPG, second among all major conference teams.
Mississippi: Stefan Moody is a wildly entertaining player to watch. When he is on, he is ON. He can put up points in bunches like few players in the nation, and, as evidenced by their near-defeat of Kentucky, Ole Miss can play with anybody when Moody and Jarvis Summers are hitting shots.
Wofford: The Terriers play at a tremendously slow tempo, which could throw off some teams. It certainly makes for a great matchup as they face Arkansas in their first game and will look to limit possessions in the game and force Arkansas out of its frenetic style of play. Wofford plays deliberately and efficiently and has lost 1 game in its last 16. They have a history of recording big upsets in March and could very well be at it again this year. Personally, I think they are a great upset pick against Arkansas.
Georgia St: I have been waiting all season long to pick Georgia St. in a big upset against whoever they played in the first round of the tournament. So I was a little dejected when they got set to play a Baylor team that I am very high on. But I’m still on board. Georgia St. boasts three players who could start for a bunch of power conference teams. In fact, both Ryan Harrow (transferred from Kentucky) and Kevin Ware (transferred from Louisivlle) HAVE started for college basketball bluebloods. But Georgia State’s leading scorer and most legitimate pro prospect is R.J. Hunter, the coach’s son, a 6’6” scoring guard who can shoot from anywhere and take it to the basket. If you ever wanted to pick a huge upset, here is your chance. Georgia St. is a super-efficient offensive team that forces turnovers and has plenty of experience in big games. Baylor can struggle offensively and is turnover-prone, so Georgia St. could very well pull off the rare 3-14 upset.
Top “Second” Round Matchup: #3 Baylor vs. #14 Georgia State
The Bears are an excellent rebounding team thanks to Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince and play a physical style of basketball that will overwhelm most mid-major opponents. But they can also go cold from the field and turn the ball over frequently. As for Georgia State, well, see above. There are a lot of talented players between these two teams, and this game could be a lot closer than most people expect.
Top Potential Matchup: #1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina
Should the top seeds continue on to the Sweet Sixteen, the Tarheels would find themselves in a rare position: playing in the Sweet Sixteen as an underdog. It would be a very intriguing contrast of styles: UNC has a whole host of long, athletic McDonald’s All-Americans who love to get up and down the court, playing at the 10th-fastest tempo in the nation. Wisconsin, on the other hand, loves to grind out efficient possessions, just like every other Bo Ryan-coached team. But they have plenty of size and talent themselves. North Carolina has had plenty of slip-ups this season, but played such a tough schedule that they still got a 4 seed despite 11 losses. In the ACC tournament, they got their biggest wins of the year against Virginia and Louisville, so they’re peaking at the right time, and point guard/All-American candidate Marcus Paige has shaken off all signs of his early season slump. Dynamic scoring guards have given Wisconsin issues in all three of their losses, so Paige could lead his team to an upset; however, do any of the players in UNC’s deep frontline rotation have what it takes to slow down Frank Kaminsky? This matchup will be a clash of styles, and there’s a solid chance that we see it occur in the Sweet Sixteen.
Should Arizona take care of business in their first matchup, and should Ohio State figure out the press of Briante Weber-less VCU, we will see a matchup between one of the best offensive players and one of the best defensive players in college basketball in the Round of 32. Russell, the runaway Big Ten Freshman of the Year, averages 19.3 PPG on 46% from the field and 42% from the arc, along with 5.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, and 1.6 SPG. He can drive, he can shoot, and he can pass (google “D’Angelo Russell bounce pass” and prepare to be amazed), but can he handle the pressure of his first NCAA Tournament? Hollis-Jefferson is thought to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation and has an incredible 7’1” wingspan (he’s only 6’7”) that helps him lock down guys in individual matchups. If Hollis-Jefferson can do his usual stuff and hold D’Angelo Russell to a human performance, then Arizona should win this one pretty easily. But if Russell can go off and set up his offensively capable teammates, the Buckeyes will definitely have a chance to pull off another upset. These guys are both potential NBA lottery picks, and I would love to see them go at it.
Honorable Mentions: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin vs. Bobby Portis, Arkansas; RJ Hunter and Ryan Harrow vs. Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth
Top Coach: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
So yeah, Wisconsin has Frank Kaminsky and they have Sam Dekker and they have Nigel Hayes and Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser. But I think it would be hard to argue that they are one of the four most naturally talented teams in the nation. But these guys are a very coachable bunch, and they have bought into Bo Ryan’s system. He’s always been lauded for doing a lot with only above-average talent; now, he has great talent, including a sure-fire All-American, and this is his best team ever. His grind-it-out offense is grinding opponents to a pulp. His team’s turnover rate is amazing. And his wire-to-wire control of the Big Ten was mundanely brilliant. He hasn’t quite had as much postseason success as regular season success, but he took his team to the Final Four last season and is surely expecting more this season.
Sleeper Coach: Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Arkansas is blessed with a superbly talented big man in Bobby Portis. Portis us supported by a versatile wing player in Michael Qualls. Beyond that, there isn’t much that jumps off the page about this Arkansas team. But they’ve had a great year and were the definitive Best-SEC-Team-Not-Named-Kentucky this season. And a big part of that is the renowned “40 Minutes of Hell” style of basketball that coach Mike Anderson brought with him from Missouri. The Razorbacks play at the 9th-fastest tempo in the nation and force a lot of turnovers thanks to their intense defensive pressure. Anderson has utilized Bobby Portis incredibly effectively, and he has his team in a position to make the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since Nolan Richardson was the coach of Arkansas in 1996.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1) D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
As I outlined above, Russell is a do-everything combo guard who plays with the poise of an older player. He’s nearly unstoppable on offense and has scored 20+ points 16 times this year. He stuffs the stat sheet with rebounds and assists and steals galore, and he has the athleticism to succeed in the NBA. He could definitely put on some muscle and cut down on his turnovers, but with a usage rate as high as his, turnovers are going to happen. Russell is a precocious scoring guard and still has a lot of development ahead of him.
2) Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Johnson is a tremendously versatile defender. The freshman small forward already has a 6’7”, 245-lb. frame that will translate very well to the pros. Because of his length and strength, he’s an excellent on-ball defender who can guard point guards through power forwards. And because of his quickness and wingspan, he’s very disruptive in the passing lanes. Never mind his superb offensive game. Johnson uses his big frame to create space as he gets to the rim and finishes. He’s not a great shooter, but he doesn’t need to be with all that he brings to the table. Overall, he’s a very mature, intelligent player for his age who’s willing to set aside personal agendas for the team. I can see him having a similar career arc to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a super-versatile, unselfish wing player who will likely flourish in the NBA as a super-role player.
3) Bobby Portis, Arkansas
Portis is a physical freak of nature. He’s 6’11”, but he’s a great athlete and can handle the ball. He can step out and hit the mid-range jumper, and he’s a very active defender. His combination of motor, potential, and skill has him on the fringes of the lottery in most projections right now. Unlike Frank Kaminsky, he still lacks some polish, but he’s ahead of Frank the Tank on this list because of his excellent potential. He just turned 20, so he still has a lot of development ahead of him. If he can lead the Razorbacks on a surprise run in the Dance, his draft stock will go through the roof because this team is heavily reliant on his amazing ability.
4) Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
What more can be said about Frank Kaminsky? He’s quite possibly the best college basketball player in the nation right now. Though he’s basically reached his potential, he’s going to be a good NBA player. He’s 7 feet tall, he has all sorts of post moves, he can shoot three’s with regularity, he’s very smart, he’s a great rebounder, he’s a great passer, he’s a surprisingly solid ball handler who can drive on other big men, and he’s taken his team to a Final Four and could take them to another one. He could be a lottery pick. He will definitely make an NBA roster.
5) RJ Hunter, Georgia State
Hunter is one of the rare NBA prospects from a low-end mid-major (a la Damian Lillard). But he doesn’t look like a mid-major prospect. At 6’6”, he has great size for a guard. Offensively, he can shoot and drive; defensively, he’s adequate, though not great. He’s the stereotypical coaches son, with a high basketball IQ and an unselfish, humble attitude. He has a decent chance of being a first round selection, which could be boosted if he leads his team to an upset in the Dance. He has one more year of school should he choose to stay, but he’s already a solid NBA prospect.