For all the craziness that has ensued this tournament, the West region may be the most chalk of all of them. All the favorites (minus Missouri) won in the first round. That makes it chalk right? Remove my first statement. North Carolina lost to Texas A&M and Xavier lost to Florida State in the Round of 32. However, Gonzaga and Michigan did their respective jobs and rolled to this position, with arguably both those teams with the best chances to make it to the Elite Eight. Of course your bracket is in shambles, but there is so much excitement about to go down this weekend in Los Angeles.
#4 Gonzaga vs. #9 Florida State
The Zags made a magical run last season to the championship game as a #1 seed, falling by a small margin to UNC. On paper it may seem that they had a down year, losing some of the best starters last season in Przemek Karnowski and Nigel Williams-Goss (man, they were good last year together).
The Bulldogs, however, have found perfect veteran leadership replacements that have helped steer them to a 32-4 record, winning the West Coast Conference again. Senior Jonathan Williams, who leads the team in points per game, has stepped up as the leader and supporting cast Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell Jr have become more reliable scoring options. Rui Hachimura is the team’s best athlete and energy guy and seems to be gaining confidence and becoming more comfortable in impacting games every time out.
But they aren’t without concern as they barely escaped defeat in each of their first two games, having trailed in both late. They barely squeaked by UNCG 68-64 and didn’t exactly dominate in their second round match up with Ohio State, getting hot down the stretch to put away the Buckeyes 90-84.
One reason to always remain confident in this team playing their best is their head man Mark Few. Few is by far one of the top coaches in the country, having won the WCC regular season 17 times and the conference tournament 15 times. He knows how to get the best out of his players and use them in the right positions. He has also guided Gonzaga to the Sweet Sixteen four consecutive seasons.
The lowest seed remaining in the West, Florida State has handled business so far. They thoroughly dominated Missouri in the first round 67-54. Against top seed Xavier next, they came back after trailing by as much as 12 in the second half to stifle the Musketeers with a 75-70 victory.
The Seminoles under Leonard Hamilton, a defensive minded coach, are one of the top interior defenses in the country. They held opponents to just 45.4 percent from two-pointers and are aggressive in the blocks department. One place they can be attacked, though, is their defensive rebounding which has been lacking. It could be an area that Gonzaga could exploit.
Key to the Game
Gonzaga has faced two teams already who love to push the pace and play fast. So far, they have struggled to contain it for 40 minutes. Florida State’s game plan should be to play very fast and try to plug up the holes on the defensive glass. Since the Seminoles are so good at interior defense (Christ Koumadje is 7’4” and averages 1.5 blocks per game), this could turn into a jump shooting day for the Zags. If they do that well and keep pace, Florida State should be on the ropes. If it goes the other way and Gonzaga struggles to keep up with the ‘Noles, they may not be able to recover again. Don’t forget: Gonzaga has won 16 games in a row.
#3 Michigan vs #7 Texas A&M
The Wolverines were a popular pick heading into the tournament to make a run as a lower seed (albeit a #3). Michigan is also on a hot streak, having won the Big Ten Tournament weeks ago and having won 11 consecutive games, including one on a hail mary.
One of the biggest reasons for their success is the homed in, ratcheted up defense late in the season. Head coach John Beilein is a defensive wizard and in the past when they have made deep postseason runs, defense has been a main catalyst.
They needed some help in their last game against Houston. Trailing 61-63, Houston missed two critical free throws with seconds left that led to a buzzer beating three-pointer by freshman Jordan Poole to send Michigan to the Sweet Sixteen. Their defense has been excellent the first two games, only giving up 47 and 63 points, respectfully.
The Aggies has a very up and down season, rising very high in the standings early on, cooling off and coming into the tournament being somewhat overlooked. The #7 seed is led by their front court, one of the best in the nation with potential lottery pick Robert Williams (10.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Tyler Davis (14.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg), who is the more consistent and impactful college player. They are terrific down low and attack the offensive and defensive glass better than almost anyone. It’s what makes them third in the nation in rebounding per game.
After a close victory over aggressive Providence in the first round, Texas A&M absolutely smoked the national champion Tar Heels 86-65. The win was eye opening for the rest of college basketball, saying more about the depth of A&M and the stride they are hitting right now.
Key to the Game
As simple as it sounds, Mo Wagner and Michigan will have to be bigger than A&M. Or at least try to slow down Williams and Davis, who have taken whatever they have wanted so far in this tournament. Speaking of Wagner, he will need to step up this game and give a better performance than 12 points against Houston. His ability to step outside should move either Williams or Davis around and out of the paint.
Final Four Prediction
For as well as Florida State played last weekend to defeat Xavier, they have too many holes defensively than a usual Leonard Hamilton squad does. This should make Mark Few and Gonzaga’s job easier to get through. The Wolverines and Aggies present an extremely entertaining matchup between two very different teams. Wagner should finally hit his stride and play like he did during the regular season, causing mismatches with the A&M bigs. In the Elite Eight, Michigan should prove a formidable test when they face Gonzaga. The Zags have championship game experience and one of the best coaches in the business and pull the upset over Michigan.
Gonzaga 72, Michigan 70