The West Region hasn’t really had anything unexpected happen thus far. Murray State did handle Marquette fairly easily and Florida did beat Nevada, but both of these “underdogs” were playing a better brand of basketball than their opponents. In the round of 32, the favorites cleaned the board, leading up to a Sweet 16 with the top four teams in the region facing one another.
#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 Florida State
Entering the tournament as one of the favorites to win the tournament, Gonzaga has not disappointed. The Zags opened up with Fairleigh Dickinson who earned their game against Gonzaga through a play-in win. The Bulldogs made quick work of Knights winning by a score of 87-49. There’s really not much to be said about the opening round matchup expect that Gonzaga did exactly what we expect 1-seeds to do to the 16-seeds.
Moving into the round of 32, Baylor was waiting for the Bulldogs where they would quickly feel the wrath of Brandon Clarke. Clarke went off 36 points on 15-18 shooting and added 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 blocks and 2 steals. The Zags finished with an 83-71 win.
Rui Hachimura has been able to play under 25 minutes in each game, leaving him rested for this last push into the Final Four. Clarke has emerged as arguably the best two-way player left in the tournament and Killian Tillie is getting more and more time to return to prime form. Add in the play of Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell and you would have quite possibly the best team in the Sweet 16.
Despite not blowing out Vermont in the tournament opener, there were positives to take away. They got to the line for 37 free-throw attempts and hit 31 of them. Other than that, the game was pretty rough. Just 6 assists, only a trio of three-pointers and allowed 16 threes to be hit against them. Nonetheless, they left with a win and got to take on Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers.
Florida State completely flipped the script for the Murray State game and it led to, what I would consider, the most impressive performance of the tournament. The Seminoles won by a 28-point margin and were in control for the vast majority of the game. Mfiondu Kabengele has been electric for Florida State as he has led the team in scoring in both games despite coming off of the bench. Kabengele’s size and skillset have provided mismatches on the offensive end of the court which he will need to keep up in order to take down Gonzaga.
Terrance Mann is a top-tier warrior who often provides the big shot-making ability the team needs when in crunch time. Christ Koumadje who boasts a giant 7’4” frame hasn’t been able to get the minutes to make a profound impact but you get the feeling the Seminoles will need an X-factor like Koumadje to be a game-breaker of sorts.
Key to the Game
This Sweet 16 matchup may very well come down to who can disrupt the other team’s offense more often. Gonzaga is the highest scoring team in the country, but Florida State has seen offenses with a similar magnitude like Duke and UNC. The problem is, Duke and UNC scored at least 73 points in each of their matchups. Kabengele and Hachimura will be a key matchup (assuming they guard each other) and the winner of that matchup may very well end up celebrating when the game clock hits zero.
Another thing to look out for is the fact that Gonzaga hasn’t really faced a top-tier opponent since Mid-January. Also, it should be noted that they lost to both Tennessee and UNC which were the Zags last legit opponents. Will Gonzaga be prepared to face an elite opponent? Will Florida State be able to frustrate the Bulldog’s offense? These teams are relatively similar in terms of style of play, so it may just come down to who can execute their offensive game plan the best.
#2 Michigan vs. #3 Texas Tech
The Wolverines cruised past Montana is the opening round largely in part to their defensive prowess. Michigan won 74-55 and the outcome of the game was really never in question. The Wolverines held Montana to 33% shooting from the field and 25% from behind the arc. This was really just another case of what you would expect a #2 vs #15 matchup to turn out to be.
The round of 32 was a SEC matchup between Michigan and the Florida Gators, and the team that controlled the conference all year continued to roll. John Beilein’s defense kicked it up an extra notch and held Florida to just 49 points in the contest. Once again, the Wolverines held their opponent under 35% from the floor. It’s no secret that this is a team built primarily off of defense, and as long as the dreaded scoring drought that has plagued Michigan periodically throughout the season is avoided, the Wolverines will be in good shape to push past Texas Tech.
Part of the reason why those droughts occur, is because the team doesn’t have a definitive number one option on the offensive end. Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis usually balance out the scoring and when they are all cold, it’s a rough sight to see.
Speaking of teams built off of defense, Texas Tech is probably the best defensive team outside of Virginia. Ranking in the top three of almost every defensive category, the Red Raiders are clearly the cream of the crop in terms of defensive efficiency. They have held both of their opponents under 60 points thus far on their way to two straight blowouts.
Jarrett Culver is the obvious star player of the team, but this is a team built to work together rather than have someone play hero-ball. As a matter of fact, their offense isn’t even that important when they’re holding teams well under their scoring average on a nightly basis. The Red Raiders proved throughout the season that they can compete with the big dogs and they’ll have another chance to prove it once again on Thursday.
Key to the Game
Turnovers. In a game where both teams will be focusing primarily on defense, every possession is going to matter. Everything points to this game being a low scoring game that could very possibly come down to the final seconds. Each team will need to take care of the ball and prevent themselves from becoming careless. I think whoever finishes the game with the least number of turnovers will be the ones moving on to the Elite Eight. This will be a war of attrition and the team who focuses on the fundamentals will likely be the winning team.
Final Four Prediction
Gonzaga and Florida State will likely be an exciting game, but ultimately, I believe the Zags have too much firepower to be knocked out this early. I also believe the Michigan vs. Texas Tech game will be exciting, but in a much different way. I honestly believe it’s close to a toss up but Michigan seems to have the all-around better team which leads to me to give the Wolverines the edge.
In a Gonzaga vs. Michigan Elite Eight, it will be an offensive vs. defensive showdown. Although Michigan is a talented and disciplined team, I still believe that Gonzaga is just too much to handle. Barring an off-night from most of the Gonzaga team I think that The Bulldogs will find themselves in the Final Four.
Gonzaga over Michigan 72 – 66