Have you filled out your brackets and entered tBBC’s annual bracket challenge? If not, what are you waiting on? Get on it.
We head West for the second of our four region previews in preparation for the greatest weekend in sports. After our first preview of the loaded Midwest region, the West is a bit less exciting as on paper it is probably the easiest of the four regions, challenged only by the East.
Favorite – Arizona had to be thrilled about their draw in this one. Not only is the West the easiest of the regions, the Wildcats will also get to avoid a lot of travel as they never play more than 471 miles from their campus and fans will have easy access to direct flights that last no more than an hour and a half for the first two weekends; no other team’s fans will have it that easy. Travel will be even easier for the team as getting out of the first weekend means just a fairly short drive up the coast from San Diego to Los Angeles.
It’s not just the short travel and large fan support that the Wildcats will get that makes them the favorite in the region; Arizona put together an impressive season, finishing in second place in the RPI with a 30-4 record while playing the nation’s fourth hardest schedule. The Wildcats won their first 21 games of the season in a stretch that included wins over San Diego State (4 seed in the West), Duke (3 seed in the Midwest), Michigan (2 seed in the Midwest), and UCLA (4 seed in the South), among others. The loss of Brandon Ashley to injury hurt the Wildcats, they’ve gone 9-4 without him, but this team still has offensive weapons. The key to Arizona’s success has been a stifling defense that has limited opponents to 58.1 points per game on 38% shooting; this defense doesn’t seem to have lost a beat following Ashley’s injury.
Cinderella – There aren’t really many great Cinderella possibilities in the West. The best one is probably 12 seeded North Dakota State. This is the Bison’s second appearance in the Division I tournament after moving up from Division II in 2007; their first appearance was in 2009 where they gave 3rd seed Kansas a scare in front of over 10,000 Bison fans in Minneapolis before losing 84-74. This year’s North Dakota State squad went 25-6 and won their second Summit conference title. The Bison are 33rd in the RPI and have no really notable wins but have won 9 in a row and are the best shooting team in the nation, hitting 50.9% of their shots from the field. The Bison defense isn’t bad either, holding opponents to 65 points per game and 43% shooting. Taylor Braun drives the Bison offense, average 18.2 points per game while shooting 44% from 3 point range. A hot shooting team can be very dangerous in the tournament and if North Dakota State can keep shooting like they have been, they can easily beat an Oklahoma team that doesn’t play much defense and present a tough matchup against a San Diego State squad that has a good defense but is in an offensive funk.
Most likely to be an upset – The west has several likely ‘upsets’ that most people who follow the NCAA tournament won’t really consider to be upsets. As mentioned above, North Dakota State is a hot shooting team and while Oklahoma has an up-tempo offense that can pour on the points, they don’t play defense. I expect this to be a high scoring affair but North Dakota State is the better shooting team and they actually play defense. Of course since this is a 5 vs 12 game, it’s hard to consider it a major upset since 12 seeds routinely do very well in these.
Oklahoma State versus Gonzaga is another likely upset. The Cowboys are 5-2 since the return of Marcus Smart from suspension and both losses were in overtime to ranked teams. With Smart, the Cowboys are much better than a 9th seed but their ability to go deep in the tournament will be hurt by running into Arizona in the second round but they will at least get a win out of this, though a 9 over an 8 isn’t really an upset.
No discussion of upsets in a region that has Wisconsin in it is complete without mentioning the Badgers. Bo Ryan’s group always overachieves during the regular season but falls flat come tournament time. As a 2 seed, Wisconsin will easily get past American in the first round but don’t be surprised if they once again fail to escape the first weekend.
Unheralded Player – If North Dakota State is to live up to my anointing of them as the region’s Cinderella, it will be in large part because of senior guard Taylor Braun. Braun has gone from being three days away from committing to a Division II school in Oregon to accepting a late scholarship offer from North Dakota State to leading the Bison to a Summit League Championship and being named conference Player of the Year. Braun led the conference in scoring with 18 points per game and he shoots an outstand 41% from three point range. Not just content with scoring, Bruan also leads the team in rebounding (5.5 rebounds per game), assists (3.9 per game), and steals (1.6 per game).
Elite Eight Teams – Despite their loss in the Pac 12 Tournament Title Game, Arizona is too loaded and will have a home crowd advantage. The toughest test for the Wildcats in the first three rounds will come from Oklahoma State and Marcus Smart in the second round but Arizona will be playing for a chance to go to Jerryworld.
Standing in the Wildcats’ way will be Creighton. The Blue Jays may not have an intimidating mascot but they have Doug McDermott, the best player in the country, and a high powered offense who can score on anyone.