NCAA Tournament Group Picks: West Region
Can the Zag remain undefeated? What Gonzaga accomplished in the 2020-21 regular season, probably with less acclaim than warranted, is so rare that only four other teams have accomplished the same in the past 44 years. Think about it. An average of at least 250 teams per year competed in Division I basketball during that period. That’s 11,000 teams. Of those, only four entered the NCAA Tournament with perfect records. I tried to calculate what percentage of teams it is, but there are so many zeros to the right of the decimal point that it is beyond my limited ability to understand. Now, the Zags are bringing the best college basketball team to Indianapolis to try to win the only gem that has eluded Gonzaga since he built himself from a charming major half to a national power: an NCAA championship. They have never had a better chance.
Team from all over the region
Best First Round Game
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara. If your team’s nickname is as cool as “Gauchos” then it deserves to be mentioned somewhere. UCSB has lost just once since New Year’s Day, and while it was a good kick from UC Riverside, it came on the second day of a straight series. Sweeping them is not easy, and the gauchos did it seven times after the holidays. They then posted three consecutive double-digit victories in the Big West championship. Creighton was all over the country contesting the Big East Tournament, and the Bluejays, with their electric offense, looked destined for their first title until Georgetown woke up and decided it was 1985. This has the potential to be one of those compelling matchups from 12-5. that make the tournament what it is.
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Sown too high
No. 11 Wichita State. It may seem curious to me to criticize its inclusion when I predicted it would happen, but I called the Oscar win for “Forest Gump,” and that didn’t make it a more reasonable choice than “Pulp Fiction.” The Shockers beat two teams that were in the NET top 100. One of them didn’t even make it to the tournament. So their inclusion is based almost entirely on a road win over Houston. In the American Athletic Conference Tournament, the Shockers barely survived an unfortunate USF team and then opened the door for a .500 Cincinnati team to reach its fourth straight league tournament final. Is that worthy of the NCAA? The people on the committee must have really liked “Ted Lasso.”
Sown too low
No. 9 Missouri. If Clemson is a No. 7 seed with a NET No. 41 ranking, a No. 42 KenPom ranking, a 3-6 record against Quad 1 opponents, a 10-6 record against Quads 1 and 2 combined, and a loss of Quad 3, So what would you do with a Missouri team that is No. 47 on NET and No. 51 on KenPom, it was 7-6 against Quad 1 and 9-9 against Quads 1 and 2 combined, and not had losses outside the first two quadrants? ? That’s almost identical, especially when you consider that Clemson beat No. 2 seed Alabama in non-league games and Missouri beat No. 1 seed Illinois. So how did the committee squeeze two seed lines between them, to Mizzou’s obvious detriment?
No. 6 USC over No. 3 Kansas. It may surprise people to see the best player on the court in a Trojans uniform: All-America big man Evan Mobley. USC has stabilized lately, through no fault of his own. It took extra time to beat Utah in the first round of the Pac 12 Tournament and then lost by a basket to Colorado, but scored 26 in each of those games. USC will have to perform better on defense to escape a losing streak that has led to a 4-4 record in the last eight games, but the Trojans could lead Mobley to victory.
MORE: Will Kansas, Virginia Play in the NCAA Tournament?
Best potential game
No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 2 Iowa. Remember when the Jayhawks were grouped together on all those “fighting blue blood” articles and conversations? It never seemed entirely fair to Kansas, which was still relevant even after losing five times in seven games and dropping its record to 12-7. (But KU wasn’t ranked! Oh mankind!) They’ve lost exactly once since then. It helped that the stretch contained two games against Iowa State and one against Kansas State, but there was also a win over Baylor there that only another Division I program can match at this point. Iowa was simply the fourth best team in their conference even though it was also one of the top six or seven teams in the nation. Watching KU try to defend Luka Garza could be a masterclass in defensive strategy.
MORE: Garza repeats as SN Player of the Year
Better match of potential players
Chris Duarte, guard, Oregon, vs. Joe Wieskamp, guard, Iowa. Duarte averaged 16.7 points and shot 43 percent for the team that won the Pac-12 regular-season championship, gaining almost no attention outside of the Pacific time zone for that. He was named the league’s Player of the Year by The Associated Press, but the official vote from the league’s coaches and media went to Evan Mobley. Duarte is a smooth and elusive guard who is excellent at throwing the rebound and finishes beautifully in traffic. Wieskamp is more of an off-catch shooter who, if he lowers the ball to propel, is very likely to hit the opponent’s throat.
Get to know
Jason Preston, second-year guard from Ohio. He barely played for his high school team and planned to attend college like anyone else, majoring in journalism and maybe playing ball for fun and conditioning. He did play some AAU though, started playing well, and garnered enough attention to get a chance to attend high school and see if college basketball shows might see something too. After gathering some highlights, a friend posted them on Twitter. As a result, two scholarship offers came in and Preston chose OU. He is now averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds and scored a combined 49 points in MAC Tournament wins over Toledo and Buffalo. “His path is not the normal path, or what most people have been through,” Bobcats coach Jeff Boals told NCAA.com.
BREAKDOWN OF REGIONS:
EAST | SOUTH | MIDWEST
Don’t be surprised if. . .
Grand Canyon No. 15 joins Iowa No. 2 for a while. Grand Canyon has size on the post to deal with Luka Garza: 7-footer Asbjorn Midtgaard, who averaged 14 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks this season. The Hawkeyes certainly would have preferred an early opponent with someone Garza could physically overwhelm, but GCU also plays a second big, Alessandro Lever 6-10, who produced 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds. The Grand Canyon may not be a major program, but this is a great team.
Ohio University. One can imagine Illinois was happy to see the Bobcats positioned on the opposite side of the bracket. When they played over Thanksgiving weekend, OU lost by a single basket, and Illinois had to rally three points behind in the final 100 seconds to escape. Preston scored 31 points that day in a duel in which Dosunmu scored 27. He is capable of upsetting Virginia, who, by the way, stands as the defending champion two years after celebrating her championship in Minneapolis.
Final Four selection
Gonzaga. The draw is not difficult. The Zags have already faced the teams at seeded lines 2, 3 and 4 and have beaten them by 46 points combined. It is like an open invitation. All the Zags have to do to RSVP is win four games. Okay, it’s not as easy as remembering to mail the small card.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.