College football writer
This year’s West Regional might be the most intriguing of the four quadrants of the NCAA Men’s Tournament bracket. There are numerous Hall of Fame coaches on the sidelines, a dozen potential NBA Draft picks, plus several national championship-caliber programs dotting the starting lineups and plenty of storylines.
And, yes, it’s the NCAA Tournament in Las Vegas for the first time in the shiny new T-Mobile Arena. While conference tournaments have been going to Sin City for decades, the fact that it’s the West Regional coming to town should enhance the action even more than it normally would.
So buckle up and dive in as the road to the Final Four begins to take shape out west.
How would you rate the path of the seed?
It’s the toughest road for Kansas if you go by the overall line (top-four total: 31), but all things considered, it’s winnable for a team that just missed out on landing the home regional in Kansas City . Howard isn’t one of the top 16 seeds and the second-round matchup features either Arkansas or Illinois, both significantly flawed teams that will have trouble scoring on the Jayhawks.
There are several tough opponents in the bottom half of the bracket, but even a No. 3 seed like Gonzaga, who is KenPom’s No. 8 team, isn’t quite on the same level as previous editions entering the tournament. Also, while some might consider playing UCLA in Las Vegas a tough upset given the proximity to Westwood, the fact that the Bruins are without Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark makes them less of a threat for the top seed they were just a week ago.
Of the top four, who has the best draw?
Could it be… Gonzaga?
The Bulldogs pulled off a 3-game sweep after convincingly winning the WCC Tournament and know Las Vegas well from all their trips there over the years. Mark Few’s team once again has one of the best offenses in the country this season and is hitting a critical point at the right time. This is a battle-tested group, but one that can also benefit from a decently favorable draw.
Grand Canyon went 24-11 with Bryce Drew this year, but shouldn’t pose too much of a problem in the first round, and its second-round game in Denver will be against one of three programs going long stretches without scoring in a way consistent
Also, if they make it to Las Vegas, they’ll potentially have to face a UCLA group whose athletic big man Adem Bona is out with a shoulder injury and will be without the services of defender Jaylen Clark. An Elite Eight game against Kansas would be fun, but if you’re going to draw the defending champs who are also the No. 1 seed in the region, it’s not the worst thing in the world to have one that just got blown out. their conference tournament final.
Given the wide field that appears to win the national championship, there’s no question that Gonzaga could end up being a reliable bet to make it all the way to Houston.
Which 5-9 seed could be a dark horse?
It might be worth taking a chance in the northwest. The Wildcats are in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time and will be fired up to head to Sacramento to face an underrated Boise State and likely a decimated UCLA.
Big Ten Coach of the Year Chris Collins pushed Penn State to overtime Saturday in Chicago and showed they have what it takes to beat big names after knocking off former No. 1 Purdue last month. Chase Audige is a tenacious defender and the senior guard forms a very fun backcourt with Boo Buie that can make you pay on both ends.
Northwestern has one of the best defenses in the region and looks unstoppable at times if their shots fall. The Wildcats will be excited for what’s to come during the first weekend, and if they get hot, they could pick up some momentum that their friends in the media are sure to highlight.
Outside of the ‘Cats, Saint Mary’s is in a similar spot if they can overcome their opener. They are KenPom’s No. 11 team, one spot ahead of Big East champion Marquette, and have one of the most balanced teams that can beat you in a number of ways. Randy Bennett knows his way around March and the way the Gaels slow things down means any game could end up being a rock fight that they are more than capable of winning.
Who is Cinderella?
Don’t discount any of the original Cinderella teams at VCU, which made that memorable run from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. The Rams won’t face an extra round of games this year, but they could end up being a popular 5-12 pick over a tough Saint Mary’s team and would match up well with UConn or Iona in the second round. Mike Rhoades’ crew has plenty of momentum to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament for the first time in eight years and should have an understanding of what the stage is like after being in the big dance three times in five seasons. They say the defense travels and with the No. 17-KenPom defense in the country, it could spell trouble for whoever they encounter.
Don’t forget Arizona State, either, which has prior Dayton experience to start the tournament and has the kind of high-energy press that could give higher seeds like TCU and others a problem. Their offense was clicking at a higher level than normal in the Pac-12 Tournament, and the extra day off between games in the opening weekend could end up helping them as things go.
“I don’t think our style necessarily lends itself to playing multiple days in a row, how we press and how much energy we exert on defense,” Bobby Hurley said Friday night. “I think if we were a slower tempo, slower tempo team, we might have had a better chance to have a chance tonight.”
That’s a remarkable line, as Nevada’s tempo is one of the slowest in the field and TCU’s is one of the lower end for 6 seeds. If they get past them and into the Sweet 16, don’t be surprised if the Sun Devils make some noise.
Who are the five players to watch in the region?
Casual fans and die-hard hoops probably have an idea of who Timme is after largely becoming the face of college basketball during his tenure in the Pacific Northwest. He is a Naismith Trophy semifinalist and averages over 20 points per game for the nation’s best offense.
This season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year, Jáquez is another guy who has stuck around after finding plenty of success last March. He’s led the Bruins to the Final Four and gets it on both ends with a great mid-range jumper and enough length to really attack the defensive boards.
UCLA’s No. 4 Jamie Jaquez Jr. drops 23 points
Jaquez Jr. scored a game-high 23 points in the Bruins’ 78-71 win over the Utah Utes.
The Jayhawks freshman is one of the focal points of opposing defensive efforts with the way he throws the ball. His ability to knock down shots from the arc will be key for the 12 regular season champions this month and he forms a tandem in the backcourt with Jalen Wilson and Kevin McCullar.
Depending on who you ask, Black is one of the best college players to be picked during this summer’s NBA Draft and it’s unmistakable, given his 6-foot-7 frame and unique hairstyle. He still needs to improve his 3-point shooting, but his ability to make shots in the lane, rebound and get to the lane will play a big role for the Hogs against Illinois in the first round.
Hawkins struggled against Marquette in the Huskies’ Big East tournament run, but the first-team all-conference guard is typically one of the best two-way players on the East Coast. He has a chance to really raise his draft stock from a potential first rounder to a lottery pick and has all the talent to do so on a dangerous UConn team.
UConn’s Jordan Hawkins scores 19 points in a 77-63 win over Providence.
Hawkins scored a game-high 19 points to advance to the Big East semifinal.
The most interesting match of the first round?
How could it not be UConn facing Iona? Heck, this could be one of the juiciest first-round games of the entire tournament with Huskies coach Dan Hurley facing Rick Pitino on the sidelines in Albany.
Considering Pitino has been mentioned for Big East jobs like Georgetown and St. John’s, maybe the game will also be a bit of a preview of what we might end up seeing in conferences in 2023-24 and beyond. Connecticut is one of the best teams in the country on both ends of the court, but he probably won’t like to see this tight-fitting outfit running up and down the bench because there are few better in March than Pitino.
Throw in the New York media crowds that are sure to descend on the sub-regional and there should be no shortage of interest in this one.
Which team should be alert in the first round?
Everyone, come on.
OK, maybe top two seeds Kansas and UCLA might be good to look forward to, given their matchups against major champions, but everyone else? It’s one of those years where chaos could end up reigning supreme, so almost any upset seems doable.
The 8-9 meeting is as close as you’ll get in this year’s tournament, and you can make a case for almost every lower seed from there. Pay special attention to the Albany games, as both VCU and Iona could draw attention as hot picks to pull off the upset and even the top-four participant may have a chance to advance to the second leg of week
Who will be in the regional final and who will win it?
Go ahead and go with (Rock) Chalk. The two storied Kansas Blues and Pac-12 regular season champion UCLA haven’t met since 2015 and have been some of the most consistent winners on the national stage in the last decade. Bill Self and Mick Cronin are excellent head coaches and have teams with a great mix of crafty veterans and super talented youngsters. The Bruins’ injury woes certainly allow you to lean toward the defending champs, but both have a good chance to cut down the nets in Vegas (and beyond) when all is said and done.
Kansas number 1
No. 16 Howard
Well 8 Arkansas
No. 9 Illinois
No. 5 Santa Maria
But. 12 VCU
No. 4 UConn
No. 13 Iona
No. 6 TCU
No. 11 Arizona/Nevada State
No. 3 Gonzaga
No. 14 Grand Canyon
No. 7 North West
10 Boise State
No. 2 UCLA
No. 15 UNC Asheville
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