For my money, the West is the toughest region this season if we ignore the Midwest’s ‘Kentucky Factor’. With Wisconsin as the No. 1 and Arizona as the No. 2, there isn’t going to be much room for upsets on the top seed line, which is bad news for North Carolina and Baylor, two teams that certainly have Final Four potential.
But there’s more: No region has more individual talent that the West. D’Angelo Russell, Joseph Young, Le’Bryan Nash, Bobby Portis, Kyle Collinsworth, Tyler Haws, R.J. Hunter, Ryan Harrow, Wesley Saunders. This region is just loaded with dudes that can completely take a game over.
This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. It just makes it that much more fun.
Three story lines to watch
- 1. Will we get a rematch of last year’s Elite 8?: Last season, the West Region ended with an absolute thriller between No. 1 Arizona and No. 2 Wisconsin in Anaheim, where Frank Kaminsky torched the Wildcats for 28 points in a one-point win that sent Bo Ryan to his first Final Four. This year, the West Region finals will take place in Los Angeles with the Badgers as the No. 1 and the Wildcats as the No. 2. More on this in a bit.
- 2. Will Scott Drew ever get credit for what he’s done with Baylor?: I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that Scott Drew is the second-coming of Dean Smith. He’s not. But he’s also not as bad of a coach as the memes would have you think he is. Case in point: this season, where he led Baylor back into the national conversation as a No. 3 seed. Remember this: When Drew took over at Baylor in 2004, they were coming off of the worst scandal in the history of college sports and had been to one NCAA tournament in the 50 seasons pre-Drew. He is the reason Baylor basketball is a thing.
- 3. Which North Carolina shows up?: The Tar Heels, when they’re playing at their best, are good enough to be considered a Final Four contender. Ask Virginia, who they beat in the ACC tournament. They can also go into funks where they struggle to shoot the ball and can’t keep anyone off the offensive glass. Which Tar Heel team do we get this week?
The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 2 Arizona
For my money, these are the two best teams in the country this side of Kentucky. Wisconsin is just so ruthlessly good on the offensive end of the floor that it can help make up for some of their relative struggles defensively. Arizona is the other way around. They’re a nightmare defensively, but they can go through some scoring droughts. Both have a ton of size, both are exceedingly well-coached, and both can win a national title.
Final Four sleeper: No. 4 North Carolina
I think the Tar Heels are a very dangerous team heading into the tournament. I like teams that can beat you in different ways, and North Carolina not only has the ability to overpower opponents with their front line — they’re as good as anyone in the country at getting to the offensive glass — but they have this kid named Marcus Paige, who was a first-team Preseason All-American for a reason. Paige has struggled a bit this year with injuries and with a lack of help from his perimeter, but J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry are playing their best at the right time. If North Carolina was in any other bracket than this one …
Upsets that CAN happen
- No. 12 Wofford over No. 5 Arkansas: The way to be a team that presses is to be able to control tempo with veteran guards that won’t turn the ball over. Wofford has as much experience as anyone in the country. Oh, and they won at N.C. State. The Terriers can ball.
- No. 4 North Carolina over No. 1 Wisconsin: For all the reasons I listed earlier, I like this North Carolina team. It’s a shame they ended up in the West Region with Wisconsin and Arizona.
Upsets that WON’T happen
- No. 8 Oregon or No. 9 Oklahoma State over No. 1 Wisconsin: The weakness for the Badgers this season is defending talented slashers at the small forward spot. The Ducks’ Dillon Brooks fits that mold, but Oregon does not have enough size inside to deal with the Badger bigs. Oklahoma State’s best player is Le’Bryan Nash, but he will have a less-than-ideal matchup squaring off with Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, who are just as big and quick as he is.
Feeling like gambling?
- No. 11 BYU into the Sweet 16:
The studs you know about
- Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: The National Player of the Year. He’s a monster. Enjoy it while it lasts.
- T.J. McConnell, Arizona: There’s a ton of talent on Arizona this season, but McConnell is the piece that brings it all together. If you’re a point guard, study the way he plays. He’s everything a coach could possibly want out of that position.
- D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Russell is the most entertaining talent in the tournament this season. His game will remind you a bit of James Harden, but he’s a better passer and playmaker. He joins Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant on the ‘Shabazz Napier’ watch list.
- Marcus Paige, North Carolina: Paige had a bit of a disappointing season, but he can still take over a game with the best of them. It also helps that he’s now healthy and getting some help from guys like Justin Jackson and Joel Berry on the perimeter.
The studs the nation will find out about
- Joseph Young, Oregon: The Ducks got a bit unlucky getting placed in the same bracket as Wisconsin and Arizona, because Young is the kind of talent that could carry this team on a run through March. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better pure scorer in the country than Young.
- Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis is one of the nation’s most underrated NBA prospects. He’s an athletic, 6-foot-10 forward with a three-point shot and the kind of toughness you’d expect from an Arkansas kid. he won SEC Player of the Year over the Kentucky guys.
- Rico Gathers, Baylor: Gathers looks like a tight end and is the nation’s best rebounder. He’s power personified.
- Kyle Collinsworth, BYU: Everyone wants to talk Tyler Haws, but Collinsworth is the engine that makes this team run. He has six triple-doubles this season, running the point despite standing 6-foot-7. Think Kyle Anderson, only more athletic.
Best opening round matchups
- No. 7 VCU vs. No. 10 Ohio State: Havoc vs. D’Angelo Russell. Yes, please! And congratulations to the good people of Portland for winning ‘The Peppas‘ lottery. You’ll love them.
- No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Harvard: Ok, get your academic scandal jokes out of the way now. Harvard is tough, physical defensive team that has upset a team in the tournament each of the last two seasons. Is UNC next?
- No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Wofford: You can’t get two more differing styles of play than Arkansas and Wofford. The Terriers are tough, too. They won at N.C. State earlier this year.
Matchups to root for
- No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 2 Arizona: There’s a lot of intrigue in this bracket, but the matchup that we all want to see if Wisconsin and Arizona, for a number of reasons. For starters, in this man’s not-so-humble opinion, these are the two best teams in the country not named Kentucky, which makes it must-see TV as is. But there’s so much more at play here. The game will be played in Los Angeles, which turns it into a de-facto home game for the Wildcats. That was the same situation last season when the Badgers knocked off then-No. 1 seed Arizona in Anaheim in the Elite 8. I’ll feel cheated if we don’t get this game.
CBT Predictions: Wisconsin beats Arizona in another thriller to get back to the Final Four.