Gonzaga found themselves sitting pretty as the No. 1 seed out west despite the fact that managed to find a way to get a draw where seemingly every matchup is a bad one.
In the second round, a Gonzaga team that struggles to shoot the ball from the perimeter is looking at the winner of two teams that play zone. In the Sweet 16, they’re string down another date with Florida State, who is as athletic up and down their lineup as anyone in the country and, if you remember, sent Gonzaga home last season in the Sweet 16. In the Elite 8, a matchup with either Michigan or Texas Tech could lead to Josh Perkins going face to face with one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball in Zavier Simpson or Matt Mooney.
The luck of the draw was not ideal for the region where the mid-majors will flourish.
Think about it: Not only did the committee slot Buffalo, Murray State and Vermont out west, they put them in a region where Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed and Nevada is the No. 7 seed. These may not be the biggest draws for TV, but there sure are going to be some fun matchups.
Let’s dive into the West Region.
- CAN MARK FEW FINALLY WIN A NATIONAL TITLE? CAN JOHN BEILEIN?: The job that Mark Few has done building Gonzaga into one of the biggest national brands is all of college basketball is nothing short of spectacular. In 2017, he finally legitimized the success to the final few stragglers by taking the Zags to the national title game. This group, with Killian Tillie back and contributing, is probably his best team to date. Is this the year that he finally breaks through? What about John Beilein? He has his own fascinating story of reaching the highest of heights in the college coaching profession. He started as a Division III coach in upstate New York and just kept climbing the ladder. Now he has Michigan as nationally relevant as they have ever been. The only thing either of these men are missing is to cut down the nets on the last night of the season. Is this year the year?
- WILL UCLA BE COURTING CHRIS BEARD WHILE HE’S OUT WEST?: Beard has become one of the biggest names in all of college coaching by building Texas Tech into a national power that helped to end the run of 14 straight regular season titles by the Kansas Jayhawks. He is a superstar coach in the making, one that is going to be in high demand from bigger programs, and UCLA — who fired Steve Alford in December — certainly qualifies as that. He’ll be coaching out in Anaheim during the regionals. Bruin fans will get an up close and personal look at one of the potential UCLA targets to fill their opening.
- CAN JA MORANT LAST MORE THAN ONE DAY?: Morant is not Zion Williamson, but he is still a tremendously talented and athletic player. Murray State drew Marquette in the first round, setting up a game that could turn into a scoring battle between Morant and Markus Howard. Morant is so much fun to watch. The fact that we are going to lose him or Howard in the first round is a bummer.
THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech
I think that Florida State picks off Gonzaga again this season. The Seminoles are so much bigger and more athletic that Gonzaga is, especially on the perimeter, and I think that will become a problem, especially when Leonard Hamilton opts to throw on their press. Josh Perkins has his issues as a ball-handler against pressure and as a player in big games, and that matchup would qualify as both. The return of Tillie should help, but this is just a brutal matchup for the Zags with a team that, over the course of the last two months, has played like a top ten teams.
As far as Texas Tech is concerned, I just think they are better than Michigan. Both teams are built a similar way, with their defense being their calling card and their offense coming and going. The Red Raiders have been awesome of late, closing out the regular season strong before a loss to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, while Michigan has been terrific when they haven’t been forced to play Michigan State. Texas Tech will have the best player in Jarrett Culver. They shoot it better. They have more perimeter playmakers. It’s not ideal for the Aggies.
THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 7 Nevada
Since Florida State has already been mentioned, I’ll go with Nevada here. The Wolf Pack have a roster full of seniors and redshirt seniors, and this is what they have been waiting for. I’m not convinced that some of their struggles this season were an issue of motivation, and with everything to play for, Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline are going to prove something to NBA scouts in attendance. We already saw them get to one Sweet 16 with a win over Michigan.
HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS
No. 4 FLORIDA STATE over No. 1 GONZAGA: I discussed this earlier, but I don’t trust Josh Perkins against teams like Florida State, and I think that is going to prove to be the right take.
BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET
No. 12 MURRAY STATE over No. 5 MARQUETTE: I know everyone is going to want to fall in love with Ja Morant and take him to carry the Racers to the Sweet 16, but I just don’t see it. For starters, Marquette has a defender at the rim in Theo John that is going to make it very difficult for Morant to start dunking on everyone. I also think that the lack of talent around Morant means that Marquette can hide Howard defensively, and the lack of height and size is going to allow the Hausers to create mismatchs all over the floor. Marquette is the pick here.
- JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech: Culver is the life-blood of this Texas Tech team. So much of what they do offensively ends with Culver in some kind of an action, trying to make a play. For my money he is clearly a first-team all-american.
- JA MORANT, Murray State: Morant is a monster. We all know this by now.
- MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: The single-most dangerous scorer left in the tournament. He may end up being a first-team all-american, and he has popped off for at least 45 points three times this season.
- RUI HACHIMURA and BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga: It’s difficult to pick who was actually the best out of these two big men. Clarke is the better defender and finisher offensively. Hachimura is a better shooter and the more likely to be able to create for himself. Both are top 20 picks.
THE STARS OF MARCH
- ANTHONY LAMB, Vermont: Lamb is Georges Niang. He’s an undersized four that has three-point range on his stroke and a crafty low post game. He’s a bucket.
- C.J. MASSINBURG, Buffalo: We all know how good Massinburg can be when he gets it going. The Bulls got 43 points out of him in a win in Morgantown earlier this year.
ONE GAME TO WATCH
No. 6 BUFFALO vs. No. 11 ARIZONA STATE/ST. JOHN’S: The Bulls will take on the winner of Arizona State-St. John’s, who face off in the First Four. Every potential game in this section of the bracket promises to be up and down affair.
ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
I would 100 percent be here for Texas Tech and Michigan squaring up in the Sweet 16. Two of the toughest teams that you are going to find playing for the right to get to the Elite 8 in a game that may not crack the 50s? I love it.
AND THE WINNER IS …
I have Texas Tech knocking off Florida State and getting to the Final Four.