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NCAA West Region Mega-Preview

Quick blurbs on every team in the west

The speculation is finally over. No more wondering if Gonzaga will be a one or two seed. No more looking ahead at potential Elite Eight scenarios. No more wondering if they could play in San Jose. Everything is now laid out in front of us. Gonzaga is a number one seed for the third time in seven years, which is absolutely remarkable. Like the previous two times, they will open up in Salt Lake City. The first time didn’t go so well. The second time almost didn’t go so well, but they held on against Northwestern and made a child cry. This time, the West region is stacked with several really good defensive teams and a few really explosive offensive teams.

In an ideal world for Gonzaga fans, the Bulldogs would avenge every tournament loss from the past four years. They would beat Syracuse (2016) in the second round, get past Florida State (2018) in the Sweet 16, beat Duke (2015) in the Final Four, and get the ultimate revenge on North Carolina (2017) in the National Championship game. I can’t think of a better ending than beating all four ACC schools that knocked them out the last four years and winning a National Championship in the 20th season of Mark Few at the helm. The only player on the team for all four of those games: Josh Perkins. How many wins does Josh Perkins need to become the winningest player in college basketball history? Six.

Here’s a breakdown of the West Region, from top to bottom.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (30-3, 16-0 in WCC, KenPom 2)

Gonzaga enters the tournament as the number four overall team. They also come in on a one-game losing streak after the debacle that was the WCC Title game. Still, this is the best offense in college basketball, and one bad game should not offset 32 good ones. They scored 89 against Duke, 90 in Chapel Hill, 81 against Washington’s zone, and 73 on Tennessee without two key players. They are going to face, hopefully, several great defensive teams the next few weeks. Gonzaga is 8-0 the last four tournaments when scoring 70+ points. They are 4-4 when scoring fewer than 70.

To me, the biggest question isn’t going to be “is the defense good enough to win a championship?” The question is going to be “is the rebounding good enough to win a championship?” Gonzaga’s defense is sixth in the nation in 2pt FG%, top 30 in 3pt FG%, and top 10 in effective FG%. The problem is that they are 128th in rebounding percentage and when you give teams a bunch of extra possessions, eventually it offsets low FG percentage. For what it’s worth, Syracuse, Michigan and Texas Tech are all outside the top 100 in offensive rebounding. Florida State is 41, and the team no one is really talking about, Baylor, is SECOND in the country. Maybe Gonzaga wants Syracuse after all?

16. Prairie View A&M (22-12, 17-1 in SWAC, KP 209) or Farleigh Dickinson (20-13, 12-6 in NEC, KP 208)

These two teams are the second and third worst teams on KenPom in the tournament. For perspective, they are a spot above Washington State and four above Pacific. Prairie View A&M beat tournament regular Texas Southern in the SWAC title game to get here. Farleigh Dickinson has won eight straight games. For Farleigh Dickinson, one of their biggest issues is depth. They only play six players, with three of them averaging nearly 35 minutes a game. Their strong suit: they are fifth in the country in three-point percentage. If any 16 ever has a chance to win, they need to shoot it well from deep. This team is capable. On the other side, Prairie View A&M is not a very good offensive team. But they cause absolute chaos on the defensive end. They are 12th in country in steals and second in the nation in turnover percentage. They essentially play four guards and try to speed up the game. They have no size and are one of the worst teams in the country inside the paint.

History vs Gonzaga: Prairie View lost 93-50 in 2001. Gonzaga has never faced Farleigh Dickinson.

8. Syracuse Orange (20-13, 10-8 in ACC, KP 35)

Everyone knows what the Orange represent at this point. They are going to play their 2-3 zone, they are going to cause turnovers, and they will hang around and hang around until they try and steal the game from underneath you. They went to the Final Four in 2016 and they went to the Elite Eight last season. This year, their defense is statistically similar to the 2016 team. They aren’t as good as last year’s team, which finished in the top 10 nationally. They still cause a lot of turnovers, block a lot of shots, and force you to be uncomfortable. If you want some solace, teams are shooting better from deep this year than in 2016. Even more: When they faced elite teams this year, Duke scored 91, 84, and 75, Florida State scored 80, Virginia scored 79, and even Buffalo scored 71. They lost four of their last five games and missed Tyus Battle in the ACC Tournament. He’s still banged up, but is expected to return on Thursday. The biggest problem with this Orange team is their offense. They are bottom third in the country in nearly every meaningful category. If you don’t let them score in transition and force them to run half court offense, you should be okay.

History vs Gonzaga: 2-0, wins in 2010 and 2016 NCAA Tournament

9. Baylor Bears (19-13, 10-8 in Big 12, KP 41)

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Baylor. It was definitely supposed to be a lost year when Tristan Clark went down in early January and the team was just over .500. Instead, Baylor put together a pretty incredible run throughout January and February, winning six straight and eight of 11 to put themselves in the hunt for a regular season title. Unfortunately, they faltered down the stretch. They ended the season with three straight losses and got bounced in the first round of the Big 12 tournament by eventual champion Iowa State. The Bears are fairly unspectacular in most regards. What they do well is hustle and compete like crazy. As mentioned earlier, they are second in the nation in offensive rebound percentage, which is crazy because they really aren’t that tall. They have a legit eight-man rotation that they cycle through all game. Makai Mason, who you may remember from Yale, is their leading scorer. But he’s been dealing with a bruised toe and sat out the regular season finale. If he’s not healthy, it’s an uphill battle. They have a quartet of guards who can all shoot it reasonably well from deep. They are a very inconsistent team, but when they are on, they are extremely difficult to play. Rem Bakamus is a grad assistant at Baylor, so that would be fun.

History vs Gonzaga: 0-4 vs the Zags (‘91, ‘06, ‘10, ‘12)

5. Marquette Golden Eagles (24-9, 12-6 in Big East, KP 27)

There are two versions of Marquette. There’s the team that started 23-4 and jumped to top 10 in the country and there’s the team that lost four straight games to end the season and got bounced by Seton Hall in the Big East semi-finals. If it’s that first team, the one who beat Wisconsin, Kansas State, Louisville and Buffalo, then they could easily get to the second weekend. If it’s the latter, then Murray State is knocking them off in the first round. Markus Howard is the star. He’s one of the best scorers in the nation. But he struggled shooting mightily down the stretch. For the most part, though, you can rely on him to get his. What you don’t know is how the Hauser brothers will perform. Sam Hauser, the junior forward, has eight games with 20+ points this season and six games of eight of fewer points. Joey Hauser, the freshman forward, scored in double figures three times the final 12 games after averaging 11+ points the first 21 games. It’s possible that all three of these guys turn it back on and the Golden Eagles see Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. One thing to keep in mind: Markus Howard has struggled a bit with bigger, lengthy guards. If they play Florida State in the second round, that’s exactly what he will get.

History vs Gonzaga: 1-2 vs the Zags (last meeting: 66-63 Zags in 2010)

12. Murray State Racers (27-4, 16-2 in OVC, KP 52)

If you don’t know Ja Morant by now, then you probably haven’t been paying much attention to the national landscape of college basketball. The 6’3 sophomore guard is getting top five NBA draft pick hype because of how electric he’s been all season. He’s averaging 24.6 points and 10 assists per game. Insane numbers. Murray State played Auburn tight in the non-con, but fell short. Same story against Alabama. They have no other wins inside KenPom’s top 100 except for conference foe Belmont. But they should put a scare into Marquette just because of Morant. They also have a pair of shooters in Shaq Buchannan and Tevin Brown along with an elite rebounder in Darnell Cowart. Defensively, they give up very few threes, but way too many twos.

History vs Gonzaga: 0-1 vs the Zags (72-52 in 1980)

4. Florida State Seminoles (27-7, 13-5 in ACC, KP 14)

In mid-January, Florida State lost back-to-back games to Pittsburgh and Boston College to drop to 1-4 in the ACC and everyone wondered what in the world was going on with this team. They proceeded to win 12 of their last 13 ACC games and then beat Virginia in the ACC semi-finals before falling to Duke. We know the story of Florida State. Gonzaga saw it last season. They are long, athletic, experienced, and very deep. Leonard Hamilton will legitimately play 10 guys every game. They start the game with 7’4 Christ Koumadje and then sub him out for their leading scorer in 6’10 Mfiondu Kabengele. You should remember Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, MJ Walker and Phil Cofer from last season. They can all score and they all defend like crazy. They are 9th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Their biggest problem is the tendency to go ice cold on the offensive end. They have several capable scorers, but no superstar. Their FG percentages aren’t great, they turn it over a ton, and get most of their points from the foul line.

History vs Gonzaga: 1-1 (last meeting: 75-60 win last March)

13. Vermont Catamounts (27-6, 14-2 in America East, KP 80)

Vermont was supposed to be a trendy mid-major sweet 16 pick last March. Instead, they got upset by UMBC in the America East final. That worked out pretty well for UMBC. This season, Vermont got revenge and beat UMBC in the tournament finally to get back to the Big Dance. Vermont has very little size, which doesn’t bode well against Florida State, but they have two guards who can fill it up and a wing who is one of the best unknown scorers in the country. Junior forward Anthony Lamb puts up 21.4 points per game on 52 percent shooting. He’s a match-up nightmare in that he can drive, but also step out and hit threes. He also defends at a high level. Stef Smith and Ernie Duncan both average double figures and both guards are tremendous shooters. For being so small, they are a surprisingly good defensive rebounding team. If Florida State goes cold, Vermont has plenty of firepower to pull off the upset. Shoutout TJ Sorrentine. #FromTheParkingLot

History vs Gonzaga: Never faced

6. Buffalo Bulls (31-3, 16-2 in MAC, KP 22)

Head Coach Nate Oats is trying to turn Buffalo into the next Gonzaga. He’s off to a good start. Of course, he’s going to need a lot more than a couple tournaments to do that, but these Bulls are legit. Last year, they upset and smashed Arizona in the first round. This year, they finished 31-3 with road wins over Syracuse and West Virginia. Their three stars are all seniors and they love to get up and down the court. Their average possession length is under 15 seconds, third fastest in the country. Senior guard CJ Massinburg gets the headlines, averaging 18.8 points, but his partners in crime Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris are just as vital. Both guys average 14+ points and 6+ rebounds. They are hyper-efficient inside the arc and they run teams off the three-point line defensively – a good recipe for success. A lot of people will have Buffalo as this year’s Cinderella.

History vs Gonzaga: Never faced

11. Arizona State (22-10, 12-6 in P12, KP 61) vs St. John’s (21-12, 8-10 in Big East, KP 81)

The last two teams in the tournament will face off to see who plays Buffalo. Both teams were fairly surprising entrants. Arizona State was a little surprising given that they were the third team from a pretty weak Pac-12. But their non-conference wins over Kansas, Utah State, and Mississippi State were enough to propel them in the tournament. The Johnnies on the other hand… well, I don’t really know. They beat VCU in the non-con and that was it. They went 8-10 in the Big East and I suppose beating Marquette twice, Creighton twice and Villanova once was enough for the committee. Shamorie Ponds is really fun to watch. As is Mustapha Heron. They’ll be matched up against Lu Dort and Remy Martin from ASU, both very exciting guards in their own right.

History vs Gonzaga: St. Johns: 1-4 vs Zags (last meeting: 2014)… ASU: Never faced

3. Texas Tech Red Raiders (26-6, 14-4 in Big 12, KP 9)

Make no mistake, Chris Beard has one of, if not the best defensive team in the nation. By KenPom numbers, they edge out Michigan for best in the land. They keep you to one side of the floor and allow nothing easy inside. Their guards defend the perimeter, Tariq Owens defends the rim, and they ended Kansas’ Big 12 regular season championship streak. Jarrett Culver is a possible top five NBA draft pick. His two-way play is going to make him an All-American and he sits second in KenPom’s Player of the Year race. Matt Mooney is a great defender and distributor, though he has a propensity for turnovers at times. Tariq Owens is a shot blocking and rebounding machine. Davide Moretti is an absolute killer from beyond the arc. And then that’s kind of it. They have four incredibly talented players and three role guys. And therein lies the problem with Texas Tech this season. Their offense was so inconsistent, and at times pretty bad, for the first 25 games. They had a seven game stretch where they did not score more than 70 points and lost a game to Kansas State, 58-45. But then the last 10 games, they shot the lights out. They blasted Kansas by 30, scored 81 on Baylor and 80 in Ames against Iowa State. If they hit threes like they did in those final few games, Texas Tech is going to the Elite Eight, at worst. If they revert to their first 25 games, the Elite Eight may be their absolute ceiling.

History vs Gonzaga: 2-0 (last meeting: 73-63 Texas Tech in 2007)

14. Northern Kentucky Norse (26-8, 13-5 in Horizon, KP 100)

Northern Kentucky has not beat a single team inside the top 125 in KenPom this season. They beat Wright State in the Horizon League championship to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. They were beat by Kentucky as a 15 seed two years ago. This year, they are a 14 seed after the best record in school history as a Division 1 program. They are an experienced team with a little bit of size, led by senior forward Drew McDonald. The double-double machine finished the season averaging 19 points and 9.5 rebounds. Tyler Sharpe, Jalen Tate and Dantez Walton all average in double figures as well. They assist on 62 percent of their field goals, good for fifth best in the nation. They also have a top 25 mark in effective FG percentage. I would be extremely surprised if they beat Texas Tech, but they’ve got an experienced offense who shares the ball and may not be totally rattled by the Red Raiders’ pressure.

History vs Gonzaga: Never faced

7. Nevada Wolf Pack (29-4, 15-3 in MWC, KP 25)

There isn’t a bigger wild card in the entire tournament than Nevada. It’s a Final Four caliber team who sometimes plays like a first round exit. They start games off slow on a consistent basis. Their offense has deteriorated throughout the season to straight-up isolation and very little motion. Caleb and Cody Martin have been incredibly inconsistent shooters. Jordan Brown has not been the McDonalds All-American he was expected to be. You can argue that outside of Jordan Caroline, who is a total beast, that Jazz Johnson has been their most consistent player. He has saved them several times this season. You may remember the name because he played his first two years at Portland. It would not shock a single person if Nevada came out and got waxed by Florida in the first round. It would be equally likely that they beat Michigan in the second round and make an Elite Eight run. You honestly have no idea what this team is going to do on a game-by-game basis, which is probably terrifying for both Eric Musselman and any opposing coach.

History vs Gonzaga: 4-2 (2-0 vs Few, last meeting in 2006)

10. Florida Gators (19-15, 9-9 in SEC, KP 28)

No team helped their bubble stock more in tournament play than Florida. They were barely on the right side of the bubble entering the SEC tournament. They went on to beat Arkansas and then upset top-ranked LSU on a three by former Gonzaga recruit Andrew Nembhard with a second remaining. That boosted them into the tournament and grabbed them a 10 seed. They still have some names you may remember. KeVaughn Allen leads the team in scoring. Kevarrius Hayes leads the team in rebounding. And then there’s Jalen Hudson. The guy who scored a million points against Gonzaga in the PK80 double OT thriller. He shot 40 percent last season and was poised for an incredible senior season. It has been anything but. His scoring went from 15.5 to 9.0 points a game and his three-point percentage plummeted from 40 percent to 27 percent. It’s been one of the weirdest drop-off seasons I’ve seen in quite some time. The Gators are solid on defense, average at best on offense, and totally at the will of which Nevada team will show up.

History vs Gonzaga: 2-2 (last meeting: 111-105 in 2OT in 2017)

2. Michigan Wolverines (28-6, 15-5 in Big 10, KP 5)

The Wolverines come in to the tournament after losing in the Big 10 title game to Michigan State. They lost all three games to Tom Izzo’s Spartans this year, despite Sparty being banged up. Michigan smashed Villanova and handled both North Carolina and Purdue in the non-conference. Their defense is right behind Texas Tech as tops in the land. They ride their defense every single game because their offense has nights where it can’t hit the water from the side of a boat. They are incredibly inconsistent from deep, they are a poor free throw shooting team, and they have very, very little front court depth. If Jon Teske gets into foul trouble, they are forced to play Isaiah Livers at the “5” and he is a very poor rebounder. Iggy Brazdeikis is a stud and a match-up nightmare. Jordan Poole, who hit the buzzer beater against Houston last March, is their best shooter. Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews are both incredible defenders who have inconsistent scoring outputs. The one thing you can count on from Michigan is very few turnovers. They may not shoot the ball well, but they won’t give you the ball for free.

History vs Gonzaga: Never faced

15. Montana Grizzlies (26-8, 16-4 in Big Sky, KP 137)

For the second straight year, the Griz will face off against Michigan in the first round. They hung around for a half last year before the Wolverines put down the defensive clamp and held Montana to two points in 10 minutes. This year’s Montana team is very similar to last year’s. They have a ton of scoring ability and a very average defense with little size. Their trio of guards Ahmaad Rorie, Michael Oguine, and Sayeed Pridgett can all fill it up. Donaven Dorsey came off the bench and went 4-for-4 from deep against Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Title game. He also had a game against Northern Colorado where he was 6-for-7 from deep. Montana is going to need all the offensive firepower it can get to take down Michigan.

History vs Gonzaga: 22-35 overall (0-9 vs Few, last meeting in 2015)

Final Thoughts: You may look at this region and freak out over all the good defenses. And you may be right in doing so. However, Syracuse, FSU, Texas Tech, and Michigan all have incredibly inconsistent, and sometimes pretty poor, offenses. None of these teams are like a Virginia or Duke, where they excel at both ends. They rely on their defense to keep them in a game and hope their offense hits a few shots at the end of the game.

For me personally, with this Gonzaga team, I trust their offense against good defenses and would rather face them than face elite offenses that rebound well (ala North Carolina). I think they handle the zone just fine if they end up playing the Orange. I think Florida State is a harder match-up than either Texas Tech or Michigan. I’ve thought all season that Gonzaga matched up very well with Michigan and would beat them.

Of course, upsets could happen and Gonzaga could face Marquette or Murray State in the Sweet 16. They could face Rem Bakamus and Baylor in the second round and we can all get angry about offensive rebounds together. Nevada could make an Elite Eight run and maybe we get that Gonzaga-Nevada game we wanted back in December. The madness that is March means that anything can happen. Enjoy the games!

West Region Prediction: Gonzaga over Texas Tech