The path is set and though you won’t hear it from the coaching staff, Gonzaga must be absolutely ecstatic with the draw the selection committee gave them on Sunday.
The Zags earned a 3 seed after turning the jets on in February and will get to play out west with favorable matchups sprinkled throughout the way. There is always the chance for rust, we saw this in the opening round last season against Georgia State, but Gonzaga getting this bracket while playing their best basketball of the season and without the attention of the last two tournaments should be a welcomed change of pace.
Gonzaga’s first game is in the late afternoon on Friday, playing a Grand Canyon team that went inferno hot in the WAC conference tournament to steal the league’s bid despite its sixth-place finish. Grand Canyon will try to fight Gonaga’s fiery offense with its own scoring firepower. The Antelopes rank 23rd in the country for 3-point shooting. We’ll have a more thorough breakdown of GCU later in the week.
What makes the region particularly appealing for the Zags is the vulnerability of the two top seeds. Kansas played a complete, competent season as a top-10 team every week of the AP poll. But it's hard to imagine the Jayhawks will not be affected by the health implications of head coach Bill Self, who was hospitalized during the Big 12 tournament, requiring stents to be placed in his heart. It hasn’t been announced yet if Self will be coaching or traveling with the team. Interestingly enough, Kansas is ranked behind Gonzaga in the KenPom standings on Selection Sunday.
The 2 seed is a stalwart defense-first UCLA team that going into March had the components of a championship contender: NBA-level talent, albeit coming from their younger rotational pieces, and senior leadership both in the frontcourt and backcourt. Then the Bruins lost Jaylen Clark for the rest of the season with an achilles injury. Clark blossomed with an expanded role in his junior season. He was an anchor for the Bruins’ top-ranked defense (according to KenPom) and had an even better care for the basketball than steadyhanded point guard Tyger Campbell.
Without Clark, the Bruins will need to lean on freshmen Amari Bailey and Dylan Andrews. Center Adem Bona also is dealing with a shoulder injury, though head coach Mick Cronin is confident he’ll be ready to play early in the Bruins’ postseason. This does not necessarily make UCLA a likely upset pick, but it does diminish their ceiling.
The 4 seed UConn has all the components to go deep and luckily the Zags wouldn’t face them until the Elite Eight. The Huskies have ample size and tenacity in the frontcourt, a perfect pairing to their backcourt of shooters and scorers. For Gonzaga to succeed against a Huskies team ranked in the top 20 in both offense and defense they’ll need Drew Timme and company to pin fouls on the hack-heavy team (ranked eight in KenPom for highest opponent free throw rate).
Gonzaga has plenty of old drama on the other side of their region, with Saint Mary’s earning the 5 seed and Arkansas as the 8 seed. But again, thankfully no need to worry about those foes again until the weekend in Las Vegas should it come to it.
It’s the 6 seed matchup that could be a rocky battle for the Zags, with TCU looming should chalk prevail on Thursday. The Horned Frogs were a popular top-10 pick in the preseason, which was short-lived due to a season mired by injuries. Point guard Mike Miles was one of those pieces missing throughout the year, playing in 25 of the team’s 33 games. Miles is the heart of Jamie Dixon’s squad, especially on the offensive end. The team leans on Miles to get to the cup, a skillset hampered by a knee injury that caused him to miss five games last month. He hasn’t looked the same returning, but defending a downhill guard has been the achilles heel of this Gonzaga defense for much of the season.
The Horned Frogs are also dealing with a rocky situation with the departure of former star big man Eddie Lampkin, who stepped away from the team prior to the Big 12 tournament. However, even with that distraction headed into the conference tournament, The Horned Frogs beat a really good Kansas State team and fell just short against a red-hot Texas team 66-60.
All of this to say, as the Zags are entering the tournament with their rotation playing their best, the same can’t be said for many of the teams lined up in the West Region. We’ll see if momentum and health will mean the streak of Sweet 16s continues.