- C.L. Brown, ESPN Staff Writer
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Arizona spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the country after winning its first 21 games of the season, so it’s no surprise it settled into the West frontrunner.
What could ruin the Wildcats’ possible march to their first Final Four since 2001 is a region seemingly packed with sleeper cells. Teams such as No. 6 seed Baylor, No. 7 seed Oregon and No. 9 seed Oklahoma State started the season with promise, hit a rough patch, then ended the season strong. Each of those three teams spent time ranked in the top 20 and finished the season performing like teams capable of making a long tournament run.
The Ducks sent a message in the regular-season finale by beating the Wildcats in Eugene. No. 4 seed San Diego State fits that description too, emerging as a top-10 team with wins over Creighton and Kansas.
And Gonzaga could long to again play the spoiler role. The Zags proved last year with an early exit in the Round of 32 that they don’t do well as a favorite. The Bulldogs made their mark as underdogs and as an 8-seed would relish a shot to topple Arizona.
Five players to watch:
If you haven’t seen Creighton’s Doug McDermott this season, where and what exactly have you been watching? Not much else can be said about the frontrunner for capturing multiple player of the year honors from national organizations. He led the nation in scoring with 26.8 points per game and he’s capable of single-handedly taking the Bluejays on a long tournament journey.
Early in the season it looked like Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart would be stiff competition with McDermott. He averaged 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He has gotten the Cowboys back on track after his now infamous foray into the stands led to a three-game suspension.
Like Smart, Arizona’s Nick Johnson can do a little bit of everything on the court. He can play just about every position except center and can defend them as well. Johnson led the Wildcats in scoring with 16.2 points and asserted himself as a leader especially after Brandon Ashley was lost to injury.
BYU’s Tyler Haws won’t make anyone forget Jimmer Fredette, but he’s a volume scorer in the same mold. The 6-foot-5 junior guard averaged 23.4 points per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 40.4 from 3-point range.
Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton has one of the quickest first steps of any player in the tournament. He may have limited range from the outside, but that doesn’t stop him from getting to the basket. He averages 19.1 points and 6 assists for the Ragin Cajuns.
Dark horse: Oklahoma State shook off its seven-game losing streak as well as Smart’s three-game suspension to become a formidable team again at the end of the season. They’re a 9-seed with 3-seed talent.
Upset alert: No. 3 seed Creighton could face the winner of No. 6 Baylor and No. 11 Nebraska. The Bears had won six straight and advanced to the Big 12 tournament title game before losing to Iowa State. They’ve been long on talent but short on consistency during the season, but seemed to have worked that out once guard Kenny Chery helped stabilize the offense. The Bears can be relentless on the boards -- they enjoy a plus-eight rebound margin -- and have the talent to score as easily as Creighton can. Although the Bluejays did beat the in-state rival Cornhuskers’ 82-67 in December, that was long before coach Tim Miles’ team found its rhythm.
Team with the most to prove: Wisconsin hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2005 when it lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Its last Final Four was back in 2000 when Dick Bennett took the Badgers as an 8-seed. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker can give opponents matchup nightmares with their ability to comfortably step outside the post to the perimeter. In five of their past seven tournament appearances, the Badgers have lost to a lower seed, including double-digit seeds Davidson (10), Cornell (12) and Mississippi (12).
Matchup we’d most like to see: Arizona and Oklahoma State in the Round of 32. It could have intriguing matchups within the game such as Smart versus Nick Johnson or possibly Le'Bryan Nash going against Aaron Gordon. The Wildcats have been playing a faster pace since Ashley was lost for the season with a foot injury. The Cowboys can handle a fast pace. Smart and Markel Brown are one of the better backcourts in the tournament.
Most likely to reach Anaheim: Arizona, Oklahoma, Baylor, Wisconsin.
Who advances to Arlington? Arizona.