Breaking down the West Region
Gonzaga gave up its Cinderella label long ago. But there's a lot of other potential out West.
This region is chock full of dangerous double-digit seeds, from 3-point-loving No. 10 Iowa State to inevitable bracket favorite Belmont (No. 11) to a No. 12 Ole Miss team fresh off an upset of Florida in the SEC title game. Some consider this the "easiest" of the four regions. But it could be the most intriguing.
A look at how the West could be won:
Ten first impressions
1. The Zags spent the past couple of weeks defending their first-ever No. 1 ranking. Now, it seems fitting that they get to defend a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. The knock on Gonzaga is its weak-by-comparison conference slate, but it boasts an experienced backcourt and top-tier big man who might be tough for anyone to beat.
2. Remember the days when the mere idea of the Mountain West winner being seeded nine slots higher than the SEC tournament champ seemed, well, ludicrous? Not anymore.
3. Speaking/writing of that Mountain West winner: The last time New Mexico made it to the Sweet 16, "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jacks topped the Billboard chart. It was March 1974. (I, for one, had to look it up on YouTube.) Seems like the Lobos are about ready for a return trip.
4. Something(s) to know about 16th-seeded Southern: This marks its eight trip to the NCAA tournament (first since 2006) and it ranks second nationally in field goal percentage defense (36.5).
5. There you are, Arizona. It wasn't too long ago that the Wildcats looked like a potential top seed. But then their loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament made them 5-5 in their past 10. Are they primed for an upset, or a comeback?
6. Watch out for Ohio State. The fact that the Buckeyes claimed the Big Ten tournament title this season is impressive because, well -- did you watch the Big Ten this season? They've been toughened by some great competition, and they've got these two guys named Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft who are pretty darn good. They'll top plenty of people's predictions out of the West.
7. In each of its past four appearances in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame has been upset by double-digit seeds -- Winthrop (2007), Old Dominion (2010), Florida State (2011) and Xavier (2012). Not a good omen in this region.
8. Finishing tied for fourth in the Mountain West typically doesn't get you to the NCAA tournament -- but that just goes to show how tough that conference was this season. Boise State beat league foes San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV, as well as Creighton. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the play-in game against La Salle, which finished in a three-way tie for third place in the Atlantic 10.
9. It didn't happen with as much fanfare as last season, but Harvard did make the tournament for the second straight season -- after not playing in it since 1946.
10. Guy-you've-probably-never-heard-of-but-may-soon alert: Belmont guard Ian Clark shoots 55 percent from the field and 46 percent on 3-pointers. He averages 18.1 points. (Second place: MAAC Player of the Year Lamont "MoMo" Jones -- because he has an awesome nickname. And because the Arizona transfer averages 23 points for Iona.)
Five players to watch
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga: The 7-foot redshirt junior is one of the best big men in the nation, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. His 21 points and 12 rebounds were key in defeating St. Mary's in the WCC tournament final.
Ben Brust, Wisconsin: Who isn't a sucker for a player who can hit a near-half-court buzzer-beater to send a game to overtime? The 6-1 guard did that against Michigan this season (and his team eventually won). He's also averaging 11.4 points.
DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State: One of the best offensive players in the country, the junior is averaging 19.6 points and hasn't been held to single digits all year. He's a go-to guy. Good luck, defenders.
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The guard scored 46 points against Colorado State on Feb. 23. Need I type more?
Jack Cooley, Notre Dame: The only player averaging a double-double (13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds) in the Big East posted three straight single-digit games, then a 14-point outing in the Irish's loss to Louisville in the league tournament semifinals. His team will need him at his best.
Three round of 64 games to watch
Arizona versus Belmont: Remember when the Wildcats were undefeated in January? They could be vulnerable to a Belmont team that finished 12th in the nation in 3-point field goals made (8.5 per game).
Ole Miss versus Wisconsin: Can the Badgers quiet Rebel Marshall Henderson? And his offense (20 PPG), too? Wisconsin likes to grind, the Rebels like to push. Who wins in a contrast of styles?
Pittsburgh versus Wichita State: The Shockers would love a stab at Gonzaga, but they have to get past a Panthers team that's allowing opponents only 55.4 PPG this season.
Three possible future matchups
Kansas State versus Wisconsin: How about a rematch between coaches -- former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, now with Kansas State, and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan -- who matched up in the Big Ten for the previous nine years?
Arizona versus New Mexico: The Lobos play solid defense. But if the Wildcats, led by Mark Lyons, can get back to their early-season form, how would Kendall Williams and his UNM teammates fare against a squad that averages 73.3 PPG? They would meet in the round of 32.
Ohio State versus Gonzaga: If the teen seeds don't manage to do anything fairy tale-ish, this is the matchup everyone expects to see in the region final. The Buckeyes have been hardened by a bruising Big Ten schedule. The biggest thing the Bulldogs had to defend against in their league, by comparison, was boredom. Who prevails?
Iowa State. With the way Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones like to crank 3-pointers, anything can happen. And keep happening.
IT'S TIME TO DANCE
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