RTC Bracket Prep: West RegionPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2017
All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCWestRegion).
Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (32-1, 17-1 WCC). The Bulldogs still possess their share of skeptics, but 32 wins in 33 games played proved sufficient to earn Mark Few’s team a #1 seed and favorite status in the West Region. Gonzaga rebounded from a Senior Night loss to BYU to win three games in Las Vegas at the WCC Tournament by an average margin of 19.7 PPG and enter the NCAA Tournament poised for a deep run. The Zags also own a neutral court victory over West #2 seed Arizona from early December, and efficiency ratings still love their body of work: KenPom ranks them a comfortable #1 in his metrics. Gonzaga failures of recent March pasts will surely entice many bracket-fillers to look to the #2 line or below for their champion from this region, but on both paper and the hardwood, the Zags are an extremely worthy West favorite.
Should They Falter: #2 Arizona (30-4, 16-2 Pac-12). Arizona’s late push for a #1 seed fell short, but the Pac-12 Tournament champion enters the NCAA Tournament as winners of 24 of their last 26 games. Allonzo Trier’s late January reintegration into the lineup was relatively seamless, as the sophomore guard and Pac-12 Tournament MOP has led the Wildcats with 17.3 PPG since returning. The Wildcats are young – three freshmen play key roles and Kadeem Allen is the only senior contributor – and their success this season has been somewhat unexpected, but balance, selflessness, and the steady hand of Sean Miller will present Arizona a real opportunity to make a sustained March run.
Grossly Overseeded: #6 Maryland (24-8, 12-6 Big Ten). Florida State’s seed line (#3) fairly drew the ire of critics after bracket reveal, but Maryland’s placement as a #6 seed should be equally befuddling. Conference mates Wisconsin (#8 seed) and Michigan (#7 seed) each won more games against Big Ten opponents, possessed better non-conference victories, and finished the season stronger than the slumping Terrapins (4-6 in their last 10 games), yet received lower seeds. The exact role of advanced metrics in the committee’s methodology continues to be unclear, but they appeared to have little consequence in Maryland’s case, KenPom’s 45th ranked team. Kudos to Mark Turgeon, Melo Trimble and the rest of the Terrapins for making more out of this season than most expected, but a #6 seed the Terrapins are not.
Criminally Underseeded: #5 Notre Dame (25-9, 12-6 ACC). The Irish couldn’t be thrilled to find themselves as a #5 seed, even if a presumptive Second Round match-up with KenPom’s fifth ranked team (West Virginia) didn’t lurk in the background. Joe Lunardi’s final bracket projection put Notre Dame in a much happier place, as a #3 seed that would need only to dispatch Winthrop and Wisconsin to reach the Sweet Sixteen. That dose of bracket reality, however, brought both the worse seed and tougher road to the second weekend – unfair burdens for a Notre Dame team that has steadily worked itself through a brutal ACC this season.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7, 12-2 Atlantic Sun). Seth Davis and Clark Kellogg’s collective eagerness to slide the Eagles into the Sweet Sixteen during the bracket selection show bordered on absurd, but their core message is accurate: FGCU has been set up with a draw to make a surprise run happen. Brandon Goodwin (18.2 PPG, 4.0 APG) is an explosive lead guard and Demetris Morant (2nd nationally in two-point field goal percentage) has the bouncy athleticism necessary to headline “Dunk City’s” second multi-night March show. All three potential first weekend opponents – Florida State, Maryland and Xavier – are vulnerable, too. We aren’t as bullish as CBS’ fearless pundits, but Davis and Kellogg’s FGCU-to-the-Sweet Sixteen bus is at least heading in the right direction.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #4 West Virginia (26-8, 12-6 Big 12). The Mountaineers feel like somewhat of a forgotten team in the national conversation. Perhaps it’s an after-effect of West Virginia being on the wrong side of a #3-#14 upset last March, or maybe being a KenPom efficiency darling just doesn’t generate the same hype it once did. Either way, count us on the Mountaineers’ bandwagon. The defense is as stout as ever at “Press Virginia” (fifth nationally in defensive efficiency), but a more balanced offense should help Bob Huggins’ team not only avoid a second consecutive First Round exit, but also position itself to make a Final Four run. Keep an eye on the West Virginia shooters: The three-point accuracy of Jevon Carter (37.1% 3FG), Tarik Phillip (38.8% 3FG), and Daxter Miles (33.6% 3FG) will be critical to win multiple games.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Melo Trimble, Maryland (17.0 PPG, 3.7 APG). At his best, Trimble is a cocksure assassin who loves to take and make the big shots, a player fully capable of lifting an unimpressive supporting cast to a March victory or two. At his worst, he’s a ball-stopping point guard with questionable shot selection and a penchant for derailing offensive flow. We’ve already covered Maryland’s generous seed line; for the Terrapins to take advantage of their gift, Trimble will almost surely need to resemble the former, better version of himself.
Stephen Curry Award: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s (16.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG). Hi America, meet Jock Landale. It’s unfortunate this introduction is only arriving now, because Jock is the catalyst for one of the nation’s most efficient teams, coming in second in KenPom’s National Player of the Year race. Yes, second — as in, behind only Villanova’s Josh Hart. Landale is in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage (Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado is the only other player in the field who owns this distinction) and shoots 61 percent from the field despite using a whopping 31 percent of the Gaels’ possessions (37th nationally). Landale’s game may lack the flash of Curry, but the most underappreciated player in the entire country will have a chance to deliver a Curry-like impact this March.
Home Cooking: #3 Florida State and #14 Florida Gulf Coast, 260 miles and 160 miles to Orlando. With two Sunshine State schools facing off in the first round in Orlando, this one was easy. Expect the older, larger university (Florida State) to boast the numbers advantage when it comes to fans in attendance, but Dunk City should also be well-represented. Hey, and if the Eagles can turn an arena in Philadelphia into a home-court advantage like they did four years ago, why can’t they get a home-state crowd behind them?
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt, 3/16 at 4:30 PM ET on TBS. We hope the jokes/puns surrounding the academic reputation of these two universities can be minimized, because the basketball on the floor has a chance to offer genuine intrigue. Balance is the name of the game offensively for both teams, as four Commodores average between 10.5 and 13.6 PPG, while three Wildcats contribute between 12.4 and 14.4 PPG. Vanderbilt was the hotter team down the stretch, winning seven of its final nine contests, but can the emotion of a program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid propel Northwestern into the Second Round?
Don’t Miss This One Either: #3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast, 3/17 at 9:20 PM ET on TNT. Questions about Florida State’s worthiness, when combined with Florida Gulf Coast’s peskiness and famous March track record, will help build upset buzz before this game. In Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State may have the three best players on the floor. Can Leonard Hamilton make sure his young team stays focused enough to make that talent disparity matter?
Lock of the Year: The top two seeds will advance to the Sweet Sixteen. This notion is as much about Gonzaga and Arizona’s potential Second Round opponents as it is the competence of the Zags and Wildcats. Both Northwestern and Vanderbilt should be deep into “happy to be here” mode if they find themselves facing off against Gonzaga in that round, while neither VCU nor Saint Mary’s has the athletes up front to compete with Lauri Markkanen and the rest of an imposing Wildcats’ frontcourt. It won’t hurt either team to have experienced leaders on the sideline, too; expect Mark Few and Sean Miller to lead relatively uneventful marches into the Sweet Sixteen.
Juiciest Potential Match-up – Purists: #4 West Virginia vs. #5 Notre Dame in the Second Round. It could be argued that these are two of the three best teams in the region, but either way, a Notre Dame-West Virginia meeting would provide 40 minutes of compelling basketball. No team in the nation turns the ball over less frequently than the Irish. No team in the nation forces more turnovers than the Mountaineers. Clearly, something would have to give in this strength-on-strength battle, and the winner will emerge battle-tested and capable of winning at least two more games.
Juiciest Potential Match-up – Media: #1 Gonzaga vs. #2 Arizona in the Elite Eight. These two Western powers are familiar foes, having faced off with each other in each of the last three Decembers. Gonzaga stole the third round three months ago, but Arizona was forced to play without leading scorer Allonzo Trier. His presence would surely change the equation if this regional final occurs, but isn’t there something poetic to the idea of the two best teams in the West (also likely the two best programs in the West over the last decade) facing off, West Regional on the line? It feels like how this West Regional should be won.
We Got Screwed: #7 Saint Mary’s. Since we covered Notre Dame’s unfortunate draw, it’s worth noting Saint Mary’s less-than-ideal setup, too. A team that went 28-1 against teams that aren’t #1 in the country and is #14 in KenPom’s rankings should certainly be allowed to dream of a seed line higher than #7, for starters. But even as a #7 seed with a winnable first-round game against VCU, the looming Second Round affair with a big Arizona team (fifth biggest team in the nation, according to KenPom) sets up as an especially poor matchup for the Gaels. Worse bracket fates were dealt yesterday (see: Notre Dame), but Saint Mary’s could have hoped for a better arrangement.
Strongest Pod: Buffalo (West Virginia, Bucknell, Notre Dame, Princeton). Buffalo features two teams with a legitimate chance to make a run to Phoenix in West Virginia and Notre Dame (something no other pod can realistically claim), while Princeton and Bucknell loom as pesky outs after combining to go 49-14 this season. There’s no team in this pod as capable of making a Final Four run as Gonzaga or Arizona, but its balance makes it a clear pick as the strongest pod, top to bottom.
Great Storyline: Gonzaga’s Final Four pursuit. Stories abound in the West, whether it is Northwestern’s debut in March Madness, Florida Gulf Coast’s bid at another bracket-wrecking tour, or Arizona’s selfless, resilient season. But top seeds typically take top billing, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the Zags’ bid for the program’s first-ever Final Four. Neither team nor program needs four more wins to validate its existence, but lord knows Mark Few would feel the monkey fly off his back if these Bulldogs can execute the feat.