NCAA Regional Reset: West RegionPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017
Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.
New Favorite: #1 Gonzaga (34-1). If the Zags were the West region favorite before play started last Thursday, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to maintain that status. Sure, there were slow points in each of Gonzaga’s two victories over the weekend — namely, the first half against South Dakota State and the second half versus Northwestern – but Mark Few‘s team ultimately emerged from each unscathed. With West Virginia and possibly Arizona awaiting in San Jose, the road stiffens from here, but there’s no reason Gonzaga shouldn’t still feel like the front-runner.
Horse of Darkness: #4 West Virginia (28-8). The Mountaineers enter the Sweet Sixteen as a scary team. Depth and pressure — two West Virginia hallmarks — carried it through early round victories over #13 Bucknell (86-80) and #5 Notre Dame (83-71). Now those strengths will be relied upon to harass #1 Gonzaga into an uncharacteristically turnover-heavy game. The Zags rank 26th in the country in lowest turnover percentage, but Notre Dame also led the nation in that category before the Irish turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions against Press Virginia (seven percent higher than their season average). Gonzaga is also just an average offensive rebounding team, which limits its ability to take advantage of West Virginia’s biggest weaknesses — collecting defensive rebounds behind the press. The match-up is solid, the team is capable, and Bob Huggins is on the bench — in sum, the Mountaineers have a chance to surprise in San Jose.
Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Xavier (23-13). Less than three weeks ago, Xavier was a sub-.500 Big East team that had lost six straight games. Its star point guard was lost for the season and hopes of another NCAA Tournament appearance flickered with each outing. Now, on March 21, the Musketeers are fresh off a 25-point Second Round rout of Florida State and is back in the Sweet Sixteen. Xavier is a fantastic piece of proof that things can change quickly in March, but the verdict on this Musketeers’ season won’t be altered negatively from here on out: A remarkable turnaround last weekend saved a season.
Completely Expected (First Weekend): #2 Arizona. The Wildcats were a trendy pre-Tournament pick after their Pac-12 Tournament championship, so few were surprised when Sean Miller’s team handled #15 North Dakota and #7 Saint Mary’s in rounds one and two. Another yawn should be in store if Arizona is able to advance past undermanned Xavier, as they will again be decided favorites.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. No awards should be handed out for guaranteeing the top two seeds of a region entry into the Sweet Sixteen, but my confidence in Gonzaga and Arizona was rewarded. I locked the top two seeds’ appearances here in San Jose, and neither the Zags nor Wildcats suffered a very serious a scare en route to fulfilling that prophecy.
Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. Florida Gulf Coast turned out not to be the double-digit seed who was a Sweet Sixteen sleeper in the group. The Eagles didn’t embarrass themselves in falling to Florida State by six points, but they also didn’t come especially close to reaching the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend either. Xavier, on the other hand — a team I didn’t give much of a chance to get past Maryland, let alone Florida State — proved plenty capable of managing both upsets.
First Weekend MVP: Lauri Markkanen, Arizona. The Arizona freshman averaged 18.0 PPG and 8.5 RPG in two Arizona wins last weekend, going toe-to-toe with Saint Mary’s star Jock Landale in the Second Round win over the Gaels with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Markkanen went through a slight midseason swoon, but he’s again delivering massive impact — good news for both the Wildcats and his draft stock.
Breakout Star: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier. The Musketeers’ junior should be a somewhat familiar entity for college basketball fans across the country, but his weekend scoring outbursts should be a reminder that — even with Edmond Sumner lost for the season — the Xavier backcourt has a pretty talented guy in it. Bluiett made eight of his 15 three-point attempts en route to 50 points over the weekend. While continued production from Bluiett would seem to be a near necessity for the X-men’s chances at advancement, the opening weekend provided a loud reminder he’s capable of carrying an offense for long stretches.
More Home Cooking: None. Arizona and Gonzaga are both West Coast powers, but both campuses are located over 800 miles away from the regional in San Jose, California. That shouldn’t stop either fan base from bringing a decent-sized crowd to the Bay Area, but none of these four schools is close enough for a massive advantage to develop in the stands.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Gonzaga vs. #4 West Virginia. By KenPom ratings, where West Virginia is sixth nationally, this game looks much more like a regional final. West Virginia’s nameless but deep rotation matches up with a Gonzaga roster America has come to know at least a little bit by this point, with WCC Player of the Year Nigel Williams-Goss (14.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.0 APG in this Tournament) leading the way. If Gonzaga can break pressure and exploit its interior advantage, the Zags should be well-positioned for advancement, but playing West Virginia is always an uncomfortable task. One very good basketball team will see its season end at the conclusion of this game.
Best Regional Final (Projected). #1 Gonzaga vs. #2 Arizona. From the moment the bracket was unveiled, it has felt like we have been on a collision course for a Gonzaga vs. Arizona regional final. West Virginia and Xavier will have their says in this matter, but there’s something comforting about the idea of a West Region being decided in a game between two great western programs. There’s also familiarity between the two programs to enhance the hype (they’ve played each other in each of the last three Decembers), and anyone remember this classic Arizona-Gonzaga NCAA Tournament game? It would be a compelling, deserving regional final.
Top Storyline: Gonzaga’s Final Four quest. It isn’t a new storyline, but until Mark Few finds his way to a Final Four sideline, it isn’t going away either. The Zags have made six Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights over the course of their two-decade run, but the program’s first National Semifinal appearance has proven elusive. Recent chances may haunt Few, but one might argue that the program has never been better positioned to break through than this year. No matter what happens, good or bad, this is a storyline that will be oft-discussed.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: Sean Miller’s Final Four quest. Sean Miller is unlikely to have great interest in his team facing an opponent as difficult as Gonzaga on the floor, but man, he might be happy Mark Few is in town for this regional final, too. The Gonzaga head man may be the only coach out there who could deflect conversation away from another Arizona bid to get Miller to his first Final Four, and a Gonzaga regional title would almost surely hand Miller the unceremonious title of “best coach to have never reached a Final Four.”
Who wins: Gonzaga. Neither West Virginia nor Arizona will relent much, but Gonzaga is still the best team in this region. They remain KenPom‘s #1 overall by a fairly wide margin, and the talent on the roster is enough to overwhelm a West Virginia team that has survived without any one player developing into an elite contributor. Arizona certainly has the talent to match the Zags, but experience and an increasingly powerful sense of destiny should propel Gonzaga into its first-ever Final Four and, perhaps, beyond.