RTC Bracket Prep: West Region

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 12th, 2018

Today and tomorrow we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Here, Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates over the next two weeks (@RTCWestRegion).


Favorite: North Carolina, #2, 25-10. At first glance, this is a wide open region with no dominant team. The Tar Heels are the highest rated KenPom team in this group at #7, but they are just one of six teams in the region that fall between #7 and #17 in that metric. In other words, this region is anybody’s ballgame. What sets Roy Williams‘ squad apart from the rest of the contenders fighting to come out of the Staples Center is the level and quality of the experience on this team. All five players who average double figures in scoring (Luke Maye, Joel Berry, Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson) are upperclassmen, and three of the four saw significant action in last year’s National Championship run. In March, offense wins championships, and this Tar Heels team is an elite offensive squad with the experience and savvy to make a return trip to the sport’s final weekend.

Roy Williams’ Team is the Favorite Here, Whether He Likes It or Not (USA Today Images)

Should They Falter: Michigan, #3, 28-7. If you’re looking for a hot hand to ride, look no further than the Wolverines. Since an ugly road loss to Northwestern in early February, John Beilein‘s squad has reeled off nine straight wins, including an impressive one-two punch in the last two games of the Big Ten Tournament to earn the automatic bid. Balanced scoring and an uncharacteristically stingy defense are the hallmarks of this group, but Michigan is highlighted by veterans who take care of the ball, can knock down the three and do all the little things on defense. However, beware of the team’s week-plus layoff after an early Big Ten Tournament along with a slow pace which could allow lesser teams to stick around deep into the game.

Grossly Overseeded: Xavier, #1, 28-5. Sorry Musketeers fans. It’s bad enough that we made it through those first two bullet points without mentioning the #1 seed in this region, but to have them show up here must seem like adding insult to injury. Nothing against Chris Mack‘s clearly talented and accomplished club, but some team has to go in this spot and Xavier doesn’t possess the traditional metrics of a top seed. For instance, try digging through KenPom‘s historical rankings to find another #1 seed ranked as low as Xavier defensively (59th) and you’ll find that Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy in 2005 were the most recent distinction — and that tourney didn’t exactly end well for Washington (lost to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen). That’s not to disparage this squad. Trevon Blueitt is among the best players in the nation. J.P. Macura is an elite college basketball villain (depending on who you root for). And Mack has lined up his next wave of program leaders with the likes of Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall. But no one would be surprised to see the Musketeers suffer an early exit either.

Criminally Underseeded: Houston, #6, 26-7. It’s hard to get too worked up about a seven-loss AAC team only getting a #6 seed with blemishes like Drexel, Tulane and Memphis on its resume. But Kelvin Sampson‘s Cougars are a tough, balanced and veteran team. They feature five upperclassmen in their rotation, defend like crazy and have a fearless trio of guards – Armoni Brooks, Corey Davis and Rob Gray – who can get hot from three at any moment — each player has hit at least five threes in a game on multiple occasions this season. A #6 seed is probably an appropriate seed for Houston, but you can bet Michigan isn’t in love with seeing the Cougars as a potential first-weekend opponent.

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#13 seed or lower): UNC Greensboro, #13, 27-7. If you’re looking for a deep sleeper, you probably want a team that has already proven it can hang with this level of competition. Look no further than the Spartans, which knocked off NC State in Raleigh in mid-December. Wes Miller‘s team also got an up-close look at eventual #1 overall seed Virginia way back on opening night and didn’t embarrass themselves. This scrappy team will guard like crazy, pound the offensive glass and turn the game into a rock fight. If Gonzaga gets off to a slow start, the Bulldogs could be in for a wild opening round game.

Gonzaga Wants to Take One More Step This Season (USA Today Images)

Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): Gonzaga, #4, 30-4. Then again, Gonzaga very much has the ability to repeat last year’s run through the West Region all the way to the Final Four. They’ve been off the national radar for much of the 2018 calendar year, hiding out in the NCAA’s version of witness protection in the WCC. But Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson return from major roles on last year’s national runner-up season and are looking to take that final step this time around. Killian Tillie has also emerged as a key contributor in his sophomore season. Throw in talented new additions to the rotation in Zach Norvell and Rui Hachmiura and the Zags are as talented as ever. In a wide open West bracket, you could do a lot worse than riding the Bulldogs.

Carmelo Anthony Award. Trevon Blueitt (19.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.5 APG) – A All-America candidate, Blueitt is undoubtedly Xavier’s unquestioned go-to man. A common denominator in four of the Musketeers’ five losses was a sub-par performance from the senior. But he’s been largely phenomenal this season, scoring over 20 points in 19 games and being darn-near automatic from the line, a feature that will serve his team well at the end of any number of tight March contests.

Stephen Curry Award. Mike Daum, South Dakota State (23.8 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 42.1 3FG) – He came out of nowhere to star in, well, also nowhere. But after scoring more than 2,200 points and grabbing more than 800 boards in his first three seasons in Brookings, South Dakota, Daum is now on the NBA’s radar. At 6’9”, his ability to score from inside and out (he’s knocked in 199 threes at a 42 percent clip over his career), as well as control the boards (he grabs 29.2 percent of opponents’ missed shots, ninth nationally) makes him a force to be reckoned with. And the Jackrabbits’ head coach T.J. Otzelberger is no dummy either; he makes sure the offense goes through Daum early and often — the two-time Summit League Player of the Year launches 36.4 percent of his team’s field goal attempts, a usage rate that ranks third nationally. All of these factors combine to mean Daum could go off on any given night — he’s scored 30 or more points in a game 12 times this season.

Home Cooking: Gonzaga, #4, 400-ish miles. Out west, 400 miles is considered “close.” Without a doubt, Bulldog fans will travel in droves down to Boise and (provided they can get in the building with other travel-proven programs in Arizona and Kentucky in the same venue) provide plenty of vocal support for their team. In a possible weekend matchup with Ohio State in the Round of 32, a raucous but friendly atmosphere could make all the difference.

Can’t Miss First Round Game: Missouri vs. Florida State, Friday 3/16. I don’t know about you, but I went out of my way to watch every minute of Michael Porter Jr.’s lone SEC Tournament game just to see what all the buzz was about. I’ll do the same this coming Friday because Porter will have his work cut out for him against the long and athletic Seminoles. He’s in a tough position, rusty after an injury-ruined regular season, but the Tigers have enough talent around him to ease his return to the floor much more comfortably than they did last week.

Michael Porter Makes Missouri a Dangerous Club (USA Today Images)

Don’t Miss This One Either: Texas A&M vs. Providence, Friday 3/16. – On paper, the Aggies are one of the nation’s more talented teams, and the fact that they enter the NCAA Tournament as a 12-loss #7 seed also indicates that they are one of its most underachieving. The corresponding fact that Texas A&M is facing a program that seems to perpetually overachieve under the leadership of Ed Cooley makes this game even more interesting. You can explain away some of A&M’s struggles this season by injuries and suspensions, but anything less than their A-game and a promising 2017-18 season will ultimately go down as a monumental disappointment.

Lock of the Year: West Region Apocalypse. Every year, one region goes to absolute hell in a complete mess of upsets. With incredible balance among the top six teams in this region and excellent talent living deeper down the bracket, odds are good that madness will prevail here.

Juiciest Potential Matchup – purists:  North Carolina vs. Gonzaga, regional final. It doesn’t take a purist to drool over a potential National Championship game rematch for the right to return to the Final Four. Not only would the storyline be great, but the matchup would be wildly entertaining too.

Juiciest Potential Matchup – media:  Xavier vs. Ohio State, regional semifinal. When Ohio State parted ways with Thad Matta last June, Chris Mack was considered among the coaches on the short list of possible replacements. Mack stayed put, while Butler’s Chris Holtmann defected to Ohio State and undertook what was expected to be a significant rebuilding process. Instead, Holtmann pulled off an immediate and stunning turnaround season in Columbus. If both of these squads get a couple of wins, the two Ohio non-rivals will face in southern California, which means we’ll probably see some highlights of this epic battle a time or two.

We Got Screwed: Good Morning, Gonzaga. I will never for the life of me understand making west coast teams play in the godforsaken AM hours. Sure, at least the Zags don’t have to travel to somewhere like Detroit or Pittsburgh or some other barren hellscape and wake up jetlagged and confused, but let the poor lads get some sleep, why don’t you?

Strongest Pod:  Ohio State vs. South Dakota State, Gonzaga vs. UNC Greensboro. Talented high seeds and tough gritty underdogs mean that Thursday morning in Boise could be wild.

Xavier is Ready to Break Through to the Final Four (USA Today Images)

Great Storyline: Xavier’s Final Four pursuit. Last year Gonzaga finally got off the schneid by advancing to the program’s first Final Four with a win over Xavier in San Jose. You could make the argument that Xavier is now the best program never to advance to the Final Four. They’ve been a mere one game away on three different occasions, but they are a #1 seed with Final Four expectations for the first time in program history. And wouldn’t it be even sweeter to get some revenge on Gonzaga for last year’s demolition along the way.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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