NCAA Tournament bracket picks: West Region
Can the Zags go undefeated? What Gonzaga achieved in the 2020-21 regular season, to probably less acclaim than was warranted, is so rare, only four other teams have managed the same in the past 44 years. Think about that. An average of at least 250 teams per year competed in Division I basketball over that period. That’s 11,000 teams. Of those, only four entered the NCAA Tournament with perfect records. I tried to do the math on what percentage of teams that is, but there are so many zeros to the right of the decimal point it’s beyond my limited capacity to understand. Now, the Zags bring the best team in college basketball to Indianapolis to try to win the one jewel that has eluded Gonzaga since it built itself from charming mid-major into national power: an NCAA championship. They’ve never had a better chance.
Best first-round game
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara. If your team’s nickname is as cool as “Gauchos,” then you deserve to be mentioned somewhere. UCSB has lost only once since New Year’s Day, and though that was a pretty good kicking by UC Riverside, it did come on the second day of a back-to-back series. Sweeping those is not easy, and the Gauchos did it seven times after the holidays. They then earned three consecutive double-digit victories in the Big West championship. Creighton was across the country contesting the Big East Tournament, and the Bluejays, with their electric offense, seemed destined for their first title until Georgetown woke up and decided it was 1985. This has the potential to be one of those compelling 12-5 matchups that make the tournament what it is.
Seeded too high
No. 11 Wichita State. It may seem curious for me to criticize their inclusion when I predicted it would happen, but I called the Oscar win for “Forest Gump,” and that didn’t make it any more reasonable a choice over “Pulp Fiction.” The Shockers beat two teams that were in the NET top 100. One of those didn’t even make the tournament. So their inclusion is based almost entirely on a road win over Houston. In the American Athletic Conference Tournament, the Shockers barely survived a hapless USF team and then opened the door for a .500-ish Cincinnati team to reach its fourth consecutive league tournament final. That’s worthy of the NCAAs? The committee folks must really have liked “Ted Lasso.”
Seeded too low
No. 9 Missouri. If Clemson is a No. 7 seed with a No. 41 NET ranking, a No. 42 KenPom ranking, a 3-6 record against Quad 1 opponents, a 10-6 record against Quads 1 and 2 combined and a Quad 3 loss, then what would you do with a Missouri squad that is No. 47 in NET and No. 51 in KenPom, was 7-6 against Quad 1 and 9-9 against Quads 1 and 2 combined, and had no defeats outside the first two quadrants? That’s pretty close to identical, especially when you consider Clemson beat No. 2 seed Alabama in non-league play and Missouri beat No. 1 seed Illinois. So how did the committee squeeze two seed lines between them, to the obvious detriment of Mizzou?
No. 6 USC over No. 3 Kansas. It might surprise people to see the best player on the floor wearing a Trojans uniform: All-America big man Evan Mobley. USC has leveled off lately, through no fault of his. It needed overtime to beat struggling Utah in the first round of the Pac 12 Tournament and then lost by a basket to Colorado, but he scored 26 in each of those games. USC will have to perform better on defense to escape a slump that has led to a 4-4 record in the past eight games, but the Trojans could ride Mobley to victory.
Best potential game
No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 2 Iowa. Remember when the Jayhawks were getting lumped into all those “struggling blue bloods” articles and conversations? It never seemed quite fair to Kansas, which still was relevant even after losing five times in seven games dropped its record to 12-7. (But KU was unranked! Oh, the humanity!) They’ve lost exactly once since. It helped that the stretch contained two games against Iowa State and one against Kansas State, but there also was a win over Baylor in there that only one other Division I program can match at the moment. Iowa simply was the fourth-best team in its conference even though it also was one of the six or seven best teams in the nation. Watching KU try to defend Luka Garza could be a masterclass in defensive strategy.
Best potential player matchup
Chris Duarte, guard, Oregon, vs. Joe Wieskamp, guard, Iowa. Duarte averaged 16.7 points and shot 43 percent for the team that won the Pac-12 regular-season championship, and for that he gained almost no attention outside the Pacific time zone. He was named league Player of the Year by The Associated Press but the league’s official vote of coaches and media went to Evan Mobley. Duarte is a smooth, elusive guard who is excellent shooting off the bounce and finishes beautifully in traffic. Wieskamp is more an off-the-catch shooter who, if he puts the ball down to drive, is quite possibly going to ram it down the opponent’s throat.
Get to know
Ohio sophomore guard Jason Preston. He barely played for his high school team and planned to attend college just like anyone else, majoring in journalism and maybe playing pickup ball for fun and conditioning. He played some AAU ball, though, started to play well, and caught enough attention to get the chance to attend prep school and see if college basketball programs might see something, too. After putting together some highlights, a friend posted them to Twitter. Two scholarship offers came as a result, and Preston chose OU. Now he’s averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds and scored a combined 49 points in MAC Tournament wins over Toledo and Buffalo. “His path isn’t the normal path, or what most people have gone through,” Bobcats coach Jeff Boals told NCAA.com.
Don’t be surprised if . . .
No. 15 Grand Canyon hangs around a while with No. 2 Iowa. Grand Canyon has size in the post to deal with Luka Garza: 7-footer Asbjorn Midtgaard, who averaged 14 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks this season. The Hawkeyes no doubt would have preferred an early opponent with someone Garza could overwhelm physically, but GCU also plays with a second big, 6-10 Alessandro Lever, who produced 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds. Grand Canyon might not be a big-time program, but this is a big team.
Ohio University. One can imagine Illinois was happy to see the Bobcats seeded on the opposite side of the bracket. When they played over the Thanksgiving weekend, OU lost by a single basket — and Illinois had to rally from three points down in the final 100 seconds to escape. Preston scored 31 points that day in a duel that saw Dosunmu get 27. He is capable of bothering Virginia — which, by the way, stands as defending champion two years after celebrating its championship in Minneapolis.
Final Four pick
Gonzaga. The draw is not difficult. The Zags already have played the teams on seed lines 2, 3 and 4 and beaten them by a combined 46 points. It’s like an open invitation. All the Zags have to do to RSVP is win four games. OK, so it’s not as easy as remembering to mail back the little card.