2017 NCAA Tournament West Region Preview

Gonzaga and Arizona headline the region, but do Vanderbilt and Saint Mary's have what it takes to play spoiler?

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Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University

Oh, the beauty of March Madness. Everyone and their dogs will take plenty of time to fill out brackets and tune in for the dmdness that unfolds. The beauty of the tournament also leads to frustration when favorite teams fall in upsets during the opening weekend. With that in mind, here’s our breakdown of the West Region of the NCAA Tournament.

The Favorite

Is this finally the year? Mark Few has won over 80 percent of his games since taking over at Gonzaga. Yet, his failure in reaching a single final four persuades doubters to disclaim him from the elite tier of college coaches. Forget the past — this is the best team Few has assembled, with a combination of guard play and talented post players that few can match.

At 32-1, a meltdown at home against BYU is the only reason the Bulldogs won’t have a shot at perfection. With Nigel Williams-Goss leading the way and Pryzemek Karnowksi anchoring the paint, the Zags possess the depth of capable playmakers and lockdown defense that ultimately make them the favorite not only in the region, but potentially in the entire bracket.

Gonzaga’s 23.5 point differential is an absurd stat. Before you think about countering with points about a weak conference or schedule, admire this: The Bulldogs hold wins over Arizona, Florida and Iowa State during its non-conference slate. Also, beating Saint Mary’s three times is no joke. The Gaels may have their most talented roster as well. Yes, this is the year.

Contenders

Arizona is coming off a Pac-12 championship run and have won 24 of its last 26 games. Since Allonzo Trier’s entry back into the lineup 15 games ago, he and Lauri Markkanen — the latest, but maybe the most realistic “Dirk Nowitzki 2.0” — have turned into a dynamic duo. The Wildcats have four other players averaging between nine and 11 points. The combination of star power and depth makes Arizona a trendy pick to win the region.

In addition to Arizona, West Virginia (No. 4 seed) and Notre Dame (No. 5 seed) offer a lot of intrigue. There’s a lot to like with West Virginia’s style of play, and its press defense and scoring depth is a massive headache for opposing teams. Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins has called guard Jevon Carter one of the best in the country, and many agree.

The Fighting Irish have one of the most exciting offenses in the tournament. Bonzie Colson would be the consensus No. 1 NBA Draft prospect if he were a few inches taller. The winner of a potential West Virginia-Notre Dame could easily end up advancing to the Elite Eight or further. Given Gonzaga advances out of the opening weekend, either team would pose a handful for the Bulldogs.

Pretenders

There’s a lot to like with Florida State. The amount of players the Seminoles possess in the 6-foot-6-inch to 6-foot-9-inch range make them a handful for opponents to score on. In addition, Dwayne Bacon and his 17 points a game are a threat on any given night. Florida State has the strengths of a true No. 3 seed, but the Seminoles’ scoring is inconsistent when the shots come from someone other than Bacon. Florida State might not make it out of the opening weekend.

The “Cinderella”

Dunk City” is back in the tourney! Don’t be surprised if Florida Gulf Coast pulls off another upset in this year’s tournament. Transfer Brandon Goodwin leads the team in both scoring (18 points per game) and assists this season. The Eagles have three others who average double-digit points a game, and “Dunk City” actually shoots a high percentage from the field as a team.

However, the Eagles should struggle with the size of Florida State. Goodwin and Christian Terrell are both listed at 6 feet 2 inches tall, and the Eagles rely heavily on both. With an upset, Florida Gulf Coast would face the winner of Maryland and Xavier — neither team has played like a Sweet 16 team as of late. It’s hard to predict where the madness will strike in the tournament, but Florida Gulf Coast may have the best road of all the lower seeds to advance past the opening weekend.

The Sleeper

Saint Mary’s style of play isn’t exactly appealing to the public eye. While fans may call it boring, opposing coaches fear a matchup against a team that plays at the defensive level that the Gaels do.

Saint Mary’s gives up just under 57 points a game, good for second in the country. Offensively, the Gaels are among the most efficient units in all of college basketball.  Their shooting efficiency ranks in the top 10 in the nation as well. Jock Landale is among the great big men in college basketball this year, reflected by his 16 points and nine rebounds per game.

In addition, Calvin Hermanson (13 points per game) is an assassin from deep, knocking down 2.6 three-pointers a game from deep and shooting around 44 percent from behind the arc. Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon are limited athletically, but both guards average over five assists per game. Sean Miller has done an impressive job at Arizona this year, but don’t be surprised if St. Mary’s knocks them out, and ultimately gets a fourth shot at beating Gonzaga in a potential Elite Eight matchup.

Players to Watch

Bonzie Colson: Standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall, the junior forward has taken criticism on his lack of size to fuel his game to another level. The double-double machine put up season averages of 17.5 points and 10 rebounds a game, doing so while shooting an efficient 52 percent from the field. Colson could easily play the role of a tournament hero while leading the Fighting Irish on a deep run.

Nigel Williams-Goss: The transfer from Washington is a big reason why some think that this is finally the year for Gonzaga’s Final Four run. He’s averaging about 17 points, five rebounds and five assists on the season, adding nearly two steals per contest. His do-it-all style of play earned him a spot as a Wooden Award finalist, but his ultimate goal is to lead Mark Few to his first Final Four appearance.

Lauri Markkanen: Comparing Markkanen to Dirk Nowitzki is no joke. The three-point shooting ability, athleticism and mentality displayed by the freshman 7-footer remind many of the future Hall of Famer. With a strong tournament showing, Markkanen could turn himself into a top-five NBA Draft prospect. Expect him to put on a show during Arizona’s run in the tournament.

Prediction

Last year, Jay Wright finally silenced his critics after winning a championship. KenPom had Villanova as the No. 1 team in the country heading into the tournament. This year, the site has Gonzaga as its No. 1 for tournament time.

Mark Few has his most championship-caliber team, similar to Wright and Villanova a season ago. Notre Dame or West Virginia will make the Bulldogs sweat until the buzzer, but the Zags will ultimately prevail in that matchup. Mark Few will finally be able to say “Yeah, I’ve made a Final Four.” Don’t be surprised if that extends to “What’s that, haters? I’m sorry, I have a ring now.”

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by John Russell, courtesy of Vanderbilt University

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