Anaheim is the site of the NCAA Tournament West Regional, as Arizona, Wisconsin, San Diego State and Baylor are converge on SoCal to play for a spot in the Final Four, with semi-final games on Thursday night and a final on Saturday.
TBS will have the coverage on Thursday’s Sweet 16 games, with Baylor-Wisconsin at 7:47 PM ET, and Arizona-San Diego State set for an approximate 10:17 PM ET tip. Let’s dive into the Notebook Nine, our nine focal points for this region, drawn from history, current personnel and the betting odds.
*Arizona is what I would consider a surprisingly strong favorite in this bracket. Not only are the 1-seed, but at 9-2 odds to win the national title, the Wildcats are only narrowly behind co-favorites Florida and Louisville. It’s a decent drop down to 2-seed Wisconsin at 16-1 and then Baylor sits at 20-1 with San Diego State at 38-1. I’m not sure if Las Vegas really thinks Baylor is that much better than San Diego State, or if it’s a byproduct of the Aztecs having to deal with Arizona first.
*The Wildcats have been knocking on the door recently under Sean Miller. They lost a tough Sweet 16 to Ohio State in 2013, and a two-point game in the regional final to UConn in 2011. Prior to Miller, there was the Lute Olson glory years. Arizona won it all in 1997, and made Final Fours in 1988 and 1994. Olson made it back to the NCAA final in 2001. Although he too lost gutwrenching regional finals after that, in both 2003 and 2005—the latter one of the all-time gruesome defeats, blowing a 15-point lead in the last four minutes to Illinois. So the good fans of Tucson know a lot of success, but also a lot of recent heartbreak.
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*This year’s Arizona team plays as tough a defense as anyone, and they’re undergirded by a strong presence in the post. Kaleb Tarczewski goes 7’0” at center and creates problems for a lot of the smaller lineups that are typical in today’s game. But he’s not the best player—that honor goes to either Nick Johnson at point or Aaron Gordon at forward, who give the Wildcats good floor balance in the offense.
*Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan has to see this as his year to finally reach a Final Four, even if the Badgers aren’t the betting favorite. While the program made the Final Four in 2000, that was under Dick Bennett. Ryan has won a lot of games and a few conference championships. He made a regional final in 2005 and lost in the Sweet 16 in 2008, 2011, and 2012. Right now, he’s what Gene Keady was at Purdue in the 1980s and 1990s—indisputably an excellent coach and a true power in his conference. But the last line of the resume—the Final Four—needs to be filled in. If not now, when?
*I say this, because as a Wisconsin fan, this is as good a Badger team as I have seen. Frank Kaminsky can score in the post and from behind the arc. Sam Dekker can score off the dribble. The Badgers have their usual array of three-point shooters, led by Ben Brust and they have a solid floor leader in Traevon Jackson, a skilled ballhandler and passer, who can also knock it down. The weakness Wisconsin has is this defense is not a vintage Ryan lockdown unit.
*If you remember the last few years of NCAA Tournament history, then you know the history of San Diego State basketball. Steve Fischer’s run here is the program’s high point. They lost to UConn in the Sweet 16 of 2011, dropping a competitive game just 48 hours before Arizona did the same thing. That’s the only time the Aztecs have played on this weekend. Fischer of course, has more of a history, winning the national title at Michigan in 1989 as an interim coach and then reaching NCAA finals in 1992 and 1993 with the Fab Five recruiting class led by Jalen Rose and Chris Webber.
*The best guard in display at Anaheim will be in a San Diego State uniform—in fact, you can make an argument that Xavier Thames is the best guard on display anywhere in the tournament. Thames is the Mountain West Player of the Year and a rarity in that he’s a point guard who can fill it up without letting that affect his distribution. Josh Davis, the 6’8” forward who averages nearly 14 rebounds per game, is vital to matching up with Gordon on Thursday and then the good front lines of either Wisconsin or Baylor in a potential regional final.
*When I discussed Baylor on Monday in my podcast with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network, he assumed Baylor usually underperformed in the tournament. It seems that way, because the Bears do that so often in the regular season, including inexcusably missing the field altogether in 2011 and 2013. But when Baylor gets on a run, they make it happen. This program has reached a regional final in 2010 and 2012 and only lost to the eventual national champion (Duke & Kentucky respectively).
*The talent is there for Baylor to complete the regional run this time and get to Dallas for what presumably would be a sympathetic home crowd at the Final Four. They have a balanced lineup, yet forward Cory Jefferson is still a clear go-to guy. In 7’1” Isiah Austin, they have someone who can intimidate in the paint and wipe out defensive mistakes. Brady Heslip is the kind of three-point shooter who can bail you out of at least one game. Inconsistency is what does this team in, but they’re a poor man’s version of Kentucky—if Baylor is going to come to play, they have a real chance at winning a national championship.
I picked Wisconsin to reach the Final Four, and that wasn’t a homer pick—I do believe the Badgers are going to do it on the merits. They beat a 1-seed Arizona team in their 2000 Final Four run and I say history repeats itself in a 1 vs. 2 battle on Saturday. But I respect San Diego State and I’m really nervous about Baylor’s talent level. And given that my NFL fan interests are with the Washington Redskins, I’m afraid I’ll see RG3 in the stands supporting Baylor on Thursday night and feel emotionally torn.
But all that aside, I’m riding with Bucky.