The NCAA Tournament’s West Regional is stacked with coaches hoping to prove a point. It starts with Gonzaga and Mark Few, trying to make their first Final Four. You can say the same for people like Jamie Dixon (Pitt), Bo Ryan (Wisconsin), Sean Miller (Arizona), Mike Brey (Notre Dame). Will any of them make it to Atlanta and fill in a blank spot on the resume? Let’s break down the West, replete with pod-by-pod predictions and assessment of betting lines and TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage continues to prep for the Dance.
#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 Southern
#8 Pitt vs. #9 Wichita
My choices for this bracket are made pretty easy by a simple rule—I don’t pick Pitt in anything other than gross mismatches. I’ve got nothing against Dixon—in fact, I think he’s a good coach—but this team has just come up short too many times, and from my nine years living in Pittsburgh, I learned that no matter the sport, the Panthers usually find a way to disappoint. I’m not taking them over Wichita and after that I don’t feel like the Shockers have the talent to match up with Gonzaga.
#4 Kansas State vs. #13 Boise State/LaSalle
#5 Wisconsin vs. #12 Ole Miss
As a partisan Wisconsin fan, let me begin with a vent—how did the Badgers not only get dropped to a 5-seed after finishing tied for fourth in the toughest conference in the country, beating Michigan and Indiana in the conference tournament and going 2-0 against the Hoosiers? Not only that, but they get sent to play in Kansas City, a situation that creates a home crowd advantage for Kansas State in a potential second-round matchup.
I’m picking a Wisconsin-K-State game on the weekend, but it’s not a guarantee on either end. Ole Miss gets tremendous forward play from Murphy Holloway and Reginald Bucker, and the scoring explosions come from guard Marshall Henderson. The flip side is that Henderson can take away almost as much as he gives with his undisciplined shot selection and I don’t see him being well-suited to play in the style Wisconsin invariably imposes on every game. For Kansas State, they could be vulnerable to LaSalle and their own explosive guard Ramon Galloway. But the Wildcats aren’t as susceptible to Boise and in either case, they’ll have a friendly crowd.
Then we come to Kansas State-Wisconsin, a rematch of a second-round game from 2008 when the Wildcats had Michael Beasley and Wisconsin had its best team under Ryan, and again in the same round in 2011. Both games were won by Wisconsin. The coaches will be familiar with each other, given that Wildcat coach Bruce Weber had a good run at Illinois. Familiarity and high stakes will create a grind-it-out game and while Wisconsin isn’t a great low-post team they have some more options inside than Kansas State. That’s enough to keep Bucky moving on.
#3 New Mexico vs. #14 Harvard
#6 Arizona vs. #11 Belmont
This is a good bracket, but I have no reservations about taking Arizona to advance. I don’t deny the Wildcats haven’t lived up to their potential this season—they had the horses to be a #1 or #2 seed, and there’s still time for Arizona to come through. Specifically there’s still time for a well-blended backcourt of playmaker Nick Johnson and veteran two-guard Mark Lyons to control tempo and hit some shots. For small forward Solomon Hill to step up at big moments and for Kaleb Tarczewski to control the blocks like a 7-footer should. The draw lines up well for them. Belmont hasn’t beaten anyone and is over-seeded. New Mexico deserves credit for the run they’ve had, but they don’t have Arizona’s raw talent levels and the Lobos have a track record of coming up short in the NCAAs. Arizona may not have made a Final Four under Miller, but the head coach has a good record of advancing, both here and at Xavier. That’s exactly what Arizona does on opening weekend.
#2 Ohio State vs. #15 Iona
#7 Notre Dame vs. #10 Iowa State
Notre Dame is another team that should have had a much better season, although I think they deserved a little bit higher seed than this—the Irish are better than two #6’s from the Pac-12 in Arizona and UCLA. They have a backcourt of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins where both players and score and dish, while Jack Cooley provides a strong presence on the boards. Notre Dame got a nice win over Marquette in the Big East tournament and while it might be a stretch to say they’re coming in with a full head of steam, the Irish are playing reasonably well right now.
“Reasonably well” will be good enough to win this pod. Iowa State is a nice team, but not overly talented. Ohio State played extremely well this past weekend in winning the Big Ten tournament, but given some of their softness on the interior it’s easy to see Cooley grabbing around 15 rebounds. You have to respect Ohio State because of Matta’s track record and the ability of DeShaun Thomas to take over a game. But respect isn’t the same as picking to win, and I consider the Buckeyes a stock that has to be sold now while it’s high. Notre Dame moves on.
These games will be in Los Angeles and this would be a gutted bracket, with the 5-6-7 seeds all advancing. But I don’t think Gonzaga would feel like they’re getting any break. My initial instinct was to be a homer and pick Wisconsin, but upon further review I have to back down. The Badgers’ big men—notably Jared Berggren—are good enough to score down low against Kansas State, but it’s a different ballgame going against Kelly Olynyk and the Zags. Is there any way the Gonzaga center doesn’t put up 25 points/12 rebounds, short of foul trouble?
Furthermore, Gonzaga won’t get rattled playing Wisconsin’s pace. They can score down low and shoot the three-ball—what’s to be rattled about? It’s worth noting that the Badgers’ worst NCAA performances in recent memory have come against teams from midmajor conferences—blowout losses to Davidson (2008), Cornell (2010) and Butler (2011). Do I have to say that none of those teams could hold a candle to this Gonzaga one? That’s why I’ve got to be realistic.
I just noted that Notre Dame was better than Arizona, so that gives away my pick in the other game, a little belated revenge for the Irish ten years after losing to the Wildcats in this same round in the 2003 West Regional.
Then in the final, I’m dropping all my chips on the table and picking Notre Dame. The Irish will be able to at least avoid getting destroyed by Olynyk and Notre Dame will win the battle of the backcourt. It’s a great Jesuit matchup for the Final Four, right on the heels of the first Jesuit being elected pope, and it’s also a great day for the Irish.
Gonzaga’s only 9-4 at the betting window, so they’re not a heavy favorite as the 1-seed. Ohio State is a hair behind at 5-2, with New Mexico (9-2), Wisconsin (5-1) and Pitt (6-1). Arizona goes off a pretty good price at 12-1, and then the numbers drop to a pair of 25-1 shots in Kansas State and Notre Dame.
Does it go without saying that I think Notre Dame is the best bet on the board at 25-1? If I were actually wagering, I’d probably build in a hedge with Gonzaga & Ohio State. Say for example you bet $10 on Notre Dame. You’re positioned to win $250 if it comes through, and the numbers are such that if you put five bucks apiece on the Zags and Buckeyes you at least break even if one of the favorites wins. That’s a modest price for being able to watch a potential Gonzaga-Notre Dame final assured of a wash.