The West Regional goes through Anaheim, en route to the Final Four in Dallas. TheSportsNotebook has previewed all 16 teams in this quarter of the bracket with basic information on their personnel and schedule. Now let’s tie it all together with nine general thoughts on this region, followed by the game-by-game picks.
*I’m a Wisconsin fan and I’ve thrown the gauntlet down—this Badger team is the most talented I’ve seen in Madison. While there’s been a lot of great wins in this season, there’s been no defining moment for which you hang a banner—no regular season championship in the Big Ten. That went to Michigan. No conference tournament title. That went to Michigan State. All that’s left out there for Bucky is the big prize of the Final Four and maybe, given that this is the one thing that’s eluded Bo Ryan in his outstanding coaching career, this all-or-nothing moment is exactly what Wisconsin wants.
*This is a bracket I see having a lot of upsets along the way, which we’ll get to in a moment, but finishing with a chalk end, as Arizona and Wisconsin, the top two seeds, meet in the regional final. I’m picking the Badgers in that spot and not out of homer-ism. Wisconsin has the size, in Frank Kaminsky, to at least neutralize Arizona’s big men and the Badgers shoot the ball better from the perimeter and the foul line. If Arizona makes their free throws, UW would be in trouble, but that’s not something Wildcat opponents have had to worry about.
*I’m going to start the upset run in Spokane, in picking North Dakota State (12-seed) and New Mexico State (13-seed) to each win their first-round games. North Dakota State has a great individual player in Taylor Braun and I think Oklahoma has mostly overachieved, but now sees its talent shortcomings exposed in not being able to intimidate a small school opponent. New Mexico State, I simply like the matchup—this is a team that’s huge on the inside, including a 7’5” center in Sim Bhuller. San Diego State had a hard time matching up with a similar team, conference rival New Mexico.
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*The San Antonio pod would be a fun one to attend, with Nebraska, Creighton, Baylor and UL-Lafayette all being nearby. Creighton is the 3-seed, but I’m just skeptical of relying solely on Doug McDermott to carry the Bluejays. The guy is great, but someone else needs to step up and unless Creighton has been playing Villanova (on whom they dropped 197 points in two blowouts), they’ve been vulnerable. I like the spunk of Nebraska and the quality of the Big Ten, and am looking for that to shine, as this 11-seed makes it through.
*Oklahoma State is inspiring a lot of talk, including from ESPN’s Digger Phelps who picked them to reach the NCAA final. If you look at this team’s talent and go game-by-game, ever single pick is justifiable standing alone. But when a team goes 8-10 in conference play, should we really expect them to play consistently for four or five games in a row against the best the nation has to offer? I suppose if you want to swing for the fences, this is as reasonable a way as any, but unless they get a slew of bracket breaks I can’t see it.
*On the flip side, there’s Gonzaga, waiting for Okie State in the first round. Last year Gonzaga was rolling, the #1 seed in the West, with All-American Kelly Olynyk at center. Olynyk has taken his talents and his ponytail to the Boston Celtics and the Zags have had a quiet year—mostly beating the teams they should and not beating anyone significant. But is this right where Gonzaga needs to be? No one’s looking at them, everyone’s talking about their opponent and the Zags are nicely under the radar. I like their spot and have picked them to win that first game. I won’t be shocked if they upset Arizona.
*Even though I picked against San Diego State in the first round, I don’t feel good about it. I’m not down on the Aztecs in general. I love the point guard in Xavier Thames, and they’ve gone to Kansas and come out with a win. I do feel like they were better in January than they are in March though and this particular matchup with New Mexico State disturbs me. But if Steve Fischer’s team survives, they get to the Sweet 16.
*Baylor is another team that I picked to lose, to Nebraska in this case, but am worried about. Like Big 12 rival Oklahoma State, the Bears have been wildly up and down this year, starting the conference schedule 2-8, but finishing 9-9 and then reaching the final of the Big 12 tournament. It’s tough to know what you’ll get from Baylor and they beat Nebraska, I think they also beat Creighton.
*I’m going to knock Creighton one more time—which is a sure sign Bluejay fans should rush out and buy Final Four tickets now. But not only do I think they lose the second game, regardless of opponent, I’ve got their opener on upset alert. UL-Lafayette is an improving athletic program in general (three straight bowl games in football) and they have an explosive inside-out combo of Shawn Long and Elfrid Payton that can cause serious problems.
Arizona over Weber State
Gonzaga over Oklahoma State
Arizona over Gonzaga
North Dakota State over Oklahoma
New Mexico State over San Diego State
New Mexico State over North Dakota State
Nebraska over Baylor
Creighton over UL-Lafayette
Nebraska over Creighton
BYU over Oregon
Wisconsin over American
Arizona over New Mexico State
Wisconsin over Nebraska
Wisconsin over Arizona