The West Region of the Bracket is a tough one and will definitely ruin more than a couple of brackets. It seems like every single match-up has the potential for the lower seed to win, bar a couple of extreme cases. This is definitely the bracket-buster region.
West Region Preview: The Region of Upsets
#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. #16 South Dakota State Jackrabbits
History is definitely not on the side of South Dakota State as a #16 seed has never upset a #1 seed in the first round. While Gonzaga will probably be trying to forget the last time they were a #1 seed when they were upset by #9 seed Wichita State in 2013. In fairness to them, Wichita did have three NBA players on their team and having them seeded that low was definitely unfortunate for the Zags.
This year however, could be Gonzaga’s year as they looked dominant all season long ending with a record of 32-1 with their sole loss coming against a very talented BYU squad. Led by Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who won the West Coast Conference player of the year, averaging 17 points and 5 assists per game. They also have talented players in Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins, Przernek Karnowski and Josh Perkins.
While the South Dakota State Jackrabbits have only made the tournament three times prior to this year, losing in the first round every year. They have a talented big man in Mike Daum who is averaging 25.3 points per game in the Summit League. But with Gonzaga’s ridiculous 23.4 margin of victory, South Dakota State will need every player on their team to have the game of their lives.
#8 Northwestern Wildcats vs. #9 Vanderbilt Commodores
A momentous occasion for Northwestern, this is the first time they have ever made the tournament. Seemingly permanently relegated to the basement of the stacked Big-Ten conference, Northwestern has always been a few steps behind the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. While Vanderbilt managed to make the 9th seed despite having 15 losses on their resume. When you take a closer look at their schedule you understand why they were still given this spot. They have signature wins against South Carolina and have a 3-0 record against a very good Florida team.
Northwestern are lead by junior point guard Bryant McIntosh who leads the team in points and assists at 14.4 and 5.3 respectively. Northwestern’s slow and methodical pace has caused teams problems as they only turn the ball over 10.5 times per game which is 16th best in the nation. If they hit their outside shots, they could potentially cause some teams some problems.
Vanderbilt has had a challenging season but have been rewarded for playing well despite their incredibly difficult schedule. With four players averaging double figures scoring do not be surprised if they knock out the higher-seeded Northwestern. If there is one fear for this team they seem to lack an alpha player, a guy to give the ball to in a late game situation which could be their undoing.
#5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. #12 Princeton Tigers
Notre Dame are coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Duke in the ACC tournament finals where they blew a lead late in the game. While Princeton took home an Ivy League title with a very good record of 23-6. Both teams rely on 3-point shooting and elite defences which could set up an interesting chess-match.
Notre Dame boast a number of NBA prospects including V.J. Beachem, Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson, all of whom average at least 14 points per game. There is some doubt about the aforementioned Colson who suffered a sprained ankle in that game against Duke. Notre Dame relies heavily on his physical presence on the inside. If he is not healthy Mike Brey and his team could struggle to control the glass. If they can win the rebounding-battle, then Notre Dame have an excellent shot at winning as there is no doubt that they have the superior talent on their roster.
As is previously mentioned, Princeton has an impressive record of 23-6, but if you can believe it at the beginning of December they were 4-6. They have since won 19 straight games and really come together as a unit. They have a suffocating defence which is 10th best in the nation and grabbed 231 offensive rebounds this season which is second best in all of Division I. With Bonzie Colson’s status questionable, this could be the big upset of the first round.
#4 West Virginia Mountaineers vs. #13 Bucknell Bison
The Bucknell Bison are the Patriot League champions have not played West Virginia since 1977 and will have an uphill battle against a fast-passed Bob Huggins team. The Mountaineers finished the strong, coming third in the Big-12 with a 26-8 record. Their notorious press-defence could cause a lot of teams issues and they could easily make a run deep into the tournament.
West Virginia and their pesky guards will pressure the Bucknell players all game and it is highly unlikely they have ever experienced that type of defensive aggression. Their 13 turnovers per game is pretty good, what should be worrying is that small forward star Zach Thomas leads the team in this category with over three per game. With the amount of time the ball is in his hands, he will have to make good decisions under considerable duress. If Thomas can have a good game from behind the three-point line, where he shoots 42%, then Bucknell have a chance at causing a major upset.
Huggins teams are notoriously hard working, reminiscent of those Shaka Smart led VCU teams that always caused problems in the NCAA tournament. They often struggle to score the ball if it is not in transition, so they will want to speed up the game. Bucknell have a plethora of high-level shooters, if they can run them off the line or force them into long misses and get out in transition this game could quickly turn into a blowout. If Bucknell can consistently beat the press and make their three-pointers, then we could have another early round upset.
#6 Maryland Terrapins vs. #11 Xavier Musketeers
There is no doubt in the minds of most analysts that this is going to be a close game, nearly too close to call. Both teams definitely struggled late in the season and will be looking to right the ship in this opening matchup. There is little doubt that Maryland have the superior star power in future NBA’er Melo Trimble, however the Musketeers have a little more balance with Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura averaging 18 .1 and 14.5 points per game respectively.
Maryland come into this match-up with one goal, get the ball to junior Melo Trimble. This team will only go as far as he carries them. He has been a player of the year candidate all season. They do have a bit of a wild-card in freshman swing-man Justin Jackson who is averaging 10 points per game but has caught the eye of NBA scouts with his ability to guard nearly every position. He could be key in stopping Xavier’s leading scorer Trevon Bluiett.
Xavier will obviously be keyed in on Trimble, they will want to force another player on this fairly young and inexperienced Maryland team to beat them. Despite having 13 losses, Xavier fans will be quick to point out that they had the 11th hardest schedule in the country and that for a number of those losses they were missing Trevon Bluiett. Most thought that Xavier’s chances at a spot in the tournament when NBA hopeful Edmond Sumner tore his ACL mid-season but Xavier has shown a lot of resilience and could surprise a couple of teams with their hustle.
#3 Florida State Seminoles vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Remember when a high-flying FGCU team shocked tournament favourites Georgetown in the first round a few seasons ago? It was one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, that Eagles team won a lot of fans with their run-and-gun style and they seemed to dunk on pretty much everyone. Well that team is back in the big dance and this season they have been dubbed Dunk City. Well, Dunk City is about to play the team with the most NBA talent in this part of the bracket, Florida State.
There is no doubt, this is the game to watch in this bracket as it promises to be packed with highlights from both sides. Florida State seems to be the forgotten team in the best conference in America, the ACC. Most are picking teams like Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville before the Seminoles who quietly put together a 25-8 record. They have two sure-fire first rounders in Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac and another potential pick in Xavier Rathan-Mayes (you might remember when Rathan-Mayes scored 30 points in 4 minutes against North Carolina last season). Isaac is a 6”10 freshmen being likened, a little pre-maturely, to Kevin Durant because of his length and magnificent shooting stroke.
FGCU are a defensive powerhouse that dominated the Atlantic Sun division and are just as athletic, if not more so, than Florida State. They are led by 6-2 guard Brandon Goodwin who averages 18.2 points per game. This is easily the game of the bracket and could be the best game of the entire first round.
#7 Saint Mary’s Gaels vs. #10 VCU Rams
This might sound like a broken record at this point, but yet another really interesting matchup that could turn into quite the upset. After being snubbed in the 2015-16 season, Satin Mary’s has returned with an impressive record of 28-4. While the VCU Rams are back again looking to bust some brackets after a strong 26-8 record and a second place finish in the A10 conference.
Saint Mary’s have a stud in Jock Landale to go along with the second best defence in the nation, allowing only 56.5 points per game behind only Virginia. They also boast a plus-9.3 rebounding margin which is second best to only North Carolina. Critics will point out their really easy schedule with only two wins against RPI Top 50 teams.
VCU is arguably the deepest team in the tournament and nine players have seen time in over 30 games. They play a really aggressive defence, and against a Saint Mary’s team that turns the ball over a fair amount they could shock the Gaels. However, while the Gaels struggle to keep control of the ball against a hawk-defence, VCU will often get pushed around on the boards and have a negative rebounding margin of 2.3. This is an interesting matchup of two defensive teams with really contrasting styles, do not expect a lot of points to be scored in this one.
#2 Arizona Wildcats vs. #15 North Dakota Fighting Hawks
This whole bracket, apart from #1 Gonzaga, could be a huge mess of upsets. Arizona vs North Dakota…does not follow this trend. Arizona has depth, size, athleticism, defence and two go-to scorers in Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier. It will not be shocking if this is a 20-plus point victory for the Wildcats. Sorry North Dakota, some Cinderella stories are not meant to be.