NCAA Tournament Previews: West Region
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And be sure to check out SportsGrid’s gambling guide to the West Region, as well as RotoExperts’ general breakdown, below.
WEST REGION BREAKDOWN
Los Angeles, CA
FINAL FOUR TEAM
No. 2 Ohio State
Besides Louisville, the Buckeyes are probably the hottest team in the country. They just won the Big Ten Tournament and have won eight straight games, beating Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana (on the road) and Michigan State twice. That’s basically a tourney in itself, since four of those wins came against teams that are seeded No. 5 or lower.
Ohio State has done what every team strives to do throughout the season: improve. They started the conference season with a 19-point loss at Illinois. A repeat of that result is unlikely if they play Illinois again. Aaron Craft has taken his game to new levels, which no one thought was possible a couple months ago. He went from being a defense-only player to a consistent threat on the offensive end. In their three biggest wins, over MSU (twice) and IU, Craft dropped a total of 56 points. That’s almost 20 per game. While he still can’t shoot to save his life, Craft is making things happen off the dribble.
Because of Craft’s improvement, Deshaun Thomas hasn’t been needed as much. He’s averaging 19.5 points per game on the season, but hasn’t hit 20 points in any of their last nine games. They won the conference tourney even though Thomas shot 12-of-38 in their final two games. Not only that, but other players have also stepped up.
It’s been a real team effort, even from the role players. Sam Thompson is no longer a walkover, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross can hit big shots, Evan Ravenal has provided a spark on the boards and even Shannon Scott has gotten into the mix with his defensive play. Behind Thomas and Craft, it’s not one player that’s been stepping up, it’s been the rest of the team. That’s why they’ve been winning, and it’s the primary reason they will continue to do so.
New Mexico will be an interesting matchup, but one they can win. If they make the Elite 8, they should be able to handle Gonzaga’s bigs or anyone else on that side. Jared Sullinger and William Buford may be gone, but a second-straight Final Four appearance is very possible for the Buckeyes.
No. 5 Wisconsin
Zzz… The Badgers are the true sleeper pick, as that’s exactly what they will make you do. Joking aside, Wisconsin actually picked up its game in the Big Ten tourney, scoring above their season average in wins over Michigan and Indiana. Unfortunately for them, they ran out of gas and couldn’t get their shots to fall against the Buckeyes.
The one thing about Wisconsin is that they can lose to anyone. Their slow-it-down game is tough to play against, but it also leaves them susceptible to easy upsets because there are fewer points to go around. However, even with all of the hate the Badgers have gotten because of their slow pace, they have won their opening-round game every year since a 2006 loss to Arizona. Ole Miss is a team that can beat them, though, mainly because they can score.
If Marshall Henderson can just hit a few of his shots and Murphy Holloway is playing to his potential, the Rebels will cause problems. They won the SEC tourney for a reason. Then again, how many teams like Wisconsin has Ole Miss faced this year? Grind-it-out teams like the Badgers aren’t too popular in the SEC.
A big key for the Badgers will be the play of Ryan Evans, who is a tough matchup at the forward spot. He can stroke the mid-range jumper, but can post guys up too. His offense will be vital in closer games. Slowly, Ben Brust has become one of Wisconsin’s better players this year, and he is really the one that makes things happen for this offense. In addition to him being a great shooter, he has players like Sam Dekker and senior leader of the squad, Jared Berggren, to dish the ball to.
If they can get past Ole Miss, the Badgers defense can cause problems for Kansas State, whose offense relies solely on two players. From there, a matchup with Gonzaga is very winnable, because again, how many teams with a defense like Wisconsin have the Zags faced this year?
DARK HORSE TEAM
No. 11 Belmont
The Bruins lack a true big man, which could be their undoing in the first round, against Arizona. The Wildcats will likely utilize 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski as much as possible in this game. Nevertheless, Belmont is a team that has NCAA tourney experience after losses the past two seasons against Wisconsin and Georgetown.
Belmont is led by two senior guards who can cause major problems for the Wildcats. We saw what happened to them when Jordan Adams started to attack the hoop in their last loss in the Pac-12 tourney; he couldn’t be stopped. Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson combine for 32 points per game and this is their last go at a tourney win. Helping them out are Trevor Noack and J.J. Mann, who can both score at a consistent rate. There’s a reason Belmont scores over 77 points per game.
What’s worrisome is that they struggle against the bigger schools. While the Bruins have won at Stanford, they were handled by Kansas and Jeff Withey. If they can win their first game, it wouldn’t be out of reach for them to beat New Mexico. As with any mid-major that can score in bunches and shoot threes, watch out.
BEST OPENING-ROUND GAME
Friday in Dayton: No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Iowa State
When you have a team that doesn’t play good defense, but throws up as many three-pointers as humanly possible, it usually results in good TV. That’s exactly what Iowa State does, as they have taken and made more threes than anyone else in the nation. In fact, it’s not even close, as they’ve made 27 more than Creighton who’s next on the list. The Cyclones have five players that have made at least 37 three-pointers this year, with three of them hitting at least 60.
If they can hit a few of those, Iowa State could run away with an upset because Notre Dame isn’t known for scoring with ease. The Irish are a team that wins game with their size and strength, both of which could easily cause the Cyclones trouble. Defensively, Notre Dame is a slower team and will probably have trouble trying to guard every player at the three-point line.
The Irish will try and slow things down with Jack Cooley down low, but that doesn’t matter to Iowa State, as they will keep running. Expect to see an up-and-down game with plenty of points in this one.
THE CRYSTAL BALL
Sweet 16 in Los Angeles: No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 2 Ohio State
If there’s one game you want to see happen out of this bracket, it’s this. Both teams are coming off conference tournament wins and playing well. Ohio State has their eight-game win streak, while New Mexico has won nine of their last 10.
We already know about the Buckeyes and their improved play, but what do they have to watch out for in the Lobos? Well, a very similar team that plays clamp down defense and has some scorers. New Mexico’s numbers on the defensive end aren’t as good, but they were as effective. The Lobos held their last two tourney opponents (San Diego State and UNLV) under 56 points.
The matchups are what you want to watch in this game. Ohio State will have problems guarding Alex Kirk in the post and may have to play Ravenel more to body him up. Tony Snell will likely have the task of guarding Thomas, which should be a very interesting matchup. Snell is quicker, but Thomas is stronger. Craft will likely defend Hugh Greenwood but could also see assignments against Kendall Williams, who had a 46-point game just a month ago.
This one should go down to the wire and is one of the harder games to pick in brackets. Many are automatically picking the Buckeyes to advance because they are coming out of the Big Ten, but don’t sleep on the Lobos.
PLAYERS ON THE RADAR
This conference is full of hard-nosed players who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.
G Aaron Craft (Ohio State)
Craft gets the nod over Thomas in this section because he’s more important to the Buckeyes. His defense will be important in locking down the ball handler in every game, and that becomes more important as the tourney winds down. Plus, if he keeps up his attacking mentality and averages close to 15 points per game, the Buckeyes have a better chance at advancing.
F Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga)
It’s funny that this is the first time I’ve mentioned anyone from No. 1 seed Gonzaga, but that’s how it goes when you’re a mid-major. Olynyk is a problem maker in the post and coming off pick-and-rolls. It will be interesting to see how he handles the bigger and more physical teams he isn’t used to seeing in the WCC. If Olynyk wins those battles, watch out for the Zags.
F Rodney McGruder (Kansas State)
Much like their football team, no one from Kansas State is getting much respect, but this time it’s on the basketball court. If you haven’t watched them this year, the one player you need to know is McGruder. He has carried this offense for two straight years now. He’s a player that can pull up for the three, or take you off the dribble and drive to the hoop. Expect him to step up his game and hit the 20-point mark in the final games of his career.
C Alex Kirk (New Mexico)
If you have the Lobos going far, Kirk is the player you need to know, not Tony Snell or Kendall Williams. It’s Kirk down low who can give most teams in this region a problem. In their first game, Kirk is going to get the ball early and often against Harvard, and he will put teams on the lookout from there. Double-doubles are in his future as long as he doesn’t get into foul trouble.