by Chris Molicki
Put me on the record, the West region is the hardest to pick in terms of who will reach the Final Four. There are a bunch of very good teams, but all having issues. This one is a crapshoot. Buckle up kids, we’re going to see how the West will be won.
The Favorite: It’s hard not to go with Gonzaga, who finished the season ranked No. 1 in the AP rankings. Yes, everyone says they played in the WCC, but don’t sleep on this team, they can flat out play. Coming in at No. 3 in offense and No. 14 on defense, the numbers don’t do the Bulldogs justice. A breakout year by Kelly Olynyk has led the charge. The long-haired big man has so may ways he can beat you, whether it’s his jump shot, down low, or penetration. It may not always be pretty, but Olynyk gets the job done, and he will be a matchup problem for anyone. Elias Harris has been a consistent scorer and rebounder in his days at Gonzaga. The strength of the Zags this year was expected to be Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and despite underachieving, the duo has done some nice work on the perimeter. It’s always good to have some NBA blood on the team, and that’s what David Stockton brings. Finally, keep an eye out for Mike Hart. He’s a lock down defender that pushes Gonzaga over the edge. But the big question still looms: how do they fare against bigger and better competition.
The Contenders: Ohio St. just won the best conference tournament in the nation when their best player had an off-shooting night by beating Wisconsin at their own game. People shouldn’t think the Buckeyes are all Deshaun Thomas. Players like Lenzelle Smith Jr. Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, Evan Ravenel, and Shannon Scott are all making serious contributions, especially on the defensive end, but Aaron Craft is the reason for this team’s ascent. He’s starting to give consistent offensive production to go with his stifling defense. Speaking of Wisconsin, make sure the Badgers are on your radar. Known for their defense, Wisconsin could make a run to Atlanta thanks to bigs like Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans working the paint and stepping out. Three point shooters Ben Brust and Mike Bruesewitz are important, but Traevon Jackson gives the Badgers a basket attacker. Sam Dekker’s improvements are also a big reason for Wisconsin’s success. The top RPI conference in the nation was the Mountain West, and the winner of that was the Lobos. With two very good perimeter players in Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, and enforcers down low in Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico can compete with any team in the country. I like Hugh Greenwood, a solid rebounding guard, as a sneaky good player in this region.
The Dark Horses: A lot of people are sleeping on Kansas St. because they couldn’t beat Kansas this year, but Rodney McGruder is the kind of player who could explode in March. The emergence of Angel Rodriguez as a top point guard is important for a deep run. Arizona looked like a potential #1 seed earlier this year, but has faltered down the stretch. They’re a high scoring team with length and athleticism in Nich Johnson and Solomon Hill. Mark Lyons needs to be more of a distributor for the Wildcats to go far. Could Iowa St. get hot and make the Final Four? You bet. The Cyclones have a great coach in Fred Hoiberg and a top-10 scoring offense in the country. If any combination of Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee, Korie Lucious, or Chris Babb catches fire from long range, this team is dangerous.
Upset Special: #11 Belmont over #6 Arizona. The Bruins have struggled mightily to win a tournament game, but this looks to be the year they break through. They’re a little small, but that’s not something Arizona will particularly expose. Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are two spectacular guards with a lot of experience. Overrated Arizona will go home early.
Other Things to Watch For: Pittsburgh vs. Wichita St. is going to be a brutal game. Both teams play physical defense and excel at rebounding. The matchup to watch is Talib Zanna against Carl Hall, but I could see Pitt center Steven Adams not being up for this backyard brawl. Of course you have to watch Ole Miss and Marshall Henderson. The brash shooting guard can fill it up from deep, and his personality is a complete contrast of everything Wisconsin stands for. If Boise St. can get in the field, they’re another team who shoots the three well. Mike Brey needs to start winning tournament games for Notre Dame, or else he’ll officially be labeled as a coach who can’t get it done in the big dance.
The Pick: Ohio St. Gonzaga will give them trouble, but as long as Thomas is careful with his shot selection, the Buckeyes will ride their momentum into April.