This is part two of our four part NCAA tournament preview, you can see part one right here. In this piece we take a look at the teams playing out west. Lets get to it!
Gonzaga- Don’t let their status as a mid major fool you, Gonzaga has been a giant for a while now. They’ve been a tournament regular for the last two decades and have made it to the sweet 16 the last two season, including an elite eight appearance in 2015. Now don’t get me wrong, Gonzaga’s conference is an absolute walk in the park, and they were a #1 seed just four seasons ago only to fall in the second round. Still, most consider this Gonzaga team to be their best one yet, and I would have to agree. The main reason why, which has been well documented, is their three major out of conference wins against top 20 opponents. Iowa State. Florida. Arizona. If Duke or Kentucky or even a program like Maryland had three wins like that in their first eight games, critics would be singing their praises from the mountain tops. Gonzaga has sustained enough recent success to deserve that same praise. The Zags are 13th in scoring, 10th in scoring defense, and have a plus 23.4 point differential. No one has beaten Gonzaga outside of a fortunate BYU team at the end of regular season play. The Bulldogs got back on track in their conference tourney and ended with an exclamation point against a quality Saint Mary’s squad. Don’t expect Gonzaga to be going home anytime soon.
Arizona- Maybe the hottest team in the country right now. They’ve lost only four games all season, all to teams that are a #4 seed or lower in the NCAA tournament, which gives them the strongest resume of losses in the country. But at the end of the day its about the games you win, and despite winning 27 total games and 16 out of 18 in the PAC 12, it seemed as if Arizona played the entire season in the shadows of UCLA and Oregon. That changed in dramatic fashion last week, as Arizona beat both the Bruins and the Ducks on back to back nights to capture the PAC 12 conference tournament title. What impressed the nation most during those two wins was the play of 7’0 Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen who averages over 15 points and seven boards a game while shooting just under 50 percent including 43 percent from deep. Much like Gonzaga, Arizona is a serious force to be reckoned with.
Everyone is Talking About…
Notre Dame- The #5 seed seems a tad low for the Irish considering their strong 12-6 conference record in a loaded ACC, including seven total wins against NCAA tournament foes and a trip to the conference title game. The Irish seem to always fly under the radar, but their back to back elite eight trips might have forced teams to finally take notice. However, just because opponents have taken notice of ND doesn’t mean the Irish will go down any easier. They have four different players that average over 13ppg and they can score from inside and out. All conference power forward Bonzie Colson has led the Irish all year, averaging 17.5ppg and over 10 rebounds a contest. At only 6’5, he plays like he’s 6’9 and has wowed opposing players, coaches, and fans game in and game out. The biggest obstacle the Irish face, especially if they get to the sweet 16 and face Gonzaga, is they seldom play anyone over 6’8. Mike Brey has found ways to play around their lack of size all season, and Irish fans should be hopeful that he can continue to work small ball magic in the tournament.
Don’t be Fooled by…
Maryland- The Terrapins came out of the gates with an impressive 20-2 start and were the early favorites to win the Big Ten title. A deeper look at the numbers show that their hot start was just a smokescreen. Only two of their first 20 wins were against the RPI top 50 opponents, both came at home and neither team spent any time this season in the top 25. The Terps then unsurprisingly lost six of their last 10 and are limping into March. Outside of all-conference point guard Melo Trimble, Maryland doesn’t have another playmaker. A major theme in this tournament is the emergence of several talented underclassmen, but Maryland’s three freshman starters leave much to be desired. Guard Anthony Cowan provides Trimble some relief as a ball handler, Kevin Huerter helps spread the floor as a shooter, and Justin Jackson provides some inside out flexibility at the four. But none of the three, nor senior starting center Damonte Dodd, provide enough support on the offensive end to make them a serious threat. Melo Trimble might have enough heroics left in him for one more win before he presumably bolts for the draft, but Maryland’s ceiling is probably the second round.
If the Slipper Fits….
Xavier- Maryland’s first round opponent has limped into the tournament very much in the same fashion as Maryland has, with one huge exception. Their starting point guard Edmond Summer returned from injury in the conference tournament and helped the Musketeers win a huge game against Butler, arguably their best win of the season. Unlike Maryland, Xavier has multiple scoring options as all three of their starting guards average over 14 ppg. Xavier was a promising team before Summer got hurt, and there is reason to be optimistic that they can catch lightning in a bottle this weekend with Summer back in the lineup.
Five Players to Watch
SO SG Alonzo Trier, Arizona- Trier was suspended for the first 19 games of the season for a controversial failed drug test. In fifteen games this season he has led the Wildcats with 17.3 ppg while shooting over 41 percent from three. The presence of Trier in the lineup has many people believing the Wildcats can win the title
JR PG Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga- The Bulldogs’ leading scorer and assist man is also their most suffocating perimeter defender. Considering the vast amount of talented guards in this tournament, Williams-Goss is vital to Gonzaga’s chances of winning the title.
SO G/F Dwayne Bacon, Florida State- The leading scorer for the regional’s #3 see
d has all of the physical tools to excel at the next level, and he’s shown enough glimpses of that raw talent to help lead the Seminoles to an impressive 25 win season. However, he has yet to mesh all of his talents together to the point where the nation is convinced that Florida State is a real contender.
FR PF/C Jonathan Isaac, Florida State – See above.
SR SG Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame- Yes, he’s only been playing for four years. I couldn’t believe it either. The decorated senior will be responsible for leading the Fighting Irish’s three point attack, which needs to be successful in order to make up for his team’s lack of size.
I have been praising Notre Dame quite a bit, so it should come as no surprise that I believe they will come out and handle both Princeton and (presumably) West Virginia. The most potentially intriguing game in the regional could be Notre Dame and Gonzaga. Even though ND has gotten to the elite eight the last two years by beating teams they shouldn’t have, I have trouble believing that their most prolific player Bonzie Colson will be able to dominate the paint the way he normally does against the 7’3 Przemek Karnowski. On the bottom half of the bracket, I don’t think there is a lower seed with enough fire power to win two games, including Xavier. That would pin FSU against Arizona in the sweet 16. The duo of Bacon and Isaac likely isn’t enough to top the balanced and dangerous WIldcats, advantage Arizona.
Just like the east regional, I believe the top two seeds in the regional will face off against each other in the regional final. Even though Gonzaga beat Arizona on a neutral floor this season, that was without Alonzo Trier. With Trier being reinstated and Markkanen looking like an unstoppable force in the PAC 12 tournament, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating Arizona right now. Expect Arizona to match up against Villanova in the final four.