Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 NCAA Tournament West Region Preview

The NCAA Tournament officially tips off on Tuesday night with the Play-in games (because, get real, calling them the "First Round" or the "First Four" is ridiculous) in Dayton. Here is a look at the West Region.

1. Arizona vs 16. Weber St
San Diego, 2:10pm Friday (TNT)

This year marked the return of the Pac-12 to national prominence. Regardless of what you think about Arizona and UCLA, it's good for basketball when there are talented teams on both coasts. Arizona spent time as the #1 team in the nation this year but have struggled to adapt to life without forward Brandon Ashley. Before Ashley's injury against Cal, the Wildcats were 21-0. They lost to Cal in the game Ashley went down and finished 9-3 in their last 12 games. Arizona has the best point guard in the country in TJ McConnell (5.5 APG) and is loaded with talented players in Nick Johnson (16.2 PPG), freshman sensation Aaron Gordon (12.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG) and Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG). Arizona is in the top 5 in the nation in defense and even without Ashley is perfectly capable of winning the West and earning their 5th trip to the Final Four. Weber St won the Big Sky Tournament and features a dynamic scorer in Davion Berry (19.1 PPG, 4.0 APG). It will be interesting to see how center Joel Bolomboy (8.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG) battles against Arizona's big men on the inside. The only way Weber St keeps this close is if Berry gets hot and their big men dominate the inside, but there is very little chance of the Wildcats pulling the upset. Yes, both teams are the Wildcats. The Mascot Bracket addressed this.

8. Gonzaga vs 9. Oklahoma St
San Diego, 4:40pm Friday (TNT)

Gonzaga once again did what they always do - won the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament title. They didn't rack up the stellar out-of-conference resume that we typically see out of the Zags, and were all around a middle-of-the-pack team. Sam Dower led the Bulldogs with 15 PPG and 7.1 RPG and teamed up with Przemek Karnowski (10.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG) for one of the better frontcourt duos in the nation. Kevin Pangos is still around and running the show at point guard and Gonzaga has gotten quality contributions from Gary Bell, Jr and David Stockton this year. The Zags got an incredibly difficult draw in Oklahoma State, a team that was once ranked in the top 5 in the nation. The Cowboys lost only once in the first two months of the season and looked to be a contender in the Big XII after losing by just 2 at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. However, the wheels came off the wagon when star guard Marcus Smart was suspended for an altercation with a Texas Tech fan and the Cowboys suffered a 7-game losing streak that had their tournament hopes almost sunk. They rebounded when Smart (17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG) returned to the lineup and won 5 of their last 7 with their only 2 losses coming in overtime (Iowa St and Kansas).The Cowboys are a dangerous offensive team Smart, Markel Brown (17.1 PPG) Le'Bryan Nash (14.2 PPG) and Phil Forte III (13.3 PPG). The Cowboys should be able to handle the Zags and could present a challenge for Arizona in the Round of 32.

5. Oklahoma vs 12. North Dakota St
Spokane, 7:27pm Thursday (truTV)

If there is a matchup in this tournament you probably know nothing about, it's this one. This may come as a surprise, but Oklahoma actually finished 2nd in the Big XII in the regular season. The Sooners were knocked out of the Big XII Tournament early by Baylor, but they boast a dangerous offense that ranks 7th in the nation in scoring at over 82 points per game. Oklahoma will go 8 deep on their bench and have 4 players that score in double figures, led by Buddy Hield (16.8 PPG) and Cameron Clark (15.3 PPG). The Sooners are one of the better free throw shooting teams in the tournament at 75% (19th in the nation). On the other side, North Dakota St is the best shooting team in the country at nearly 51% from the field. The Bison rank in the top 50 in the nation with 76.4 points per game and have only lost once since January 10th. Much like Oklahoma, the Bison will go deep onto their bench and have 4 players that average in double figures, led by Taylor Braun's 18.2 PPG and Marshall Bjorklund's 13.4 PPG. This one could turn into an offensive shootout, and in a game like that you have to like Braun's dangerous 44.1% accuracy from behind the arc to give the Bison a shot at pulling the upset.

4. San Diego St vs 13. New Mexico St
Spokane, 9:57pm Thursday (truTV)

This game is an absolute contrast of styles between San Diego State's undersized but athletic lineup and New Mexico State's plodding giant. San Diego State is a fast team with length on the perimeter, led by Xavier Thames (16.8 PPG) and Winston Shepard (12.1 PPG). However, the Aztecs have just 2 players over 6'8" and will have to find a way to defend against Sim Bhullar, who is basically the Giant from The Princess Bride.  Both Sim (7'5" 355) and his smaller brother Tanveer (7'3" 335) are both on the roster, but Tanveer is redshirting this season. The Aggies are a strong offensive team, ranking in the top 40 in the nation in Points Per Game, led by Daniel Mullings (16.8 PPG). This game will be worth tuning into on Thursday night, just to get a look at Bhullar in action.

6. Baylor vs 11. Nebraska
San Antonio, 12:40pm Friday (truTV)

Baylor entered conference play with a 12-1 record and as a Top 10 team in the nation with wins over 4 NCAA Tournament teams (Colorado, UL-Lafayette, Dayton, Kentucky). The bottom fell out on the Bears and they lost 8 of their next 10 but righted the ship in mid-February and closed the season on a 7-1 run before winning 3 games in the Big XII Tournament and reaching the championship game. The biggest change was the resurrection of the Bears offense, which averaged 68.8 points per game in their first 10 conference games and 76.6 over the last 12 (including the conference tournament). Baylor is a talented, athletic team that is capable of going on a deep run in this tournament if they can get by Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are appearing in their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. Led by Texas Tech transfer Terran Petteway (18.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG), Nebraska won 11 of their last 15 games, including wins over Ohio State, at Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Huskers had an 18-point lead on Ohio State in the Big Ten quarterfinals, but blew the lead and lost to the Buckeyes. The biggest wild card for Nebraska is Petteway's foul trouble - he has fouled out 5 times and accumulated at least 4 fouls in 14 games.

3. Creighton vs 14. UL-Lafayette
San Antonio, 3:10pm Friday (truTV)

Creighton features the nation's leading scorer and the likely National Player of the Year in Doug McDermott. McDermott averages 26.9 points per game and capped off his senior season with a career high 45 points on senior night. However, Creighton (which averages nearly 80 points per game) ran into a brick wall against Providence in the Big East Championship Game, and scored only 58 points. The Blue Jays are one of the best outside shooting teams in the nation and can score points in bunches, with 5 players shooting over 39% from downtown. Louisiana-Lafayette rose from a 3rd place finish in the Sun Belt to topple #1 seed Georgia State in overtime in the Championship Game. The Rajin' Cajuns have dynamic playmakers at all levels in point guard Elfrid Payton (19.1 PPG, 6.0 APG), forward Shawn Long who averages a double-double (18.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG) and Sun Belt Tournament MVP Bryant Mbamalu (12.5 PPG). Lafayette's athleticism and length on the perimeter could give Creighton some problems. In all but one of Creighton's losses, the Blue Jays were held under 70 points. Lafayette is not a good defensive team, but they can score with anyone in the nation, averaging over 81 points per game. This has all the makings of a shootout and has a high potential for upset with Lafayette's offensive abilities.

7. Oregon vs 10. BYU
Milwaukee, 3:10pm Thursday (truTV)

Oregon was ranked in the top 10 in the nation when the calendar turned to 2014 and was riding an undefeated record into conference play, but dropped 5 straight games and 8 of their first 11 Pac-12 contests. But the Ducks managed to turn things around in February and went on an 8-game winning streak that ended with a loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament but included a Double-Overtime win at Pauley Pavilion and a win over Arizona. The Ducks are one of the best offensive teams on the west coast, led by Joseph Young (18.6 PPG) and Mike Moser (13.5 PPG, 8 RPG). Though the team got Dominic Artis back from suspension halfway through the season, they have actually played better with senior Jonathan Loyd at the point. Loyd isn't a dynamic scorer but he averages 4.7 assists per game. The committee isn't supposed to repeat matchups in the first round of the tournament, and Oregon met BYU  back in December with the Ducks emerging victorious in overtime. BYU was one of the highest scoring team in the nation this season, their 84.2 points per game was 3rd best. However, in the West Coast Conference Championship Game, they lost point guard Kyle Collinsworth to an ACL injury. Collinsworth led the team in assists and rebounds and was second in scoring, so it remains to be seen how the Cougars will adapt to life without him on the court. BYU still has Tyler Haws (23.4 PPG), one of the leading scorers in the nation, and Mike Carlino (13.7 PPG, 4.3 APG). BYU can score in bunches in transition, but it is hard to like their chances of advancing without Collinsworth on the floor.

2. Wisconsin vs 15. American
Milwaukee, 12:40pm Thursday (truTV)

Wisconsin was the talk of the nation back around New Years, having rattled off 16 straight wins to start the season and looked poised for a run at the Big Ten title with wins over ranked conference foes Iowa and Illinois. Yes, there was a time this year when Illinois was ranked. But the Badgers dropped 5 of their next 6, including road losses to Indiana and Minnesota and a bizarre home loss to Northwestern. Bo Ryan got his team back together and the Badgers won their next 8 games to get them back to a second place finish in the Big Ten. If there is some cause for concern, it is that the Badgers dropped two of their last three - the season finale to Nebraska by 9 (which was probably the win that got Nebraska into the Dance) and the Conference Tournament semi-final to Michigan State by 8. Wisconsin is a vert good outside shooting team and their top 5 scorers all shoot better than 33% from beyond the arc. Wisconsin is not a very deep team and has 4 players that average over 30 minutes per contest. There are no stellar scorers on this team, but four players average between 10 and 14 points per game. The American Eagles were the Patriot League Champions. I'm still not sure if I should feel extremely patriotic when I hear their name or if I should expect to see the team run out in designer jeans. American started their conference slate with 10 straight wins, but finished the season just 3-5. The Eagles got back on track in the conference tournament and won 3 games without scoring more than 60 points in a contest. American actually ranks 8th in the nation in points allowed, averaging just 58.6 points allowed per game. It is unlikely that American has the firepower to topple Wisconsin, but watch out for Jesse Reed, one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation (13.9 PPG, 46.8% from 3P%).

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