Some observers still question whether the strength of the West Coast Conference hurts Gonzaga once the NCAA tournament begins. First, the WCC is stronger than people think — especially this season with three bids — but more importantly, Gonzaga is 20-6 in the past six NCAA tournaments combined with two appearances in the national title game and two more in the Elite Eight.
The Bulldogs haven’t won a national championship … yet. (For the record, the Big Ten, which the committee has a love affair with every March, last won a national championship in 2000.)
Gonzaga should be the favorite to win the West for a few reasons. He has the experience of senior Drew Timme and the remarkable talent of 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren. He has five players averaging in double figures, he plays defense, and he has a future Hall of Fame coach in Mark Few.
It also has a pretty good draw. The second seed is Duke. Mike Krzyzewski has taken 12 teams to the Final Four but never out of the West. More important, his players have failed twice in high-pressure games: his farewell at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the ACC tournament final Saturday. How do you think this group will deal with knowing that its next loss will be Krzyzewski’s last?
There are other dangerous teams in this bracket, notably Connecticut (revived since it returned to the Big East) and Arkansas (solid all season in the ultracompetitive SEC). The committee did the Razorbacks no favors by matching them in the first round with Vermont, which should have been no worse than a No. 11 seed but is a No. 13 because, well, evidently the committee doesn’t watch a lot of America Eastern basketball.
Davidson can beat Michigan State in the first round because the Wildcats can shoot and because the Big Ten is overrated. That could be the best-coached game of the first round: Tom Izzo is in the Hall of Fame; Bob McKillop should be, too. A second-round game between Arkansas and Connecticut could be wildly entertaining, and the winner could be a tough out for Gonzaga. If Duke beats the Michigan State-Davidson winner, it could struggle with Texas Tech or Alabama.
Regardless of who shows up in the region final, Gonzaga should advance to New Orleans. Sentiment might say that Krzyzewski should get one last Final Four before he hangs up his clipboard. Duke beat Gonzaga in November, but that was a long time ago. The Bulldogs should make it from Spokane to Bourbon Street.
Baylor is the most vulnerable top seed in the tournament, and some, like me, think the Bears deserved a No. 2 seed and Tennessee a No. 1. But the committee doesn’t make changes Sunday, so the Volunteers winning the SEC tournament didn’t even move them up from being a No. 3.
That said, Coach Scott Drew deserves great credit for keeping Baylor so strong this season after dealing with injuries and important departures from last year’s national championship team. The Bears better be ready for Norfolk State, which is as good a champion as the MEAC has produced in several years.
They should win, though, and face a tough second-round game against North Carolina or Marquette. The Tar Heels are this season’s Jekyll-Hyde team. When good, they can beat anyone. When bad, they’re truly bad. Either Carolina or Marquette could give Baylor a tough evening.
The coach smiling the most Sunday had to be Kentucky’s John Calipari, whose Wildcats got a No. 2 seed despite losing to Tennessee for a second straight time in the SEC semifinals and got sent to the region with the weakest No. 1 seed. The Wildcats could face a difficult second-round game with Murray State, which is 30-2 and went undefeated in a solid Ohio Valley Conference.
UCLA will get a lot of attention because of its remarkable run last season from the First Four to almost beating Gonzaga in the Final Four. But No. 3 seed Purdue should not be overlooked despite Sunday’s loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament championship game. Matt Painter is a vastly underrated coach because, like his mentor Gene Keady, he has never made the Final Four. It should happen sometime, somewhere.
The real sleeper might be Virginia Tech, the ACC tournament champion. The Hokies are white-hot right now and should beat Texas and would be a tough out for Purdue in the second round.
The committee always throws at least one bouquet to a non-Power Five team, and the beneficiary this season was Wyoming, which gets to play Indiana in Dayton.
Something tells me chalk won’t fly in this region. Heck, Akron could beat UCLA in the first round. Never sleep on the Zips.
There’s no one hotter than Kansas entering the tournament, and the Jayhawks earned their No. 1 seed.
But their road to New Orleans won’t be easy. Auburn, the No. 2 seed here, clearly has the talent to beat anyone, and playing No. 3 seed Wisconsin is always like 40 minutes of a root canal. What’s more, two of the three most underseeded team in the field (joining Tennessee) are in this region: No. 4 seed Providence and No. 5 Iowa.
Providence looked terrible in a Big East semifinal loss to Creighton, but anyone who really watched Ed Cooley’s Friars this season has to think they deserved a No. 3 seed. Iowa won the Big Ten tournament, but evidently the committee had finished the bracket long before that happened. The case can be made that the Hawkeyes also deserved a No. 3 seed.
Wisconsin will not have an easy first-round game against Colgate, which can shoot and is making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance. Heck, South Dakota State is capable of beating Providence. Expect plenty of upsets along the way here. Miami and USC should be one of the best first-round games, and the winner will give Auburn trouble.
There is also the LSU sideshow. After waiting three years for the NCAA to officially announce that some rules might have been broken under coach Will Wade, the school decided to fire him Saturday. That means Kevin Nickelberry will coach the team against Iowa State on Thursday. Nickelberry has been a head coach at Hampton and Howard. He will handle the situation as well as it can be handled.
A Kansas-Iowa Sweet 16 game would be a shooting gallery, but the hottest team right now is Kansas. The team most likely to show up in the region final from the bottom of the bracket might be Wisconsin, although Auburn’s Bruce Pearl certainly has proved he can coach in March. Kansas has been to three Final Fours under Bill Self. A fourth would not shock anyone.
There was no doubt that Arizona deserved to be the second overall seed in the tournament and the top seed in the South. The Wildcats were 31-3 and won the Pac-12 regular season and tournament under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd.
Clearly, Lloyd learned a lot in 22 years as an assistant under Mark Few at Gonzaga. Arizona faded during Sean Miller’s final three seasons, finishing 17-9 a year ago after declaring itself ineligible for the postseason amid yet another NCAA investigation. Lloyd turned things around quickly.
Villanova, the region’s No. 2 seed, doesn’t need any turning around. Jay Wright’s team won national championships in 2016 and 2018 and was the only team in last year’s tournament to scare Baylor, losing to the Bears in the round of 16. The Wildcats are experienced and have a knack for winning close games.
The team that least belongs in the field is Michigan, regardless of whether the Wolverines beat Colorado State in the first round. CBS’s Clark Kellogg kept repeating “strength of nonconference schedule” as the reason Michigan made the field. Michigan beat one team in the field in nonconference play: San Diego State. It lost to North Carolina by 21. But the committee loves the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, Dayton, which beat Kansas in nonconference play, got knocked out of the field because Richmond won the Atlantic-10 tournament, and VCU had no luck because the Big Ten gets TV ratings.
Tennessee easily could come out of this region. It opens against the best story in the tournament — Longwood — and then plays Michigan or Colorado State. Also worth watching early is Loyola Chicago. (Remember Sister Jean? She’s 102 and still a terrific story.) The Ramblers are coached by Drew Valentine, 30, who played in the Final Four for Michigan State just seven years ago. They get Ohio State in the first round.
If Villanova and Tennessee get to the second weekend, that might be the best game of the Sweet 16. Houston also should be watched. This could be a fun region from start to finish.