WEST REGION PREVIEW
For the first time in school history, Gonzaga will play the role of favorite as the No. 1 seed in the West Region. Despite being considered the weakest of the four teams on the top seed line, the Bulldogs face a surprisingly thin field of competition. A pair of Big Ten schools that squared off in their conference championship game represent potential pitfalls for Mark Few's squad, as Ohio State and Wisconsin will take their well-disciplined approaches to the left coast. Besides the coaching prowess of Thad Matta and Bo Ryan, the segment of the bracket also features New Mexico, champion of the Mountain West Conference. Despite its lack of blue bloods, the West is deeper than it would seem at first glance.
No. 1 Gonzaga- Led by junior center Kelly Olynyk and a host of talented shooters, the Bulldogs are one of college basketball's most prolific offensive units. A starting backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell opens the floor for Olynyk and Elias Harris, which creates nightmarish mismatches for opposing defenses. Despite the perceived flaw that recent Gonzaga teams were plagued by underachieving defenses, that chief misgiving is not nearly as evident of this year's unit. The multi-dimensional nature of Few's team, coupled with its experience and depth, gives the veteran coach his best chance yet of advancing to a Final Four.
No. 2 Ohio State - A late-season surge has the Buckeyes in an enviable position. One of the nation's top defenses, Ohio State allows just 58.7 points per game this season without relying on turning teams over. Point guard Aaron Craft is a premier perimeter defender, and DeShaun Thomas is among the country's leading scorers. As a team, however, the Buckeyes have exhibited extreme difficulty putting points on the board. If players such as LaQuinton Ross provide valuable minutes off the bench and continue to chip in offensively, as they did throughout Big Ten tournament play, Ohio State can make it to Atlanta.
No. 3 New Mexico - The Lobos feature a solid one-two punch on the wings with Kendall Williams and Tony Snell. Both are long defenders with a knack for making the right play on offense. Neither are elite jump shooters, nor are their teammates. Instead, Steve Alford's group relies on a fundamentally sound defense that demonstrates a superb level of focus for the details. Winners of nine of their last 10, the Lobos seem to be trending upward at the right time. With 7-footer Alex Kirk protecting the paint, New Mexico is excellent at preventing teams from scoring up close, but is vulnerable from outside the 3-point line. To make a deep run, the Lobos need to face teams who do not thrive beyond the arc.
No. 4 Kansas State - The Wildcats are led by a group of upperclassmen, many of whom participated in Kansas State's last tournament appearance. Rodney McGruder is the team's leading scorer and embodies a certain toughness that belies the entire team. Bruce Weber's team can stifle opponents for long stretches, but is also prone to scoreless droughts. Angel Rodriguez is the only other Wildcat to average double figures this year, as Kansas State lacks potent offensive pieces. Without fluid scoring, the team must control pace and keep the score in the 60s to avoid an early exit. In 2011, the Wildcats were bounced by Wisconsin in the Round of 32. The same clash of similar styles looms in a potential 4-5 matchup.
No. 11 Belmont - Ian Clark, the Bruins' leading scorer with 18.1 points per game this season, is one of the best shooters in the tournament. He leads a veteran squad that is making its third straight tournament appearance and boasts three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup. Belmont lacks the size to contend with quality frontcourt play but has the offensive firepower to take down Arizona in the Round of 64. If the Wildcats take their first opponent lightly, the Bruins could be vying for a spot in the Sweet 16.
No. 12 Mississippi - One of the most underseeded teams in the field, the Rebels knocked off Florida on Sunday to capture the SEC tournament Championship. Their reward? A date with Bo Ryan's Badger squad. For Andy Kennedy's team to pull off the improbable upset, it must prove it can grind it out at Wisconsin's pace. A senior-laden squad, Ole Miss is led by decorated scorer Marshall Henderson, who is averaging nearly 20 points per game this season. As is the case with most teams with such a weapon, the Rebels at times become too dependent on Henderson for their points. To duplicate the success it found in the SEC Tournament, the team needs input from members of a talented frontcourt as it finds a way to adjust to the Big Ten style of play.
No. 6 Arizona - Sean Miller is one of the more successful coaches in recent NCAA Tourament history. He led Xavier to multiple Elite Eight appearances before taking a Derrick Williams-led squad to the ranks of the elite. In looking at this year's squad, however, Miller's group lacks the starpower of Williams and the defensive tenacity of his Xavier teams. The Wildcats, which have lost five of their last 10, simply do not defend the 3-point line. This is especially problematic, because up first for Arizona is an incredibly efficient offense that lives and dies by the three. If the shots are falling for the Bruins, this team could be in trouble.
No. 11 Belmont vs. No. 6 Arizona - As is the case with so many underdogs this time of year, Belmont will rely on the long-distance jump shot as a means of toppling a favored team. This bodes well on two fronts for the Bruins, who rank in the top five nationally in field-goal percentage. First, the Wildcats are not adept at guarding dynamic perimeter opponents. Additionally, an undersized Belmont team can avoid the strength of Arizona's team simply by making shots. If the Bruins can stay out of the paint, neutralizing the trees inside for the Wildcats, they stand an excellent chance of pulling off the upset.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Kelly Olynyk, Center, Gonzaga - The Bulldogs' big man can do it all. Olynyk, who averages 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, has put his stamp on a season largely bereft of dominant play from elite big men. He possesses a complete skill set, including a face-up game that puts him on a short list of the most daunting individual matchups in the Tournament. With each round that passes, he likely will be forced to defend a wide range of froncourt players. Pittsburgh's Steven Adams, a throwback bruiser, is a challenging possibility in the next round, while rangy Badger Jared Berggren awaits in a possible Sweet 16 matchup. Finally, an anticipated battle with Ohio State's DeShaun Thomas in the regional final would be the last in a series of difficult assignments for Olynyk, who will have every chance to prove his versatility in this region.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Gonzaga- A number of teams represent interesting challenges for the West's top seed, but the Bulldogs should make it through the first two rounds unscathed by virtue of their inside-out attack.
No. 2 Ohio State - A year after leading his team to the Final Four as a No. 2 seed, Craft will have the opportunity to do so again with some very favorable draws for a team gelling at the right time.
No. 3 New Mexico - The winner of the Arizona-Belmont tilt likely will push the Lobos to their limit, but New Mexico will likely escape to face the Buckeyes.
No. 5 Wisconsin - The Badgers could find themselves looking in the mirror in their second game if Kansas State advances. Ryan's group defeated a more skilled version of this Wildcats team two years ago; look for them to do it again.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 2 Ohio State - Coming off its Big Ten tournament title, this group takes on the personality of not only its coach, but is an extension of Matta on the floor. Craft demands the respect of his teammates with his style of play. Throughout the last two months of the season, the Buckeyes rounded into form and are playing their best basketball of the season. The scoring prowess of Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the emergence of Ross and veteran leadership of Evan Ravenel are just some of the things that make this group special. Despite losing Jared Sullinger from last year's team, Matta's defensive principles carry the day and Ohio State cuts down the nets again and heads to Atlanta.