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NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

Daniel Kennedy

Daniel Kennedy

Kennedy covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for RotoWire. A veteran reporter, Kennedy has covered sports for various newspapers in the Southeast.

WEST REGION PREVIEW

Arizona seems to have drawn the most favorable region among No. 1 seeds. The Wildcats not only enjoy close proximity to San Diego and Anaheim, where they would play their first four rounds of the tournament, but the bracket offers Arizona a clear path to the Final Four. Gonzaga or Oklahoma State could represent a challenge, but if it reaches the Elite Eight, Arizona's company on the top-seed lines - Wisconsin and Creighton - do not represent the daunting defensive juggernauts of other regions.

THE FAVORITES

No. 1 Arizona -
The regular-season Pac-12 champions, Arizona is 30-4 but is without one of its top players, Brandon Ashley, who tore a ligament in his right foot midseason. Freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson replaced Ashley, but the key for Arizona to make the Final Four is maintaing its stalwart defensive intensity as opponents come out gunning for an upset.

No. 2 Wisconsin -
The Badgers enter the tournament with a different look and feel than they had in the Bo Ryan days. Rather than defensive standouts and a plodding pace, the team can now match the offensive firepower of other teams around the country. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are skilled big men, and the team shoots 37.1 percent from three-point range. Kaminsky must have success on the interior for Wisconsin to make a deep run through the field.

No. 3 Creighton -
Led by player of the year candidate Doug McDermott, the Bluejays rank among the most efficient offenses in the nation. Six returning starters give Creighton valuable experience, but it is no secret that Bluejays will go as far as McDermott takes them. The question is whether they can get enough stops on defense to advance.

No. 4 San Diego State -
Perhaps one of the nation's most underappreciated guards, Xavier Thames was the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. He must score in bunches, and the defensive-minded Aztecs, which like to win ugly, will have to slow the pace to reach Anaheim.

CINDERELLA WATCH

No. 10 BYU -
In a region rife with underrated guard play, one of the best is BYU's Tyler Haws. Averaging 23.4 points per game, he might be the best player most have never heard of. Besides shooting the lights out, BYU is also quietly ranked sixth in the country in rebounds per game. The bad news for the Cougars came in the final game of the West Coast Conference tournament, when the team's leading rebounder, Kyle Collinsworth, suffered a torn ACL. If the group can rally around its fallen leader and collectively tackle the glass, it could be dancing a little while longer.

No. 11 Nebraska -
One of the last teams to make it into the field of 68, the Cornhuskers are looking for their first-ever NCAA Tournament win. With victories against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Tim Miles' squad proved it can play with anybody. The Cornhuskers do not play the style of a typical double-digit seed. They do not shoot the ball particularly well, but they have tremendous depth. With nine players averaging more than 10 minutes per game0, look for the Cornhuskers to try to wear down opponents.

BIGGEST BUST

No. 5 Oklahoma -
The Sooners could find trouble against North Dakota State. The high-octane offense is led by dynamic scorer Buddy Hield. Unfortunately for Lon Kruger's squad, it does not supplement its scoring with superb defense. The Sooners rank 81st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. This could prove especially problematic against a North Dakota State offense that ranks among the top 20 in the nation.

ROUND OF 64 UPSET

No. 12 North Dakota State vs. No. 5 Oklahoma -
In each of the last two years, the Summit League champion has given a team from a power conference a scare. This year, the league could finally break through with a talented Bison squad led by all-around playmaker Taylor Braun. Averaging 18.7 points per game, the 6-foot-7 Braun shoots 44.1 percent from three-point range. Defensively, it has its shortcomings, but North Dakota State should be able to match offensive firepower with the Sooners in a high-scoring affair.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Aaron Gordon, Forward, Arizona -
Apart from being the most athletic player in the region and a soon-to-be lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Gordon is invaluable to the Wildcats since the loss of Brandon Ashley. Gordon has the ability to score mid-range and near the rim, but he is primarily a defensive fortress. After losing depth up front, Arizona needs Gordon to come up large if the favorite is to survive the region.

SWEET 16 PICKS

No. 1 Arizona -
Gordon is the Wildcats' most important player, but junior guard Nick Johnson is the upperclassman who makes the offense hum. Look for him to light up the scoreboard as he faces little resistance from porous defenses.

No. 3 Creighton -
Doug McDermott is the nation's premier offensive playmaker in a sub-region bereft of defensive prowess. Until they run into Arizona, the Bluejays should be primed to make a deep run.

No. 4 San Diego State -
The Aztecs should make themselves right at home in familiar territory, miring their opponents in a funk with stingy defense.

No. 7 Oregon -
Joseph Young is one of many playmakers in the West Region who should make the Ducks a nightmare to stop for the defensively challenged Wisconsin Badgers.

FINAL FOUR PICK

No. 1 Arizona -
The Wildcats are set up to win regardless of the pace of play. They should see the full spectrum as they make their way through the region, with likely matchups against gritty San Diego State and either the explosive Wisconsin Badgers or Creighton Bluejays. Collectively, Arizona should have the defensive pieces to neutralize the threat of Doug McDermott and the offensive balance to get past a stifling defensive unit. The experience of Nick Johnson and athleticism of Aaron Gordon make this the region's most complete team.

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