The West region still has a little bit of everything: offense (Oregon), defense (Wisconsin), and the national player of the year (Creighton). Oh, you thought I forgot about a 31-win Arizona team? Think again. It starts back up tonight, so here is a breakdown of the 4 remaining matchups:
(12) North Dakota State (26-6) vs. (4) San Diego State (30-4)
Saturday, March 22, 6:10PM, Spokane, WA; TNT.
Background: There is always a #12-seed that upsets a #5-seed…and the Bison were one of three to pull off the feat earlier this week. The hero for North Dakota State was Lawrence Alexander, who scored a career-high 28 points in a five point OT win over Oklahoma. San Diego State had OT concerns of their own, but escaped with a 4-PT win over New Mexico State in the extra period. Xavier Thames showed why he was named Mountain West POY by scoring 23 points against a pesky #13 seed.
Difference Maker: San Diego State forward Josh Davis. He was my difference maker on Thursday and responded with 10 points/14 rebounds against New Mexico State and 7’5” Sim Bhullar, so I like his chances of repeating the feat against North Dakota State and 6’8” forward Marshall Bjorklund.
North Dakota State wins if: they shoot 53% from the field and 91% from the line like they did on Thursday.
San Diego State wins if: their defense that only gives up 57 points per game imposes its will on an opponent whose 51 FG% is number one in the nation.
Prediction: San Diego State by double-digits because their defense is championship-caliber
(7) Oregon (24-9) vs. (2) Wisconsin (27-7)
Saturday, March 22, 7:45PM, Milwaukee, WI; CBS.
Background: Another game matching offense vs. defense. Oregon scores 82 points per game, which is 8th best in the country. Wisconsin allows 64 PPG, which is top-40 in the country. I wish this game had taken place on January 4th when the Ducks were 13-0 and the Badgers were 14-0! Both teams have struggled a bit during the past 2 months, but they are each obviously capable of ripping off several wins in a row.
Difference Maker: It remains the home-court advantage: you think the Badgers are losing a game in Milwaukee as a #2 seed who just won a game by 40 PTS?!
Oregon wins if: they can somehow shoot 50% from the field like they did in a 19-PT win over BYU on Thursday.
Wisconsin wins if: they continue to get balanced scoring from their backcourt of Traevon Jackson/Ben Brust just in case Frank Kaminsky has another cold shooting night (3-9 FG vs American).
Prediction: Wisconsin by double-digits because defense wins championships
(6) Baylor (25-11) vs. (3) Creighton (27-7) Sunday, March 23, 7:45PM, San Antonio, TX; truTV.
Background: Baylor made the Elite 8 in 2010 and 2012, so they hope to keep sticking to the script in 2014. The Bears have won 11 of 13 and beat Nebraska by 14 PTS despite only making 2 shots from 3-PT land. Doug McDermott scored 30 PTS in the 2nd round but might need a herculean effort to reach the Sweet 16 for the 1st time since before I was born.
Difference Maker: Baylor PF Cory Jefferson. The big man had 16 PTS on 6-12 FG against the Huskers and has 3 other teammates who averaged more than 5 RPG this year, but McDermott was the only Bluejay to average more than 4 RPG this season.
Baylor wins if: they can continue to get powerful production from their bench (reserves Gary Franklin/Rico Gathers/Taurean Prince combined for 22 PTS/11 REB/3 STL on Thursday).
Creighton wins if: they can continue to make a ton of threes (their 351 this year is tops in the country), because they are going to get beat up if they get into the paint.
Prediction: Baylor will have the home-court advantage while playing in Waco, even if nobody wants McDermott’s college career to come to a close
(1) Arizona (31-4) vs. (8) Gonzaga (29-6) Sunday, March 23, 9:40PM, San Diego, CA; TBS.
Background: Gonzaga beat exactly one team in the regular season who was in the RPI top-60 (BYU, twice); Arizona beat eight teams in the regular season who were in the RPI top-60. Coach Mark Few has made the Sweet 16 once since 2006 and lost in the round of 32 in each of the past four years; Coach Sean Miller has made it four times since 2008. When these two teams met in the round of 32 in the West region back in 2003 the result was a 96-95 2-OT classic, so if this 1oneis even half as thrilling then we are in for quite a treat.
Difference Maker: The free throw line. Kevin Pangos made 12-14 free throws on Friday while the rest of his team went 14-27. The entire Wildcat team combined to make 9-16 FTs in a nine point win over Weber State. Both teams will make plenty of trips to the charity stripe, but 1 of them is going to lose the game at the line.
Arizona wins if: their stifling defense continues to block 12 shots/game while forcing their opponents to shoot 30% from the field as they did yesterday afternoon.
Gonzaga will win if: they can stay hot from behind the arc (7-14 3PM vs. Oklahoma State).
Prediction: Arizona by single-digits, but if they are nailing all their free throws then it could turn into a romp.