The West region has a little bit of everything: offense (Oregon), defense (Wisconsin), a 7’5” giant (New Mexico State), a team trying to overcome the loss of an injured player (BYU), and the national player of the year (Creighton). Oh, you thought I forgot about a 30-win Arizona team? Think again. It all starts Thursday afternoon, so here is a breakdown of each of the eight match ups.
(2) Wisconsin (26-7) vs. (15) American (20-12)
Thursday, March 20, 12:40PM, Milwaukee, WI; truTV.
Background: Defense, defense, defense: neither team is allowing their opponents to score more than 65 PPG on average this year. Wisconsin’s lucky number is 16: they started this season 16-0, and will finish it by making their 16th straight appearance in the tourney. American is 0-2 in 2 tourney trips all-time and went 10-20 last year, so they deserve a ton of credit just to have made it.
Difference Maker: The home-court advantage: you think the Badgers are losing a game in Milwaukee as a #2 seed?!
Wisconsin wins if: they realize they are 2-0 against #1-seeds in the tourney (Florida/Virginia) but stay focused on the #15-seed that is the first step in their journey.
American wins if: the Badgers eat some under-cooked brats at the pre-game meal, since they are 13-0 in non-conference play and will be a heavy favorite.
Prediction: Wisconsin by a lot
(7) Oregon (23-9) vs. (10) BYU (23-11) Thursday, March 20, 3:10PM, Milwaukee, WI; truTV.
Background: Offense, offense, offense: each team averaged more than 80 PPG this season. BYU survived the bubble due to some nice non-conference wins including a 112-103 victory over Stanford (who happened to beat Oregon by 2 PTS in their only Pac-12 meeting on January 12). Oregon’s rollercoaster of a season saw them start 13-0, then lose 8 of 10, then win their next 8 before getting hammered by UCLA in the Pac-12 tourney.
Difference Maker: BYU SG Kyle Collinsworth, or more accurately the absence of Kyle Collinsworth: he had 15 PTS/5 REB/8 AST in the 1st meeting between these 2 teams this season, but will miss the rematch due to an ACL tear he suffered last week in the WCC tourney.
Oregon wins if: Jason Calliste can repeat his December 21st performance when he scored 31 PTS in a 100-96 OT win over the Cougars in Eugene.
BYU wins if: WCC POY Tyler Haws (23.4 PPG) channels his inner Jimmer Fredette and scores 40+ PTS.
Prediction: Oregon, but it will be tight if Haws gets a lot of good looks.
(5) Oklahoma (23-9) vs. (12) North Dakota State (25-6) Thursday, March 20, 7:27PM, Spokane, WA; truTV.
Background: There is always a #12-seed that upsets a #5-seed…but this is not the 1. The Bison have Summit League POY Taylor Braun and the best FG shooter in the country in Marshall Bjorklund, but despite all that firepower they did not beat a single team all year in the RPI top-60. The Sooners got swept by Kansas and lost by double-digits to Michigan State in November, but they swept Oklahoma State & Texas, beat Baylor twice, and split their season series with Iowa State.
Difference Maker: Coach Lon Kruger. North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips learned his craft from 2 of the best in Bo Ryan/Greg McDermott, but Kruger is the 1st coach to ever take 5 different teams to the tourney and holds a 14-0 edge over Phillips in NCAA tourney victories.
Oklahoma wins if: they can defend the three point line, since the Bison have four different players who are averaging at least 1 bucket/game from behind the arc.
North Dakota State wins if: the Sooners get stage fright like they did last March when they only scored 55 points in a double-digit loss to #7-seed San Diego State.
Prediction: Oklahoma, and if the Sooners get out to a big lead then it should turn into a rout.
(4) San Diego State (29-4) vs. (13) New Mexico State (26-9) Thursday, March 20, 9:57PM, Spokane, WA; truTV.
Background: Considering these teams are from different states and different conferences, it is fascinating that they have played 3 common opponents this season (2 of whom also made the tourney). Both have faced Arizona, Colorado State, and New Mexico: the Aztecs went 3-3 in 6 games against that trio, while the Aggies were 1-3 with its lone win coming at in-state rival New Mexico back in December.
Difference Maker: San Diego State PF Josh Davis. He is on his 3rd college after starting at NC State before transferring to Tulane. He has over 1000 REB in his career but this is his very 1st NCAA tourney game, so I think he will grab at least 10 boards against 7’5”C Sim Bhullar because he has been waiting for this game his entire life.
San Diego State wins if: their defense that only gives up 57 PPG imposes its will on an opponent whose scoring average is more than 77 PPG.
New Mexico State wins if: Coach Marvin Menzies learned quite a few tricks from Steve Fisher when he spent 4 year as his assistant with the Aztecs from 1999-2003.
Prediction: San Diego State by double-digits as the teacher schools the student
(6) Baylor (24-11) vs. (11) Nebraska (19-12) Friday, March 21, 12:40PM, San Antonio, TX; truTV.
Background: Baylor has the calendar on its side: it made the Elite 8 in 2010 and 2012, so it has been waiting 2 long years for 2014 to finally arrive. Nebraska has impressive wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin during the past several weeks, but is 0-6 all-time in the tourney.
Difference Maker: Nebraska SF Terran Petteway. The Texas Tech transfer went scoreless in 2 starts against the Bears back in 2012 but averaged almost 25 PPG in wins over the Spartans/Badgers this year, so if he is playing with revenge on his mind from his Big 12 days then perhaps he can lead his team to the upset.
Baylor wins if: they can dominate the boards against a Nebraska team whose leading rebounder is their starting SG.
Nebraska wins if: Petteway can get some scoring help from Shavon Shields/Ray Gallegos against a Baylor team that averages over 75 PPG.
Prediction: Baylor, with the help of plenty of fans making the drive from Waco
(1) Arizona (30-4) vs. (16) Weber State (19-11) Friday, March 21, 2:10PM, San Diego, CA; TNT.
Background: Arizona played 30 games against the RPI top-185 and went 26-4. Weber State played 30 games against the RPI top-185 and went 1-6. UofA has over 40,000 students and nearly 10% of them come from California (including 8 players on their current roster), so expect the stands to be full of red and blue.
Difference Maker: Arizona PF Aaron Gordon. Weber State’s twin towers of Joel Bolomboy/Kyle Tresnak might be able to neutralize Arizona C Kaleb Tarczewski, but they do not have anyone who can match up with the 6’9” freshman sensation.
Arizona wins if: their bus does not break down on the way to the arena because #16 seeds simply do not win in the tourney.
Weber State wins if: the scorekeeper sees that the winner is nicknamed the “Wildcats” and mistakenly picks the wrong 1, or if they just play Hack-A-Gordon (43.5 FT%).
Prediction: Arizona in a blowout
(3) Creighton (26-7) vs. (14) Louisiana-Lafayette (22-11) Friday, March 21, 3:10PM, San Antonio, TX; truTV.
Background: You all know about the McDermotts: son Doug (whose 3105 career PTS are #5 in college basketball history) and father Greg (who is making his 3rd straight tourney appearance with Creighton after 3 in a row with Northern Iowa from 2004-2006). Allow me to introduce you to the Ragin’ Cajuns own dynamic duo of Elfrid Payton (the 1st player this century to have consecutive seasons with 15+ PPG/5+ RPG/5+ APG/2+ SPG) and Shawn Long (the 1st sophomore this century to begin his career with consecutive seasons of 15+ PPG/10+ RPG/2+ BPG). Creighton will have the best player on the court, but Louisiana-Lafayette might have the 2 best guys after that.
Difference Maker: Ironically, anyone on Creighton NOT named McDermott. You know that Doug is going to get his, but 1-man scoring shows have a tendency of flaming out early in the tourney.
Creighton wins if: they can slow down either Payton or Long, because if both of them go off then this game is theirs for the taking.
Louisiana-Lafayette wins if: Creighton’s 3-PT shooting display is a repeat of its Big East tourney loss to Providence (3-18 by everyone not named McDermott) rather than its usual fantastic form (#1 in the nation at 42.1 3P%).
Prediction: Creighton, but not by much if they go cold from behind the arc
(8) Gonzaga (28-6) vs. (9) Oklahoma State (21-12) Friday, March 21, 4:40PM, San Diego, CA; TNT.
Background: Gonzaga has lost 4 years in a row in the round of 32…which means they have won 4 years in a row in the round of 64. Oklahoma State looked dead in the Stillwater after losing 7 straight through mid-February (including a triple-OT heartbreaker at home to Iowa State), but have gotten back on their horse to claim an at-large berth thanks in large part to a 7-PT win over Kansas on March 1.
Difference Maker: Gonzaga C Sam Dower. He went scoreless in last year’s shocking 3rd round loss to Wichita State, but now that fellow big men Elias Harris/Kelly Olynyk have moved on, he must control the paint and keep Marcus Smart and Markel Brown from dunking all over the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga will win if: they can just get to overtime, as the Cowboys have gone 0-4 in OT in the past 7 weeks.
Oklahoma State will win if: they can find someone tall who can hit the boards (their 4 leading rebounders are 6’8”, 6’7”, 6’4”, and 6’3”), as they are in the bottom-25 in the nation when it comes to rebounding.
Prediction: Gonzaga, unless Smart decides to dominate both ends of the court