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Welcome to the West, which looks at the moment to be the Island of Misfit Toys in the March Madness bracket.
The top seed just lost one of its most critical pieces. The No. 2 seed is a program with no pedigree and a team with an unimpressive non-conference resume. The No. 3 seed is plenty shaky and is the shell of a team that couldn’t get it done last season. The No 4 doesn’t play any defense and is barely favored in its first round game and the No. 5 is an overrated mid-major with zero wins over top-notch BCS clubs in the last two years. And those are the best teams in this region.
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It’s difficult to make March Madness bracket predictions in the West Region because all these teams are so incredibly shaky. But I’m going to give it a shot. Here are Doc’s Sports West (Salt Lake City) Region predictions:
No 1 Seed: Syracuse (28-4 SU, 19-9 ATS)
As you may or may not know, I am a Syracuse grad and have been an Orange fan for the better part of the last 25 years. But even though this is my team I have to say that I still don’t have a great feel for them. At one point this year I finally just bought in and said that this was the best team in the country and the best Syracuse team that I have ever witnessed (better than the national title team, and I was only five years old in 1985 when they were in the Final Four). But then there is part of me that still is waiting for this team to collapse and fall on its face.
Syracuse is always better when it’s an underdog than when it’s a favorite. That’s been its M.O. in all sports for as long as I can remember. And their whole season right now rests on the leg of Arinze Onuaku, who left the Big East Tournament with an injury and has been ruled out for this weekend’s games. Syracuse has all of the pieces of a national champion, but they lack depth in the post. And if Onuaku can’t play this team is in serious trouble because the whole foundation of this team is Onuaku and Rick Jackson underneath.
What I will say about this team is that it is experienced. These guys are men. They have a host of third-, fourth- and fifth-year guys that have a ton of basketball experience. That’s invaluable right now. But losing Onuaku at this stage of the game could be a crack in the foundation that they don’t recover from.
Syracuse March Madness Prediction: If they don’t get Onuaku back it will be a shorter run than the Orange had anticipated. Their second round game will be killer, but if they can get healthy and get out of the opening weekend they will make the Final Four.
No. 2 - Kansas State (26-7 SU, 18-9 ATS)
Kansas State is an interesting team and really an X-factor in this region. On the one hand, winning in the NCAA Tournament is all about guard play and the Wildcats have one of the best in the nation with Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente getting it done. And K-State just has a nasty, physical bunch of brutes that hold down the interior.
We have seen high-seeded Big 12 teams flame out in the past. A certain Iowa State upset, losing to No. 15 Hampton not so long ago, comes to mind. Something about Kansas State’s schedule bothers me. Their best two nonconference wins were against UNLV and Xavier. Those are decent but nothing to get too excited about. We’re talking about a No. 2 seed. And with Syracuse banged up they have the inside track to the Final Four. If this team can muscle its way into the second weekend they could find themselves as the only team with power in the post AND strong guards.
Kansas State March Madness Prediction: They aren’t good enough to just step on the floor and win. But if this team gets out of the first weekend and if Syracuse doesn’t get Onuaku back then the Wildcats will have the inside track to the Final Four.
No. 3 – Pittsburgh (24-8 SU, 16-11-2 ATS)
I have to say that I’m not entirely sure what to make of the Panthers. I do think that they are a little overseeded. But then again this team has handled Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova this year so they can beat elite teams. But they also lost to Indiana and South Florida. This is a guard-oriented team, which is a divergence from powerful Pitt teams from the past. Their top four scorers are all backcourt players, with only one of them taller than 6-3. Defensively, that allows them to put a ton of pressure on their opponents. Offensively, they can get a little too reliant on jumpers. Obviously, the lack of an adequate post presence outside of blue collar Gary McGhee is a problem. But they have managed all season long. Ashton Gibbs has as sweet a stroke as anyone in the nation and is the key scorer. But I really am still not buying Pitt as a true threat. They were on the doorstep of the Final Four last year, but lost four of their five top players from that team. They won’t be better.
Pittsburgh March Madness Prediction: This is one of the hardest teams to predict. However, I feel like they are overrated and headed to another vintage Pitt meltdown.
No. 4 – Vanderbilt (24-8, SU, 16-14 ATS)
Much like the rest of the No. 4 seeds, Vanderbilt is a tough team to pin down. When I see this team play and when I look at the pieces I really like the makeup. But when I look at the results and their real resume I come away feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Jermaine Beal is a nice three-year starter and lead guard. But he isn’t the type to take over a game. A.J. Ogilvy is as skilled as any big man in the nation. But he’s a bit flaky and isn’t in great shape. John Jenkins has one of the sweetest strokes in the game and the freshman is going to be a stud. But he is young and a bit unproven. Their other pieces are the same: good, but nothing to get excited about.
The Commodores execute on offense as well as anyone in the nation. But they are soft defensively and that’s never a good thing. Their best non-conference road win was a two-pointer over St. Mary’s and that is hardly inspiring. And this is a program that has won exactly one first round NCAA Tournament game in the last five years. If they defend and someone other than Jenkins is hitting from the outside then they’ll be a tough out. If not they’ll be a flameout.
Vanderbilt March Madness Prediction: As much as I hate to say it, I think the odds are that the Commodores don’t survive the opening weekend. They just don’t get after it on defense and you need stops this time of year.
No. 5 – Butler (28-4 SU, 13-19 ATS)
I can’t decide if Butler is the Gonzaga of the Midwest or if they are the Duke of the mid-majors. The Bulldogs have gone from feel-good tournament underdog to overrated tournament staple in just four years. This is their fourth straight appearance in The Big Dance and once again they enter with high expectations.
They have an excellent coach, a nice inside-out forward combo with Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard, and a trio of guards that knock down 37 percent or more of their three-pointers. This team defends, executes, and competes on both ends of the floor. But I see issues. First, they aren’t all that deep, with their five starters logging a majority of their minutes. Second, in their conference they are treated like royalty: and given every call and every benefit a la a Duke. Third, Howard is prone to foul trouble and they have zero depth in the post behind him. Finally, this team has played a lot of very good competition over the last two years but they haven’t beaten much of it.
This year they lost to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown and UAB, all on the road or on neutral courts. The barely beat Ohio State, but that was in the Buckeyes’ first game without Evan Turner. Wins over Sienna and Xavier were both at home. Last year was the same story. They beat Xavier, but that was it. They lost – albeit in close games – to the only legit BCS teams that they played (Ohio State and LSU). So this team has gotten a lot of credit for wins that they haven’t managed. We’ll see if they can justify their lofty status.
Butler March Madness Prediction: It will be another short stay for this overrated mid-major team.
No. 6 – Xavier (24-8 SU, 20-11 ATS)
Much like Michigan State, Xavier is a team that just gets it done in the NCAA Tournament. Year-in and year-out this program is one of the toughest outs in The Dance. This year should be no different, although this isn’t nearly as threatening of a Musketeers squad.
First, this is rookie head coach Chris Mack’s first experience on this stage. Second, they have just one senior on the roster and rely primarily on freshmen and sophomores. Third, they haven’t fared well against other tournament talent this year. They played a great schedule but have lost on the road or on neutral courts to Marquette (by 10), Baylor (by 5), Kansas State (by 15), Butler (by 1), Wake Forest (by 4) and Temple (by 5) and Richmond (by 4). They did win at Florida, but how impressive is that, really? Sophomore wing Jordan Crawford is a streaky scoring machine that can play with anyone.
I think a key is the health of Brad Redford. The kid is one of the five best shooters in the country but has missed time with a bum hip. They’ll need all of their weapons if they want to advance.
Xavier March Madness Prediction: This team isn’t as good as X-Men clubs from the past few years. And they are breaking in a virgin coach. But all this program has done is survive coaching changes and win NCAA Tournament games. This year should be no different.
Best first-round match up: No. 5 Butler vs. No. 12 UTEP
Butler has gone from the hunter to the hunted and they are facing a UTEP team that has been given new life. I thought UTEP had blown its shot at a bid when they blew the last five minutes of the Conference USA title game. But this team is big, athletic, fast and loves to get up and down the court. They are facing the quintessential half-court team that surrounds the perimeter with shooters and buries opponents with a barrage of three-pointers. The key to this game could be the matchup between Derrick Caracter of UTEP and foul-prone Matt Howard of Butler. Whichever big man can get the job done will make things a whole lot easier on the wings.
Best potential second-round match up: No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 8 Gonzaga
In a bracket that is really devoid of big-time second round matchups I’ll go with this one. Gonzaga is back in the underdog role that they have made famous over the last decade. They also have the size and the physicality to really attack Syracuse’s zone. And since the Orange are without their starting center and post anchor the Bulldogs could really exploit the situation. Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray are excellent shooters and zone busters and could make the Orange pay from the perimeter. On the other hand, Syracuse is going to be playing very close to home (Buffalo) and they will have all hands on deck knowing that they are a man down. This one could be a great one to watch.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 13 Murray State vs. No. 4 Vanderbilt
There is a reason that Vanderbilt is only a four-point favorite against a No. 13 seed from a middling conference. Murray State can ball and their freewheeling style blends perfectly with the all-offense, no-defense methodology of the Vols. Two years ago Vanderbilt got smoked by Siena in a nearly identical matchup.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 7 BYU vs. No. 2 Kansas State
If BYU is able to shoot its way through Florida then they really could cause Kansas State some problems. The Cougars are one of the best shooting teams in the nation and if they get hot then there is almost nothing that K-State can do about it. BYU would have the extra motivation of playing for a spot in Salt Lake City. And if their post players can just hold down the fort on the inside then there is a chance that BYU’s guards can seal the deal.
Dark Horse team: No. 3 Pittsburgh
I really am still not sure what to make of this Pitt team. But I do know that they can be dangerous. Their pod is really nothing special and is, in fact, probably the weakest four-team pod in the entire bracket. If they make it out then they slide back into their favorite role – underdog – against Kansas State. After that would be Syracuse, a team that Pitt has absolutely owned over the last half-decade. So there is potential for this team to make a move. However, there is still the lingering doubt that is instilled in a program that has never done much of anything in The Big Dance. They could make a move, or they could flame out. It’s really a tough thing to predict.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 4 Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt executes on offense as well as any team in the nation. They have experience, a go-to guy in the post and in the backcourt, and a potential breakout player in Guard John Jenkins. But they are also streaky shooting the ball and they are soft defensively. There is no doubt that if this team got going they could make some noise. But the more I look at their bracket the more I wonder if they are going to survive the opening weekend. If they do survive they match up pretty well with Syracuse. But right now signs are pointing to a potential first round upset.
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