2015 March Madness Bracket Picks: West Region
by Robert Ferringo - 3/17/2015
Every year there is clearly one NCAA Tournament region that can be considered The Region of Doom (which would be college basketball's equivalent to the World Cup's Group of Death). This year the Region of Doom is clearly the West, with two legitimate national title contenders and a host of supremely talented boom-or-bust squads lurking throughout the pods. I think that this is the most difficult bracket in the tournament to predict. But it could also end up being the most entertaining.
The West Region semifinals and finals will take place on Thursday, March 26 and Saturday, March 28 in Los Angeles. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket picks for the West Region (with odds courtesy of Sportsbook.ag):
No. 1 Seed: Wisconsin Badgers (+120 to win the West Region)
The Badgers have been one of the best teams in basketball the past two years, losing in the final seconds to Kentucky in last year's Final Four. The Badgers have seven of their top eight players from last year's squad back, and they would love an opportunity to get revenge against the Wildcats. Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky is the best player in the country and a matchup nightmare. The seven-footer can do absolutely everything, leading the team in points (18.2), assists (2.7) and rebounds (8.0) while shooting 55 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. Forwards Sam Dekker and underrated Nigel Hayes also shoot over 50 percent, and they combine to chip in 25.4 points per game. There is nothing Wisconsin doesn't do well. They defend without fouling better than anyone in the country. Their offensive efficiency is freakish. They have experience, they make their free throws, and they simply tighten the noose around opponents by not making mistakes. They are the third-best team in the country, behind Kentucky and Villanova, and they are a national title contender.
Wisconsin Tournament Predictions: Over the past three weeks I haven't been able to shake this funny feeling that Wisconsin is due for a shorter-than-expected stay in the NCAA Tournament. They are clearly a great team. But the fact that they shorten games with a slow place could end up working against them against a less-talented team that simply makes more shots. But if the Badgers survive the opening weekend then the only thing standing in the way of their rematch with Kentucky is a date with Arizona. If they beat Arizona, they will beat Kentucky.
No. 2 Seed: Arizona Wildcats (+120 to win the West Region)
Outside of Kentucky, the Wildcats might be the hottest team in basketball entering the NCAA Tournament. They've won 11 straight games by an average of 21.7 points per game, and dating back to Jan. 12 (18 games) their only loss is a three-point road defeat against their in-state rival. It isn't just that Arizona is winning games; they are absolutely wrecking people. They beat Oregon by 28 points in the Pac-12 final, and their average margin of victory during their 17-1 run is a robust 20.5 points per game. Arizona is simply a man amongst boys. Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are each 6-6 or taller, and they run and dunk all over the place. The Wildcats are exceptional defensively, and on offense they simply bludgeon opponents with a relentless inside attack. Savvy veteran point guard T.J. McConnell runs the show, and Johnson is a future pro at the two. Arizona's weakness is that they don't shoot the ball well from deep.
Arizona Tournament Predictions: The Wildcats should be able to stave off upset in the opening weekend. Baylor matches up well with Arizona in a potential Sweet 16 game. But the Bears are no guarantee to be there. So I'll throw Arizona into the Elite Eight against Wisconsin, and you can flip a coin as to who wins that one.
No. 3 Seed: Baylor Bears (+1200)
I have been a little higher on Baylor than most over the past two months and was surprised to see them receive some much respect with their seeding. Scott Drew has built a system program in Waco, and even though the Bears lose high-level talent season after season they just continue to produce. Baylor has become a poor man's Syracuse. And not just because the Bears feature Syracuse's patented 2-3 zone. The Bears feature five guys 6-7 or taller, and they love to punish opponents on the interior. Offensively they go to the basket, go to the basket and go to the basket some more. Baylor also hammers the offensive glass and tries to wear teams down with body blows. Rico Gathers is one of the best rebounders in the country (11.6 per game), and Taurean Prince has blossomed into a future pro on the wing. The key for Baylor is that their big players rise to the moment. Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale are guys that have had some big games. They need to be at their best for Baylor to hang around.
Baylor Tournament Predictions: I like Baylor. And I think their toughest test of the opening weekend will come from No. 14 seed Georgia State. But if they survive that one I think the Bears have enough to make it to the Sweet 16.
No. 4 Seed: North Carolina Tar Heels (+800)
The Tar Heels finally - FINALLY - lived up to some of the ample preseason hype with a big run to the ACC Championship Game. North Carolina played the second-toughest schedule in the country, and they allegedly have a load of talent. However, they are just 5-12 against Top 40 teams, and most of those wins were in their home state. The Heels have length and athleticism, and they like to play fast. But they don't have much bulk, and their glaring weakness is that they don't consistently defend. They also don't shoot well from 3-point range - at all - and they can be over reliant on Marcus Paige for perimeter offense. Paige is capable of playing at a very high level. But I don't think he has that Shabazz Napier/Kemba Walker extra gear where he can carry his team through the bracket. This team does have talent. But they haven't made the Sweet 16 since 2012 and have been more hype than production the past three years.
North CarolinaTournament Predictions: There's just no telling which Carolina team is going to show up. I think they should come out of their pod and face Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. But I also think that either UNC or Arkansas is going to get knocked off in their opening game, so I wouldn't buy too much long-term stock in this Carolina team.
No. 5 Seed: Arkansas Razorbacks (+2500)
Arkansas is coming off a blowout loss in the SEC Championship Game and will have to pick itself up off the mat quickly if the Razorbacks want to go on a run this March. Emotional stability definitely hasn't been the strong suit for this shaky team, though, and they are a high-risk, high-reward proposition for backers. The Razorbacks like to press, trap, run and play at a fast tempo (No. 9 fastest in the country). The Razorbacks have two seniors and three juniors among their top seven players, and they have been building up to a return trip to The Big Dance for several years. But they are the type of squad that keeps both teams in every game. They are notorious for blowing big leads and for not being able to win outside of their home court. I've seen this team play at a high level; Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls are legit players. But they expelled a lot of energy in Nashville last weekend, and you simply cannot trust these guys to play up to their potential.
Arkansas Tournament Predictions: Like I said, I'll be stunned if UNC and Arkansas both survive their first game. And whichever one does could still be set up for an upset against either Wofford or Harvard.
No. 6 Seed: Xavier Musketeers (+4000)
The Bulldogs are by far the most overseeded team in the country. Xavier should be a No. 10 seed. But instead they fluked their way into a high seed thanks to their run at the Big East Tournament. The Musketeers haven't won more than three straight games since Thanksgiving, and they have bad losses to UTEP, Long Beach State, Auburn and DePaul. They have two quality seniors in bulky Matt Stainbrook and savvy Dee Davis. But three of their top four scorers are freshmen or sophomores, and this team is all kinds of erratic. They played well in New York City last weekend, but this team isn't a threat.
Xavier Tournament Predictions: They don't defend well and they have shown that they are vulnerable to an upset. I'll be stunned if these guys are still playing through the opening weekend.
Best first-round match up: No. 8 Oregon vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State
This isn't just the best first-round matchup of this region. It might also be the best first-round matchup of the entire tournament. Oregon has won 11 of 13 games and made it to the Pac-12 title game. Oklahoma State is stocked with high-end athletes and navigated the toughest conference in basketball. Both of these teams want to get up and down the court, and two of the best 30 players in the country - Oregon's Joseph Young and Oklahoma State's Le'Bryan Nash - give this game some star power. While Oregon has gotten stronger as the season wears on, the Cowboys have definitely sagged. They are just 1-6 in their last seven games dating back to Feb. 9 and just 8-11 going back to Jan. 5. This game is a rematch of a 2013 first-rounder in which the Ducks pulled the upset.
Best potential second-round match up: No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Arkansas
This is one of those games that the initial bracket always promises. Then The Madness strikes and one of these teams gets "stunned" in the first round. But indulge me here. This would be an outstanding second-round matchup because these teams play similar styles and have similar athletes. Both teams want to get up and down and both want to attack the basket. There would be NBA-level talent on the court and no lead would be safe. This would be the perfect antidote for all the bobbleheads and college hoops haters that have been complaining about how ugly the basketball has been this year. It's just too bad that I don't trust that both teams will take care of their business in their respective openers.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 5Arkansasvs. No. 12 Wofford
This game is the proverbial contrast in styles. Arkansas wants to press and play fast. Wofford wants to play slow and shorten the game. Nine times out of 10 the more deliberate, slower-paced team is able to dictate tempo in these tournament settings. Wofford beat an Iona team this year that plays similarly to Arkansas. They also won at N.C. State and have gone up against West Virginia and Duke. The Terriers have all five starters back from the team that lost to Michigan in the first round of last year's tournament, so they won't be overwhelmed by the moment. And although Arkansas has avoided the embarrassing upset this year, I've still seen enough of them to know they are capable of falling flat. Especially in a letdown spot after their loss in the SEC title game. That this is a vintage 5-12 matchup is the icing on the cake.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 1 Wisconsin vs. Oregon/Oklahoma State
Wisconsin has made a living by beating back talented-but-undisciplined teams like Oregon and Oklahoma State in recent years. However, the winner of that first-round matchup will have instant momentum. And both squads have enough high-end talent to topple Wisconsin in a one-and-done situation. Stranger opening-weekend upsets have happened.
Dark Horse team: No. 4 North Carolina
The Heels have been a disappointment for 90 percent of this season. But there's no denying that they played well in the ACC Tournament and they could be a team that is peaking at the right time. There is nothing easy about their draw. And Roy Williams has two tournament flops for every tournament success. But if they survive the opening weekend they have as good of a chance as anyone of knocking off either of the top two seeds in this region. Will they do it? I doubt it. But the potential is there.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 3 Baylor
I could toss Arkansas and North Carolina here too. All three of these teams have serious flameout potential. But Baylor is the team that scares me the most, because of that trio they match up the worst with their potential Sweet 16 date. Baylor has been a very good March team the past five years, making three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and winning the NIT. But if Chery and Prince aren't hitting from the outside these guys could fall flat.
2015 West Region Predictions: I really hope that we get to see the Wisconsin-Arizona matchup that this region is set up for. And even though they are a ton of potential landmines in this group, I think the odds are very strong that we get that game. There's just no doubt that these are two of the best teams in the country and two of the only groups capable of knocking off Kentucky. I think we'll see at least two double-digit seeds pull upsets in this bracket because of the inherent shakiness of the high-risk, high-reward middle seeds. But we should get four solid Sweet 16 games, and whichever team makes it out of the West ali ve will be more than ready to take on the Wildcats.
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