It seems like every year around this time I am caught making an argument for why people need to stop underrated teams from out West. Whether it is a Pac-12 powerhouse that I felt has been underseeded or some Mountain West mid-major that I'm making an upset case for, I find myself constantly defending teams from the Left Coast.
Every year I make an argument. And every year they let me down.
Gonzaga and Arizona are the two top seeds in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament this year . These two schools have combined to go 62-4 against the rest of the country, and between them they boast both Pac-12 and WCC regular-season and tournament championships. There are no better teams out West. And the coaches of these accomplished programs, Mark Few and Sean Miller, respectively, will each be fighting fortheir first Final Four appearance.
But, again, if Gonzaga, Arizona, or any other team from Out West has proven anything over the past decade it's that disappointment is a lot easier than domination this time of the season.
The West Region semifinals and finals will take place on Thursday, March 23, and Saturday, March 25, at the SAP Center in San Jose. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the West Region:
No. 1 Seed: Gonzaga Bulldogs (+140 to win the West Region)
People have been asking me all season long, "Is this team really that good"? My answer is simple: "without a doubt." This is by far Mark Few's best team at Gonzaga. But I can understand why a lot of people have "Gonzaga fatigue". It has been almost 20 years since the Elite Eight run that put this program on the map. And every year since then one of the main storylines heading into the tournament has been, "Is this the year Gonzaga goes to the Final Four?" And every year they have been a March disappointment. So why should we believe this year to be any different? The main reason is size. The Bulldogs have a pair of seven-footers that can absolutely dominate opposing frontcourts. Add in Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie (their third player 6-10 or taller), and the Bulldogs frontcourt is one of the best in the country. The backcourt isn't shabby either, with former All-Pac-12 additions Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews bringing a wealth of experience with them to The Dance.
Gonzaga Tournament Predictions: These guys are no joke. Their path to the regional finals isn't an easy one, but it's more than manageable. Neither Vanderbilt nor Northwestern are overly athletic. And the same can be said for Notre Dame, Gonzaga's potential Sweet 16 opponent. All three of those teams play the game the way the Bulldogs want to, and there is no contrast in style. That works to Gonzaga's advantage. I have this team at least making it to the regional finals, where they would have to beat Arizona for the second time this year, and they are a legit national title contender.
No. 2 Seed: Arizona Wildcats (+150 to win the West Region)
Monsters. That is the first word that comes to mind when describing this Arizona team. They are a squad of monsters. Despite fielding one of the youngest teams in the country, the Wildcats also field one of the most physically imposing. Arizona starts two seven-footers, including freshman sensation Lauri Markkanen, and they bring a 6-11 guy (Chance Comanche) and a 6-10 guy (Keanu Pinder) off the bench. Arizona's guards are physical specimens Kadeem Allen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. Allonzo Trier may be the best scorer on the team, and the Wildcats have taken off since he became eligible 15 games ago. The Wildcats are outstanding defensively and appear to be peaking at the right time. If they maintain the level of intensity that they brought to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament last week then they should roll through this region.
Arizona Tournament Predictions: Considering that the Final Four is in their backyard (Phoenix), there's a chance this team might not lose again. The key is avoiding a letdown after beating UCLA and Oregon last week while winning the Pac-12. If they avoid that then they should swat away North Dakota and St. Mary's. Arizona has a relatively easy portion of the bracket, with erratic Florida State as the only potential obstacle before a showdown with Gonzaga.
No. 3 Seed: Florida State Seminoles (+800)
Leonard Hamilton is making his first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2012. FSU has three guys - Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Jonathan Isaac - that can take over a game. That trio averages 40 points, 14 rebounds and six assists per game and will be tough to slow if they get going. The Seminoles have some great wins over Florida, Virginia, Duke and Louisville. But a loss to Temple in an early-season tournament and blowout defeats at Georgia Tech and Pitt in league play speak to this team's inconsistency. FSU has a massive, physically-imposing roster. And they have the benefit of playing in nearby Orlando the opening weekend. As long as their Big Three come to play then this team should play up to its potential. And that makes them a legit contender to wreak some havoc.
Florida State Tournament Predictions: If the Seminoles can shake past upset-minded Florida-Gulf Coast in the opening round then I think FSU has the potential to pound Maryland or Xavier in the second round. I would love to see how FSU stacked up against Arizona in the Sweet 16. But at the end of the day the lack of senior leadership, or an established point guard, will sink this team before they have a chance to do too much damage.
No. 4 Seed: West Virginia Mountaineers (+600)
Relentless defensive pressure has always been the hallmark of a Bob Huggins-coached team. This year's Mountaineers are no exception. They outscored their opponents by an average of 16 points per game and didn't just beat but absolutely demolished good teams like Baylor (by 19), Kansas (by 16) and Iowa State (by 11). But WVU's effort in the Big 12 Tournament, and several of their losses this year, exposed their flaws: this team doesn't have a go-to guy and as a team they don't shoot the ball very well. WVU shoots just 36 percent from 3-point range and is ranked No. 263 in free throw shooting. They won a league tournament game 51-50 despite shooting just 26 percent - 26 percent! - from the field.
West Virginia Tournament Predictions: Huggy Bear has only survived the opening weekend of the tournament one time in the last six years (four appearances). And WVU has more first-round-upset losses (three) than they do Sweet 16s (two) over the last eight years. This is a boom-or-bust team that will likely be a higher-seeded underdog to Notre Dame in Round 2. But even if they survived the opening weekend - which I can't say - then I don't see them toppling the top seeds in this region.
No. 5 Seed: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+800)
Despite losing their two best players from last season, Notre Dame quietly had a strong year. They came up just short of winning the ACC Tournament last weekend and will take plenty of momentum - they are 8-2 in their last 10 games with wins over Florida State (twice) and Virginia - into this week's tourney. Notre Dame plays four-out, one-in, with hybrid forward Bonzie Colson doing damage all over the court. He is one of the most versatile players in the nation and the sun around which their shooters - seniors Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem in particular - orbit. The Irish are perpetually undervalued and annually underrated come tournament time, and Mike Brey is as good at making in-game adjustments as any coach in the country. Notre Dame is always a tough out, and this year is no different. But if you look at their losses this year they have proven that they can play toe-to-toe with the top teams in the country while failing to prove that they can beat them.
Notre Dame Tournament Predictions: The Irish, and this core of players, have made the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons. They won't do it again this season. The Irish will likely have their hands full with Princeton, winners of 19 straight games, in the first round . I give the Irish the leg up over WVU in the Sweet 16. But I think there are too many pitfalls for this team to make another deep run. I also wonder how much their ACC run will have taken out of them.
No. 6 Seed: Maryland Terrapins (+250)
The Terps are one of the most over-seeded teams in the entire NCAA Tournament field. Maryland got off to a stunning 20-2 start to the season thanks to a slew of games won in overtime or in the final seconds. They beat Georgetown, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Indiana by a combined six points during that fantastic start. But the young Terps, who have vastly surpassed expectations this year, have been exposed since then, going just 4-6 over the last month with four losses by eight or more points. The game plan for Maryland is to simply keep games close and then let Melo Trimble, who has been as clutch as any player in the nation this year, win games with big shots. That plan has worked. But with three freshmen starters that have tailed off down the stretch you have to wonder if they will get a chance for a buzzer beater this weekend. Keep an eye on Kevin Huerter. He is a very creative player and a solid shooter. And the key will be if any of the other youngsters can step up find ways to score.
Maryland Tournament Predictions: I think that Maryland has a favorable matchup against No. 11 seed Xavier, a team that has been horrid down the stretch. And if Gulf Coast can bump off FSU then the Terps could have the path cleared for a Sweet 16 run. I have said for two months that I think Maryland's ceiling is one win in the tournament. I am going to stick with that.
Best first-round match up: No. 7 St. Mary's(+1.5) vs. No. 10 VCU
These are two of the best mid-major teams in the country, and either one is capable of winning this game and then testing Arizona in the next round. St. Mary's has won 28 games this year and has lost to only two teams - UT-Arlington and Gonzaga. The Gaels have all five starters and their top six players back from a group that won 29 games last season and was an NCAA Tournament snub. VCU is a tournament staple, playing in their seventh straight Big Dance. This game is about the offensive execution of St. Mary's, which features a host of Australian players, against the defensive intensity and physically pressure of VCU, which attacks at all times. VCU's duo of JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox will have to be better than St. Mary's inside-out duo of Jock Landale and Emmett Naar. This will be a low-scoring game, and how it is officiated could go a long way in determining the winner.
Best potential second-round match up: No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 5 Notre Dame
These two programs have a lot of Sweet 16s between them over the past 10 years. They are former Big East combatants from back in the day, and either team is capable of winning this one and then taking a shot at Gonzaga. This game is the proverbial contrast in styles between Notre Dame's more deliberate half-court approach versus West Virginia's full-court press and frantic approach. Both teams have a lot of balance, plenty of experience, and two great coaches, making this one of the top potential matchups of the entire opening weekend.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 3 Florida State (-5.5) vs. No. 14 Florida-Gulf Coast
I really could've taken any of the double-digit seeds between No. 11-No. 14 and put them in here. Princeton will play the slow game with Notre Dame. Who knows what WVU team is going to show. And Xavier and Maryland are very close in talent levels. But I will go with what should at least be the most up-tempo of the first-round games in this bracket. This game is Florida-Gulf Coast's National Championship, and they would love nothing more than to knock off the bigger in-state school. Add in the fact that this one is being played in both team's backyard (Orlando) and there should be as much energy in this arena as in any game this weekend. Dunk City is alive and well. But UF-GC doesn't run and gun the way the 2013 Sweet 16 did. Their tempo is No. 299, and while they might not have the size to throw at FSU the Eagles do have some athletes and a lot of shooters.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt
There is no guarantee that Vanderbilt is even going to beat Northwestern. Northwestern is going to be amped up for the first NCAA Tournament game in school history. But if the Commodores do sneak past then they are a team that could give the Bulldogs a bit of trouble. Gonzaga's size won't bother Vanderbilt, which has run up against SEC frontcourts all year. And Vanderbilt can surround the perimeter with 3-point shooters. One hot night from the outside can put a load of pressure on Gonzaga, a team that is not used to playing from behind and a squad that hasn't had to deal with a lot of last-minute situations.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 4 West Virginia
I could put Florida State here as well. But I'm going with the Mountaineers. I don't like teams that can't score consistently in the half court. And WVU doesn't have anyone that they can turn to for a big bucket. I also don't like teams that rely on their press to generate offense. When was the last time one of those teams made a tournament run? Teams still playing have good guards. And good guards can handle some pressure. All that said, there's no denying WVU has some great wins this year. They have nine road/neutral court wins, including a road win at UVA and a near miss in OT at Kansas, and a load of experience. This team could lose in the first round. Or it could go to the Elite Eight. We will see.
2017 West Region Predictions: Of all the brackets in the field, I think that this one has the greatest potential for upsets from double-digit seeds. Yes, there are some capable mid-majors. But the main thing about this group is the vulnerability of most of the higher seeds. Maryland is overseeded. Notre Dame is in a letdown spot. WVU can't shoot. Florida State flakes out. There's plenty of talent in this quadrant. But the fact is that I think that Gonzaga and Arizona are by far and away the two best, most complete teams in this region. I will be absolutely stunned if at least one, if not both, teams don't make it to the Elite Eight. That would set up an epic regional final between Top 5 teams featuring two coaches going for their first-ever Final Four appearance. That's how I see it playing out. And I think that Arizona will be able to get revenge for that earlier-season loss.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and he is on an unbelievable run right now, nearly doubling his clients' bankrolls in the last four weeks while earning $9,200 in profit! Robert has banked 10 straight winning college basketball regular seasons and he will have his 8-Unit NCAA Tournament Game of the Year available this week. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing March Madness. Click here to get two days of college basketball picks for free - no hassle and no credit card needed.
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