By Oliver Mauntel
On paper, the West Region appears to be the most wide open region. Xavier is considered a slight favorite to win the region, but programs with recent Final Four experience (North Carolina, Michigan, and Gonzaga) lurk closely behind. With a handful of dark-horses, this region is the most volatile.
Xavier (28-5): With nine players that make valuable contributions, the Musketeers may be the deepest team in the tournament,. The most valuable contribution belongs to Trevon Bluiett. Xavier’s success tends to reflect how well Bluiett is performing, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Don’t be surprised if the ultra-fiery J.P. Macura picks up a technical or two, depending on how far Xavier advances. If the Musketeers face a good three-point shooting team, watch out; Xavier struggles to defend the perimeter.
On the road/neutral site: (11-4) Last 10 games: (8-2)
North Carolina (25-10): The defending champs are a vastly different team than last year’s team, but they have still managed to find success this season. Joel Berry II has been reliable all year, and both Luke Maye and Theo Pinson have taken their games to new heights. The Tar Heels are undersized, but have found a way to be a dominant rebounding team. Kenny Williams is a dangerous three-point shooter who can provide a boost as well.
On the road/neutral site: (13-7) Last 10 games: (7-3)
Michigan (28-7): John Beilein has a knack for getting his team to play its best basketball during this time of year. The Wolverines recently won their second consecutive Big 10 tournament championship, and are arguably the hottest team in the nation right now. Time will tell if they will be affected by their extra week of rest, for playing the Big 10 tournament a week earlier than usual .
On the road/neutral site: (12-6) Last 10 games: (9-1)
Gonzaga (30-4): To be honest, I wasn’t sold on the Zags earlier this season. Well, I’ve since hopped on the bandwagon. Gonzaga, who is one of the hottest shooting teams right now, averaged over 11 threes per game in the WCC tournament. Killian Tillie averaged 24.0 ppg, shooting 13-14 from three! Watch out for the Bulldogs.
On the road/neutral site: (15-3) Last 10 games: (10-0)
Ohio State (24-8): Nobody expected the Buckeyes to be in this position, not even Chris Holtmann. Nobody expected Keita Bates-Diop to be the Big 10 Player of the Year either. The Buckeyes tore through the first half of the Big 10 schedule, but stumbled down the stretch. Considering how much they rely on Bates-Diop to make plays, Ohio State will be standing on thin ice.
On the road/neutral site: (8-6) Last 10 games: (6-4)
Houston (26-6): The Cougars are often overshadowed in the AAC by Cincinnati and Wichita State. Houston should be considered as much of a threat in the tournament as their AAC counterparts. Why? Houston’s point guard is Rob Gray. Statistically, Gray (18.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.5 apg) is having a similar senior season to Shabazz Napier. We know how Napier’s senior season ended.
On the road/neutral site: (11-6) Last 10 games: (8-2)
Texas A&M (20-12): Early on in the season, the Aggies appeared to be a national title contender. During their non-conference slate, Texas A&M smoked West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Penn State, and USC, winning each game by double digits. Injuries limited the Aggies throughout the season, leading to inconsistent performances. Texas A&M did beat both Auburn and Kentucky in February, so they are still fully capable of causing some chaos.
On the road/neutral site: (7-9) Last 10 games: (6-4)
Missouri (20-12): Missouri is one of the most fascinating teams in the field. Now that Michael Porter Jr. has returned, the Tigers are unpredictable. Missouri earned their bid without Michael Porter’s help, although his brother, Jontay Porter, did play a key role. In the next few days, keep a close eye on the status of Jordan Barnett. Barnett was recently arrested for DUI, and will miss at least one game. Barnett is the Tigers’ second leading scorer, at 13.7 ppg.
On the road/neutral site: (7-9) Last 10 games: (6-4)
Florida State (20-11): After losing multiple starters to the 2017 NBA Draft, the Seminoles have weathered the storm nicely. Florida State began the season with a scorching 9-0 start, but have come back to earth, going 11-11 since. The Seminoles do have tournament experience on their side, which can be an advantage against Missouri. Terance Mann, the leading scorer at 13.2 ppg, hasn’t played well lately. The Noles will need Mann to be at his best to have a chance.
On the road/neutral site: (7-9) Last 10 games: (4-6)
Providence (21-13): The Friars have been an inconsistent bunch all season, never embarking on a win streak longer than four games. Providence lost to UMass and DePaul (by 17 at home), yet defeated Xavier twice and Villanova once. Theoretically, Providence has momentum from their Big East Tournament run, but who knows.
On the road/neutral site: (8-9) Last 10 games: (5-5)
San Diego State (22-10): The Aztecs came out of nowhere to steal the Mountain West crown from Nevada. San Diego State is currently on a nine-game winning streak, which includes two wins over Nevada. The Aztecs also defeated Gonzaga by a bucket in December. The road ahead is difficult, but if Malik Pope can step up, the Aztecs can continue their run.
On the road/neutral site: (9-8) Last 10 games: (9-1)
South Dakota State (28-6): The Jackrabbits can score. At 84.9 ppg, South Dakota State has the third highest scoring average among tournament teams. They also knock down 40.3% of their three-point shots, tied with Kansas for third among tournament teams. South Dakota State defeated both Ole Miss and Iowa this season, took Colorado to double-OT, and gave Wichita State all they could handle. Remember the name, Mike Daum. Daum averages 23.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg, and shoots the three-ball at a 42.1% clip. In the 21st century, only two players have averaged 23.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, and shot 40% from deep: Mike Daum and Kevin Durant.
On the road/neutral site: (13-6) Last 10 games: (10-0)
UNC Greensboro (27-7): The Spartans had far more regular season success against big time programs than most other 13-seeds. UNC Greensboro opened the season with Virginia, and managed to hold their own against the Cavaliers, only losing by 12. UNC Greensboro held the Cavaliers to 43% shooting and outrebounded them 36-30. The Spartans also picked up an impressive road victory over NC State. UNC Greensboro has run into a buzzsaw in round one, but they can make life difficult for the Zags.
On the road/neutral site: (11-6) Last 10 games: (9-1)
Montana (26-7): The Grizzlies are stringent on defense; Montana only gave up over 80 points twice all season. Montana struggles from three-point range, which will be an issue against Michigan’s zone. Although many expect Michigan to have a cakewalk to the second round, don’t be surprised if Montana challenges the Wolverines.
On the road/neutral site: (12-7) Last 10 games: (8-2)
Lipscomb (23-9): The Bisons took on multiple power five schools in non-conference play, such as Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, and Purdue. Lipscomb was unable to execute any upsets, but that experience should help them hang around with the Tar Heels. Garrison Mathews (22.1 ppg) and Rob Marberry (16.0 ppg) have what it takes to put up some points as well.
On the road/neutral site: (10-7) Last 10 games: (9-1)
North Carolina Central (19-15): The Eagles can crash the offensive glass and are a respectable defensive team. However, with only two players who average double figures, they are weak offensively. Out of the 16-seeds in the field, North Carolina Central is probably the worst. Sorry.
On the road/neutral site: (7-13) Last 10 games: (7-3)
Texas Southern (15-19): After an ugly 0-13 start to the season, the Tigers roared back, winning their final seven games to ensure a tournament appearance. In non-conference play, Texas Southern faced six tournament teams, but experienced no success. Surprisingly, Texas Southern has a legitimate shot to pick up a “tournament victory” over North Carolina Central in the play-in game. If the Tigers get the chance to play Xavier, Demontrae Jefferson (23.4 ppg) will score his fair share of points.
On the road/neutral site: (7-17) Last 10 games: (8-2)