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NCAA Tournament: West Region preview and predictions

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The weakest region?

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga vs Arizona Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The field is set and the NCAA Tournament is ready to begin.

After much hemming and hawing over where the Arizona Wildcats would be seeded, after a fantastic regular season, they decided to make it easy on everybody.

They defeated the equally-as-fantastic UCLA Bruins and Oregon Ducks on consecutive nights to set themselves apart from the pack and give the committee no choice but to give them the prime Pac-12 spot in the bracket — the 2-seed in the West region.

It’s been known for quite some time that the West region would be headlined by the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a 32-1 bully that sits in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Plus, they hold a victory over Arizona.

So it’s Gonzaga and Arizona. The best in the West, headlining the region. But what comes after them?

Some are calling the West region the weakest of the bunch. But with an uber-athletic 3-seed in the Florida State Seminoles, a well-coached, defensive machine 4-seed in the West Virginia Mountaineers and a veteran squad that nearly won the ACC Tournament championship at the 5-seed in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, there’s plenty to contend with.

So who’s going to the Final Four? Will Arizona have their shot at revenge against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight? Who is primed for an upset?

Time will tell — but here’s what I see happening:

FIRST ROUND

#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 South Dakota State

I’m sure there are some that will pick Gonzaga to be the first 1-seed to lose to a 16, for the sheer fact that they’re a mid-major. Well, not so fast. Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament for the 19th straight time and this might be the best team they’ve sent to the big dance. This won’t be the 1-seed to fall.

Gonzaga advances.

#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt

The Northwestern Wildcats are a part of March Madness for the first time in program history! It’s a dream come true for Northwestern fans. Vanderbilt loves to shoot the ball but I think the Wildcats can defend well enough to let the dream live on another day.

Northwestern advances.

#4 West Virginia vs. #13 Bucknell

The Mountaineers are all about chaos. They want to make the opposition panic and turn the ball over. That’s what’s given them the fifth most efficient defense in the land. Problem is: Bucknell doesn’t turn the ball over often. Something’s got to give. I’ll roll with Bob Huggins’ crew to move on.

West Virginia advances.

#5 Notre Dame vs. #12 Princeton

Princeton is back in the dance with consistent defense and motion offense. They can catch anyone and everyone off guard. But the Fighting Irish are rolling right now. Bonzie Colson is one of the most underrated stars in college basketball and I think he’s ready to make March his stage.

Notre Dame advances.

#3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast

Florida Gulf Coast is a sexy upset pick. They may not be the Dunk City of old but they’re still athletic and fun to watch. Speaking of athletic and fun to watch, the Seminoles have freshman, Jonathan Issac, one of the best players in the country and he’ll be able to carry FSU out of upset danger.

Florida State advances.

#6 Maryland vs. #11 Xavier

These are two of the more disappointing teams in the country. Each came in to the season with high hopes of a Final Four experience. Maryland had unexpected slip ups and Xavier lost their leader, Edmond Sumner, to a torn ACL. Xavier looked better in the Big East Tournament than they had in months, which is probably why the selection committee put them in. But I think Melo Trimble and the Terps just have more going talent and better shooting.

Maryland advances.

#7 St. Mary’s vs. #10 VCU

Thanks to all the Gonzaga hype, the St. Mary’s Gaels have flown under the radar. They have a tremendous amount of balance, are an elite rebounding team and sport the sixth best true shooting percentage in all of college basketball. This is a 7-10 matchup. Closely seeded teams. But I smell a blowout.

St. Mary’s advances.

#2 Arizona vs. #15 North Dakota

North Dakota wants to get out, run and shoot threes. With Arizona’s athleticism, I don’t think running is a great idea.

Arizona advances.

SECOND ROUND

#1 Gonzaga vs. #8 Northwestern

Northwestern just doesn’t have the weapons to keep up with Nigel Williams-Goss and the Bulldogs. The Northwestern dream run ends here.

Gonzaga advances.

#4 West Virginia vs. #5 Notre Dame

This is an interesting game. WVU’s Press Virginia defense feasts on the unprepared. Notre Dame’s veteran group doesn’t seem to get rattled. But Notre Dame’s lack of depth against West Virginia’s manic pace gives the Irish very little room for error. This is a toss-up. I’ll go with the team that looks better in the very recent past.

Notre Dame advances.

#3 Florida State vs. #6 Maryland

Florida State is a deep team with plenty of size. They have the tools to outscore Maryland.

Florida State advances.

#2 Arizona vs. #7 St. Mary’s

This is not an easy matchup for the Wildcats. But Arizona’s size should put a dent in the rebounding advantage that St. Mary’s holds over most teams. The Gaels hold their opponents to 56 points per game. Arizona’s offense seems to be peaking at the right time. I think Allonzo Trier and company can handle the matchup.

Arizona advances.

SWEET SIXTEEN

#1 Gonzaga vs. #5 Notre Dame

Gonzaga’s efficiency is just too much. They force bad shots on one end and find the best shots on the other. Notre Dame has a habit of beating the teams they’re supposed to beat and losing to better teams. Gonzaga is better.

Gonzaga advances.

#2 Arizona vs. #3 Florida State

FSU can match the Wildcats athleticism. But Lauri Markkanen can pull the Seminole big men beyond the outside. When he does, it will open up easy scoring opportunities for fellow bigs, Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche. If they don’t follow him to the outside, Markkanen will make them pay. Outside shooting will be key.

Arizona advances.

ELITE EIGHT

#1 Gonzaga vs. #2 Arizona

Here it is. The two best teams in the West, a pair that has evolved into a rivalry in recent years, squaring off for a spot in the Final Four. Probably the two best coaches in college basketball that haven’t been to the Final Four.

Gonzaga beat Arizona in December but I think even the most staunch Gonzaga fan would note that that was with an injured Parker Jackson-Cartwright and came before the return of Allonzo Trier.

This might be the best Gonzaga team in program history. They are the second most efficient defensive team in the country and the tenth most efficient offensive team. They’re the best team in the nation, according to kenpom.com. Their rotation is among the most experienced in the nation, led by senior man in the middle, Przemek Karnowski.

But Arizona has shown so much firepower as of late. Sean Miller’s teams are always known for their defense but this year’s Wildcats are the most balanced squad he’s ever had. The return of Trier, the unbelievable game of Markkanen, the always-make-the-right-play game of Rawle Alkins and the leadership of Kadeem Allen have turned Arizona into an offensive machine.

Not to mention the unexpected shooting prowess of the Wildcats that adds yet another dimension to a team peaking at the perfect time.

I promise I wanted to stay away from this. To stay away from, “Oh, of course, Arizona gets picked on the Arizona site!” I even picked them to lose to Wichita State on this site last year!

But this team is great. They’re on the short list of teams that can win the National Championship. For the record, Gonzaga is also on that list. But I’m riding with the hot hand.

ARIZONA ADVANCES TO THE FINAL FOUR.