Leading up to the first round of the NCAA tournament, The Chronicle will preview one of the four regions in the bracket, touching on the true contenders in the region and potential bracket-busting Cinderellas. After starting with the South and Midwest, we move on to the West:
The No. 1 Seed: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Just a couple weeks ago, the nation watched the Bulldogs rise to a No. 1 ranking in the AP Polls. Being the only team to beat Duke at full strength and returning the sharpshooting bigman Killian Tillie had the Bulldogs primed to be national title favorites, but an embarrassing loss in the WCC championship game to Saint Mary’s has brought out the skeptics.
There’s still a lot to like about Mark Few’s squad though, as Naismith Award finalist Rui Hachimura has led the Bulldogs to the top offensive efficiency rating in the country, and the supporting cast of Tillie, Josh Perkins, Brandon Clarke, and Zach Norvell Jr. have the length, athleticism, and experience to match up with any team in the country.
Gonzaga is the only team in the country with an average scoring margin above 20 points per contest, but a lot can be attributed to its fairly weak conference. The Bulldogs haven’t played a ranked team since dropping back-to-back losses against North Carolina and Tennessee.
The other contenders: Defensive nightmare
You would be hard pressed to find a better trio on the defensive side of the ball to stop the Zags’ high powered offense, as third-seeded Texas Tech, second-seeded Michigan, and fourth-seeded Florida state rank No. 1, No. 2, and No. 9 respectively in defensive efficiency.
The Wolverines will come into this year’s tournament looking to get back to championship weekend for the second year in a row. Things started out hot in Ann Arbor, but three losses to Michigan State have put a dark spot on their resume. Michigan receives solid all-around scoring help from their top six in the rotation, but will need forward Ignas Brazdeikis to step up in big games like he did in wins against North Carolina and Villanova.
Meanwhile in Lubbock, Chris Beard has put together a National Coach of the Year resume thanks to a smothering defense. It will come down to future lottery pick Jarrett Culver to provide a consistent offensive spark if the Red Raiders want any chance to get out of this region.
Perhaps the biggest wildcard is ACC tournament runner-up Florida State. Its size and athleticism can give any team fits, and if three balls are falling, the Seminoles could make a run to Minneapolis. Keep an eye out for a small-ball lineup with deep threat Mfiondu Kabengele at the five, creating massive space all over the floor, but it will be crucial for the Seminoles’ guards to take care of the ball.
The potential Cinderella: Murray State
Outside of Zion Williamson, no player in the country has dazzled more than Racer guard Ja Morant. The sophomore leads the nation in assists per game to go along with 24.6 points per contest, numbers that could lead to a Steph Curry-esque run in the Big Dance. Murray State will first face off against another top guard in Marquette’s Markus Howard, but whoever wins the battle of the floor generals should have the upper hand in that 5-12 matchup.
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The Racers don’t own much size inside, so it will ultimately come down to the play of their supplemental guards Tevin Brown and Shaq Buchanan, double- digit scorers who have both displayed inconsistencies in their jumpshots over the course of the year. If Morant is the only contributor, it should be easy for top seeds to focus all of their attention on the future top five pick. It will be up to their other contributors to step up and be a viable option if Murray State wants the slipper to fit.
The regional narrative: Zig Zagging to the Final Four
The Bulldogs are going to want to run, and simply put, none of the top seeds in this region have the ability to have a shootout with the top seed. There’s always a potential for a bad shooting night and a team like Michigan to get hot, but barring another Saint Mary’s like collapse, we should see Gonzaga reach their second championship weekend in three years.