2024 NCAA tournament region preview: West

The West region boasts ACC regular-season champion North Carolina as the No. 1 seed.
The West region boasts ACC regular-season champion North Carolina as the No. 1 seed.

The NCAA tournament bracket was released Sunday, and the tournament is set to tip off Thursday. The Blue Zone is here to break down the top teams and possible upsets in each region. Check out our previews for the Midwest, East and South regions as well:

The No. 1 seed: North Carolina Tar Heels

ACC Coach of the Year Hubert Davis has sandwiched two incredible seasons on either side of a putrid one, taking the Tar Heels to the NCAA title game in his debut campaign and among the favorites for this year’s tournament after missing out altogether in 2022-23. The departure of guard Caleb Love to Arizona alongside the graduation of Leaky Black and Pete Nance made North Carolina somewhat of an unknown commodity heading into this season, but the return of veterans RJ Davis and Armando Bacot, the transfers of Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan and recruiting of Elliot Cadeau refreshed the Tar Heels from a disgraced ex-No. 1 into a No. 1 of their own accord.

For nearly the entire final month of the regular season, the final No. 1 seed passed hands between North Carolina and Tennessee, with the Volunteers’ quarterfinal loss in the SEC tournament coupled with the Tar Heels’ run to the ACC title card sealing the deal. The committee will also have considered the simple fact that North Carolina is a formidable and well-rounded team that can win in a whole bunch of ways. Bacot is still dominant down low and presents a tall (literally) task for opposing bigs. Davis can shoot the lights out of pretty much anyone and ranks 11 nationally in scoring per game. Ryan can get hot from three and Cadeau is a skilled playmaker, while Ingram is the exact jack-of-all-trades forward the Tar Heels have needed for years. 

As a team, North Carolina ranks 16th nationally in rebounding margin and sixth in adjusted defense, according to KenPom. It also has a smattering of high-caliber wins to its name, including a season sweep of Duke and a top-10 triumph against Tennessee, a regular-season ACC crown and competitive losses to the likes of UConn and Kentucky.

Even though the Tar Heels dropped the ACC tournament final to N.C. State, North Carolina is undoubtedly the conference’s most complete team and can beat anyone if its guns are firing. As with every team in March, the question is whether or not they will.

The other contenders: The nearly-men

Three other teams immediately jump off the page in this region — No. 2-seed Arizona, No. 3-seed Baylor and No. 5-seed St. Mary’s. 

The Wildcats, who were ranked No. 1 nationally at various points this season, are just as well-rounded as the Tar Heels are with an imposing big in Oumar Ballo and a lethal backcourt featuring Pelle Larsson, Keshad Johnson and former North Carolina guard (and Pac-12 Player of the Year) Caleb Love. Arizona’s loss in its conference semifinals took it off the No. 1 line but head coach Tommy Lloyd’s team is one of the few that can hang with, and beat, pretty much anyone in the field. The Wildcats took down Duke, FAU, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Alabama in the regular season and took Purdue to the wire. Make no mistake — Arizona is one of the best teams in this tournament and has a very good chance of winning it, even if it seems to be flying a little under the radar.

As for the Bears and the Gaels, both sport major upset potential and the sort of slept-on mentality that so often favors teams in March. Baylor was the third-best team in a loaded Big 12 behind No. 1-seed Houston and No. 2-seed Iowa State, beating out the likes of Kansas, Texas Tech and Texas, and have NBA lottery shoo-in Ja’Kobe Walter in its ranks. St. Mary’s is the country’s best rebounding team and won the WCC regular season and conference tournament, upsetting Gonzaga twice in that span. Aidan Mahaney is excellent, and with an experienced roster playing its best basketball in years, head coach Randy Bennett has a real shot at making a run with his group from Moraga, Calif.

The potential Cinderella: New Mexico

Some will say the Mountain West got punished by the committee in regard to seeding (Boise State being a last-four team despite posting a top-30 NET ranking, Utah State grabbing a No. 8-seed, etc.), but don’t let that fool you about the Lobos. New Mexico outclassed San Diego State — a Final Four team from a year ago — en route to a conference tournament win and auto-bid into the Big Dance, and plays a good, but beatable, Clemson team in the first round. The Lobos’ strength is shooting, and although slightly undersized, we saw last week that if this team gets hot, it can make noise. They say guard depth wins in March, and in Jaelen House, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Donovan Dent, New Mexico has plenty.

The regional narrative: Rematches, reunions and revenge

March is a chaotic month — why not have even more than a title at stake? Nearly everywhere one looks, this region is all about unfinished business. Should both Arizona and North Carolina run the table, Love will play his former team in the Elite Eight. Baylor is looking to make it back to the national title game after winning it all in 2021 and losing to the then-eighth-seeded Tar Heels in the second round of the 2022 installment. No. 4-seed Alabama wants to make a statement after falling well short last year as the consensus top team, the Gaels have been a great but not amazing group for a few years now and Clemson hopes to make a splash after narrowly missing the tournament last year. With inevitable upsets and a bracket that favors rematches, each of these games has the potential to be an emotionally charged one. 

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Recruitment/Social Chair

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and recruitment/social chair of The Chronicle's 120th volume. He was previously sports editor for Volume 119.


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