The West Region culminating in LA at the Staples Center features just one Irish opponent from the regular season. While ND fans might be unfamiliar with the teams out west, they don't lack in quality or entertainment value. Wisconsin features the favorite to win national player of the year, Arizona probably deserved a one seed, and teams like North Carolina, Arkansas, and BYU all play at a breakneck pace. Find out what to watch for opening weekend, and who will advance to the Final Four.
#1 Wisconsin Badgers v. #16 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Possible Cinderella: #7 Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Full disclosure, I don't think VCU will make a deep run in this tournament, but they're a good enough team to do so, and they just won the A-10 Tournament. The Rams have a solid resume, and lost just once to a sub .500 team (@LaSalle in 2OT). VCU's best player, Treveon Graham, plays a bit like ND's Pat Connaughton. He's the team's leading rebounder as an undersized four at 6'6". Graham also leads VCU in scoring at 16.3 points per game, and is a solid 3 point shooter (38.0%). They'll have their hands full with Ohio State in their first game, and (presumably) Arizona in the second. They won't be favored in that matchup with Arizona, but no one would be too surprised to see Shaka Smart and the Rams pull off the upset.
First Round Upset: #10 Ohio State over #7 VCU Rams - Thursday 4:40 ET
Since BYU ruined my upset pick by refusing to play defense in the second half after jumping out to a 17 point lead in their First Four game against Ole Miss, I'll take Ohio State over VCU in the 7-10 is the pick. The Buckeyes have had a disappointing season, but they have D'Angelo Russell who can win a game on his own. The Buckeyes have been a bit snakebit this season, losing more than their share of close games. If the Bucks get the For more on Russell, scroll down the page.
First Weekend Game to Watch: #3 Baylor Bears vs. #6 Xavier Musketeers - Saturday
The real answer here is the First Four game between Ole Miss and BYU last night that saw the Rebels come back from a 17 point halftime deficit to beat the Cougs 94-90 (in regulation). Since it's a little unfair to pick a game that already happened, we'll go with the always intriguing six-three round of 32 matchup. Should both teams avoid first round upsets, a game between Baylor and Xavier would present an interesting clash of styles. Xavier wins with their offense and sharp shooting from inside the arc. Baylor, on the other hand, has an average offense, but stout defense that is one of the nation's best at getting steals. Rico Gathers is the tournament's leading rebounder, and the Musketeers have no one that can match his ability on the glass. Gathers averages just under five offensive boards per game, and his ability to extend possessions could be a key for Baylor. Neither team attempts too many threes, so expect this to have a bit of an old school feel to it.
Player to Watch: D'Angelo Russell - #10 Ohio State Buckeyes
I know, I know, Frank Kaminsky won Big Ten Player of the Year, and could win all of the national awards, but the Ohio State freshman has been outstanding this season. Since he plays for #10 seeded Buckeyes, the freshman guard's tournament might be a short one, so don't miss your chance to see him. Russell was rated the 13th best player in his class, but he outplayed every freshman not named Jahlil Okafor this year. The 6'5" guard does a little of everything. He can score (19.3 ppg), pass (5+ assists per game), rebound (5+ rpg), and shoot (41.5% 3pt). The reason you want to watch him, however, is for beautiful passes like this.
Top 4 Seed Going Home Early: #4 North Carolina
Since I like the top three seeds, this one is kind of by default. The Heels made a nice run in the ACC Tournament, but upon further investigation, their two notable wins were against teams that have been limping in down the stretch. It'd take a serious lapse in concentration for Carolina to lose to #13 Harvard (who were held to 27 points by UVA), but #5 Arkansas plays a unique style under Mike Anderson that can give teams trouble. Arkansas gets a lot of steals, and we all saw that the Heels can be prone to turnovers during the Irish 24-2 run in the ACC Championship. The battle inside will be great to watch as well as SEC POY Bobby Portis will battle against UNC's rotating cast of big guys. Even if the Heels march on to the Sweet Sixteen, the game will be great to watch for neutrals as both teams are in the top 20 in points per game averaging around 78 points per game.
Final Four Pick: #2 Arizona over #1 Wisconsin
Wait, how did we get through the whole preview with barely a mention of the two best teams in the region? Ultimately, these squads are a cut above the rest out west. Both teams won both their conference regular season and tournament titles. The Wildcats were so dominant in the PAC-12 that their two conference losses were by a combined five points. Wisconsin was nearly as dominant in a stronger Big Ten. Despite the great regular seasons, Wisconsin and Arizona were both battling for a 1 seed, and the Cats will feel a little ticked off not to have been placed on the top line. While the stereotype under Ryan has been "boring Badgers," this Wisconsin team has been in the top 5 of offensive efficiency for most of the season. While they still don't play quickly, these Badgers can get buckets when they need them. Arizona plays much quicker, can still score, but they feature the third rated defense in the nation by KenPom (behind only Kentucky and Virginia). On offense, Wisconsin is led by the three headed monster of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes. On the other side, the Wildcats are incredibly balanced as six players score more than nine points per game. These two played a classic OT game last year in the Elite Eight when Wisconsin came out on top. This time around, I like Arizona to win one of the best games of the tournament and make it to Indy.