March is officially here. The 64-team brackets are out for the NCAA Tournament, and madness has officially begun. The road to the Final Four in Minneapolis starts now. With play-in games having already gone underway, it’s time to dive straight into the March Madness.
The West region is one of the more compelling in the tournament, featuring plenty of talent and tantalizing matchups. There’s Murray State‘s Ja Morant, a projected top-three pick and the best player in the region. They’re facing a tough Marquette team in the first round. Other intriguing matchups including Syracuse–Baylor, Florida–Nevada, and a potential Gonzaga–Michigan, Elite Eight meeting.
The West will be tough for the favorites though. With eight conference champions in this region, there’s plenty of competition for the big boys. You have Texas Tech and Florida State, two top-four seeds that play in tough conferences. You also have lower seeds like Buffalo, Murray State and Vermont that are looking to shock the world.
With all that said, here’s a look at how the West Region breaks down:
The Bulldogs will once again be entering the tournament as favorites in their region. Gonzaga has become a staple of March as a consistent mid-major that always contends. Led by coach Mark Few, who’s in his 20th year with the team, the Bulldogs will be looking to reach the Final Four again. After losing in the Finals in 2017, Gonzaga has been on a mission to overcome the hump.
Gonzaga will be seeking to revenge their loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament Finals. After finishing with a perfect 16-0 conference record, their tournament loss may have affected their momentum.
Nonetheless, Gonzaga still has a loaded team. Led by forwards Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, the Zags have all the talent to win it all. Rui is one of the top draft prospects, making this tournament even more important for him and his team. The Zags surely have what it takes to win the West.
Michigan finished as runners-up to Villanova in last year’s final. This year, they started off well, going 17-0 and finished 28-6 with a 15-5 conference record. Their lineup features All-Big Ten talent in Iggy Brazdeikis, Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole. On paper, this Wolverine team has what is takes to make it back to the final.
However, Jon Beilein‘s squad will be looking to avenge their loss in the Big Ten final to rival Michigan State. Michigan lost to their bitter enemies three times this year, which will either add fuel to their fire to sting to the defeat.
They’ll face a tough road to redemption along the way. First, they’ll square off against Montana, who they beat last year in the first round. Montana will surely be looking for revenge in their own right. Then, Michigan would face the winner of Nevada-Florida, followed by a potential matchup with Texas Tech in the next round. There is no easy road, especially with Gonzaga at the top. Yet, Michigan will certainly be there for a fight.
The Red Raiders had one of their best year last season, when they made their first trip to the Elite Eight. However, they too lost to the eventual-champions in Villanova. They also lost a key chunk of players to the draft. Yet, they still managed to reload and come back even stronger.
Texas Tech ended up co-winning the Big 12 behind the magnificent play of shooting guard Jarret Culver. This snapped a 14-year run for Kansas as the perennial winners of the conference. Under the guidance coach Chris Beard, the Red Raiders have become a powerhouse in college basketball.
With the transfer of redshirt senior Tariq Owens from St. John’s at the beginning of the year, the Raiders have just enough firepower to reach the Final Four. They have all the size and ability to make a run at winning the whole tournament. Their length and athleticism will be put to the test in the rigorous West region.
Buffalo is the most underrated team in college hoops. Finishing the season at 31-3, with a MAC East championship to boot, the Bulls are a force to be reckoned with. Led by senior guard Jeremy Harris, Buffalo has plenty of tournament experience. They upset Arizona last year before bowing out to Kentucky in the second round.
They’ll face a tough first round test, with the winner of the St. John’s-Arizona State game to play Buffalo. If they make it past that, they face a buzzsaw in potentially having to go through Texas Tech, Michigan then Gonzaga to make it to the Final Four.
But that’s why Buffalo’s run would be such a cinderella story. A 31-win team that’s given a tough six seed, (because they play in a weak conference), then going through the ringer just to make it to Minneapolis, would be amazing. It would be one of the greatest runs in college basketball history. And it’s why the West is such a fun region to follow.
As previously mentioned, the best player in this bracket is Murray State’s Ja Morant. Morant is a tantalizing two-way guard that is one of the most explosive athletes out there. His presence alone will be reason enough for people to tune in and root for their success.
Yet, the 12th-seeded Racers are up against a tough first-round challenge in Marquette. If they do end up getting past the first two rounds, they could end up facing Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. This matchup should frighten the Bulldogs, and would add to the fairytale season for Murray State.
If Ja Morant could catapult his team into the Elite Eight and beyond, then he could cement himself as an NCAA legend.
Vermont is seeking to advance past the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second time in school history. As the America East champions, Vermont went 27-6 and 14-2 in conference play. They avenged their only two conference losses by winning the tournament final against UMBC.
The Catamounts will be looking to do something special like UMBC did last year. As the first 16-seed to beat a one-seed, UMBC has laid the ground down for the impossible to happen. Could Vermont follow in their footsteps? They certainly have the talent to put up a fight.
Florida State comes into the tournament as one of the strongest teams in the NCAA. They have tremendous length and experience, behind veteran coach Lenny Hamilton and star player Phil Cofer. They reached t Sweet Sixteen last year but got beat by Gonzaga. There is a definitely possibility of rematch, considering the two past in the West.
Florida State have enough scoring and depth to make a run. In an ultra-competitive ACC, Florida State managed to go 13-5 in conference. Their overall 27-7 record is pretty impressive, and bodes well for their tourney chances. As a four-seed, it is very possible that they can power through the region.
Marquette is probably the grittiest team in this region. That matters in March, and the Golden Eagles can make it far. Behind star Markus Howard‘s 25 points, Marquette navigated a brutal Big East. They stumbled towards the end, but finished 12-6 in conference and 24-9 overall.
With one of the most prolific scorers in college, Marquette has all the makings of making a cinderella storybook run. They’ll have to go against Murray State and Ja Morant in the first round. If they get past this first test, they can make it very far.
All in All
In a very tough call, I’m going to go with Gonzaga to win this region. They have a much easier road to the Elite Eight than Michigan. Gonzaga-Michigan would be a dream matchup in the regional final, but there are other teams ready to spoil it.
The Cinderellas and dark horses in the West are very compelling and competitive. I can easily see Murray State or Vermont winning a couple games in the first rounds. I can also see Florida State or Marquette making a run towards the Final Four.
However, the big schools at the top will be too much to handle. Gonzaga, Michigan and Texas Tech are the fearsome threesome that the rest of the region will have to deal with. The rest will certainly be up to task, and I can’t wait to watch it all unfold.