The first weekend of March Madness has past, and there haven’t been too many surprises. There were some shockers: Oregon over Wisconsin and U.C. Irvine over Kansas State shook up the South region. Liberty and Minnesota made one-game runs that surprised many in the East.
On the flipside, the West has been straight chalk. Aside from a non-shocking, one-and-done from Murray State, the road to Sweet Sixteen has been pretty predictable. The four teams left are the top four teams in the region. Each team could beat another, making the Elite Eight up for grabs. Each of the four teams have also had recent runs to the Sweet 16 and beyond. They are all experienced team with the capacity to win it all.
The West’s final four will start with top-seed Gonzaga facing off against four-seed Florida State. Then in the nightcap, second-seed Michigan will take on third-seed Texas Tech. I had Gonzaga, Michigan and Texas Tech as my three favorites going into the tournament, with Gonzaga winning the region. However, these matchups can easily go either way, specifically the Michigan-Texas Tech game.
Let’s examine the last two games in the West, and see which Elite Eight is more likely to occur:
(1) Gonzaga v. (4) Florida State
In a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16, Florida State will take on Gonzaga in a compelling matchup. The Seminoles upset the Bulldogs, before narrowly losing to Michigan in the Elite Eight in 2018.
To get to the Sweet 16 this year, Florida State had to beat two scrappy underdogs. In the first round, they narrowly beat Vermont. Yet, in the next round they easily handled Ja Morant and Murray State. Now though, the Seminoles will take on a much bigger and harder task in Gonzaga.
Florida State will be shorthanded, with key center Phil Cofer ruled out for this matchup. Cofer is unexpected to play in this game, because of the recent passing of his father. This is a sad occurrence for Cofer and his family, and really hurts the Seminole’s chances at beating the Bulldogs. Cofer’s presence in the Florida State will surely be missed, and we send our thoughts to him and his family.
Veteran coach Leonard Hamilton will now have to rely on his top scorers in Mfiondu Kabengele and Terrance Mann to carry the load. Kabengele leads Florida State with 13.4 points per game, all while coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Mann’s 6.5 rebounds per game tops the team. These are Florida State’s two best players for coach Hamilton, so they’ll be called upon often in this game. This tandem will have to have near-perfect performances for them to have a fighter’s chance against Gonzaga.
For Gonzaga, their route to the Sweet 16 was a breeze. In the first round, they dismantled Fairleigh Dicksinon. Then, they took on a tough Baylor team and won by 12. Without Cofer playing, the Zags should have another easy game to handle against the Seminoles. Although this is their fifth-straight Sweet 16 appearance, they’ve only gone to the Elite Eight and beyond once, in 2017. They will be looking to avenge last year’s disappointing early exit.
Coach Mark Few has molded Rui Hachimura into one of the best NBA prospects in the nation. He had a great first round game, scoring 22 with eight rebounds, and three blocks. In the second round, third-year transfer Brandon Clarke took over, with 36 points, eight rebounds, and five blocks. It seems that the junior duo of Hachimura and Clarke are ready to take Gonzaga to the next level.
While the game may be close in the first half, Gonzaga should eventually run away with it. Hachimura, Clarke, and others will overwhelm Florida State with size, athleticism, and interior scoring.
The two high-scoring offenses will both be on display; but Florida State will be less equipped to handle Gonzaga without their starting center. Gonzaga should be able to handle Florida State and make it back to the Elite Eight.
(2) Michigan v. (3) Texas Tech
This matchup should definitely be closer than the Gonzaga-Florida State game.
Michigan boasts arguably the best lineup in the NCAA with Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Jon Teske, and Zavier Sampson. They all have All-Big Ten talent and play as a cohesive unit.
Texas Tech, meanwhile, will have the best player on the court in guard Jarrett Culver and a lengthy defensive team. It is a clash of styles that will be interesting to watch.
To get here, Texas Tech took care of Northern Kentucky behind Culver’s 29 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists.
In the second round, the Red Raiders stifled the Buffalo Bison with tough defense and solid play from Culver. Their two defensive studs in Norense Odiase and Tariq Owens owned the paint. Odiase and Owens had 15 and 7 rebounds respectively, while Culver added 10 of his own. This is also Texas Tech’s second-straight Sweet 16 appearance. They made a run to the Elite Eight last year, and almost beat the eventual-champions in Villanova. Their run shocked the basketball world and set the stage for bigger things this season.
Michigan got to their third-straight Sweet 16 appearance through complete team play. In the first game, they beat Montana handily behind a 22 point 10 rebound double-double from Matthews. Teske almost had a double-double of his own, but got nine rebounds and 11 points. Brazdeikis contributed hard with 14 points and 7 rebounds.
In the second round against Florida, it was Poole who stepped up with 19 points. Sixth man Isaiah Livers played efficiently, scoring 10 points on 50 percent shooting.
This game will ultimately come down to who plays better defense. It will be a battle between coaches Jon Beilein and Chris Beard as to how to manage their rotations. Although Michigan’s six-man rotation is more talented and they have more scoring depth, their inside game is weak. Brazdeikis and Teske will have to deal with Owens and Odiase all game long, on both sides of the court.
The Texas Tech big men should dominate on the boards and on defense. Unless one or both of them get in foul trouble, it will be hard for Michigan to score enough points to win.
The only way that Michigan can beat Texas Tech is by stretching them out and draining threes. Iggy Brazdeikis will have to play as a stretch-four, and the guards (Poole, Matthews and Simpson) will have to all knock down their shots.
The two X-Factors that will decide this for Texas Tech are Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney, their two other scoring guards. Both players are capable and efficient shooters, and should provide enough offensive support behind Culver. In the end, the Red Raiders should pull off a mild upset over the Wolverines to advance to the Elite Eight.
Elite Eight Scenarios
Based on predictions above, we should see Texas Tech face Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
The Red Raiders are the best defensive team in the West, holding a red-hot Buffalo team to 58 points. They have the scoring and defense to dominate both sides of the way, with Culver, Odiase, and Owens creating a formidable threesome.
Concurrently, this Gonzaga team is the more complete than the 2017 team that were runners-up in the NCAA Final. They also have enough scoring and defensive prowess that can propel them to the finish.
If Florida State somehow pulled off the huge upset, I’d like to see them play Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. Both teams have tremendous length and rely on aggressive defense. It would be a chess-match of a game that is very opposite to the modern play-style.
Conversely, if Michigan were to beat Texas Tech, I’d like them to take on Gonzaga. These are the two most talented squads on paper, and most people have them meeting in the Elite Eight.
All in All
The more I have studied the West, the more I’ve come to terms with the uncertainty and openness of the region. The top three teams are all very close to each other in terms of talent and ability–Florida State isn’t too far behind. While Gonzaga and Michigan feature high-flying scorers, Texas Tech relies on a one-man scoring game with team defense.
In March, the team with the hot player(s) and the best defense usually wins. Luckily for Texas Tech, they have both this year in Culver and their dominant defense. However, I think that they will eventually run into a wall in Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. The Zags have the talent on both sides to make to win it all. With Clarke and Hachimura, Gonzaga should have a date with Duke in the Final Four.