It's here! Check out what to watch for in the West region...
All things considered, it was a relatively lowkey Selection Sunday for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. While some of us, myself included, were irrationally fearful that the Zags would fall off the top line and be replaced by the Arizona Wildcats, there was little doubt that the Bulldogs would be one of the top two seeds out West. As we all now know, my fears were unfounded as the Zags were revealed as the top seed out West in a region that is full of storylines and possibilities. Let's take a quick run through some of the aspects of this bracket that jumped out to us right away...
I won't say 'favorable' but it is a very fair bracket
In the past, the Zags have been dealt some brutal matchup early on in the tournament. Whether it was traveling out East to play Steph Curry in his backyard or having a second round matchup against a frightening Wichita State club, the Bulldogs have had their fair share of challenging draws. From a geographic standpoint, this is elite, obviously, as the Zags could road trip to all their destinations and be relatively well rested. In terms of the competition, it is undoubtedly challenging but there are no teams in the bracket that were drastically mis-seeded or undervalued by the committee. In Gonzaga's most immediate pod is South Dakota State, their Thursday opponent, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt. Northwestern is going to get all of the headlines, potentially more than the top-seeded Bulldogs as this somehow is the Wildcats' first NCAA Tournament appearance in the history of the program. In the KenPom rankings, SDSU is #184 while Vandy and Northwestern are the mid-to-high 30s. What jumps out about Gonzaga's potential round of 32 opponent is that they love to slow it down. They are both near the bottom of the pile in terms of tempo (think how Saint Mary's plays) which, in years past, would scare Gonzaga fans as we are used to horrid defense but the Bulldogs can defend extremely well in the half court (think how they played against SMC this year) so either one of these teams will be outstanding matchups.
South Dakota State is a bit Daum terrifying
Half of the Twitter-verse has already declared that SDSU will be the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed and of course we say "not so fast" but it isn't a team without a rallying cry. If you watched any of the Summit Conference tournament, you could not help but get caught up in the Mike Daum hysteria. Daum will be a challenging matchup for the Bulldogs as he is a big man who can score in a variety of ways and has put the Jackrabbits on his back to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Make no mistake, this has not been a good South Dakota State team this year as they finished with an 18-16 record and finished 6th in the 9 team Summit Conference. That said, Daum has been an absolute freak this year and, in particular, over the past few games. He's averaging 25 points per game and 4 of his last 5 games have resulted in 30+ point scoring outputs. Daum won conference player of the year in the Summit Conference and will do everything he can to pull off the unthinkable. It is going to be super interesting to see how the Zags defend him but I'd anticipate that Jonathan Williams will start on him with a lot of Zach Collins and Killian Tillie mixed in to stop the talented big man.
Several legit first round upset scenarios exist
(5) Notre Dame vs. (12) Princeton: Notre Dame is getting a lot of love recently given their strong ACC Tournament result and it is very deserved. The Irish have a strong veteran roster with a couple guys that can take this team to an Elite 8 or beyond. That said, Princeton comes from the Ivy League and the smart folks have done a damn good job in the tournament in recent years. Last year, Yale stunned Baylor and the year prior it was Harvard that pulled the stunner on then darling New Mexico. Princeton did not lose a game in conference play and won both the Ivy regular season and tournament crown. This game effectively tips of the tournament on Thursday and it could be a huge stunner.
(3) Florida State vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast: FGCU captured everyone's attention a few years ago when Andy Enfield's squad burst on the scene and this year's team has all the athletic ability to compete with the team that put this program on the map (literally as no one knew it existed). That said, for me, this game is more about Florida State being extremely hard to trust. They have some incredible wins but also dropped headscratchers down the stretch that make this upset very possible. While I think Princeton presents a more likely scearnio, this will be one to watch.
Oh, hey Saint Mary's
Our friends (read: not friends at all) the Saint Mary's Gaels were comfortably in the field as a 7th seed in the West region and they will take on VCU in the opening round. Should they take down the Shaka Smart-less Rams, they will likely face off against the Arizona Wildcats. A challenging draw, for sure, but it gives the Gaels a really good chance to show off the program a bit and emerge out of Gonzaga's shadow a bit. While the rhetoric will say otherwise, the Gaels have everything it takes to compete with the Pac-12 tournament champs and are one of the top teams on the coast. They are remarkably efficient on both ends of the floor as KenPom has Saint Mary's as the 14th best team in the nation against Arizona's 20th ranking. Arizona has been a national darling over the past few weeks but it would not surprise me at all to see Saint Mary's take them down to the wire and pull off the upset. Also, seeing Gonzaga and Saint Mary's play for a Final 4 berth would almost be too perfect for words.