The West region of the NCAA Tournament, which will be played in Los Angeles, could offer up the most upsets of any of the four regions. Gonzaga is the top seed, but is a bit unproven after playing in the West Coast Conference. On their side of the bracket lurk some tough teams like Pittsburgh, Wichita State, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the likes of New Mexico and Arizona on the other side of the bracket are a bit unpredictable, to go along with the suddenly surging Ohio State Buckeyes, who are fresh off their Big 10 Tournament championship. It should make for quite an interesting region.
Top seed: Gonzaga
It’s tough to keep a team that’s 31-2 from being a number one seed, no matter what conference they play in. At this point it doesn’t matter if the Bulldogs deserved the top seed in the West or not, they’ve got it. What is important is that this could be the best team Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. The nation will finally get a close-up look at seven foot Canadian center Kelly Olynyk, who leads the Bulldogs with 17 points per game, despite averaging just 25 minutes a night. Gonzaga has just six wins over tournament teams, and three of those came against Saint Mary’s, one of the last at-large teams to get in. It’s been a while since the Zags have been tested, but they play all season to prepare themselves for this point of the season, so they should be ready to prove on the court that they deserved a 1 seed and that they are the best team in this region.
Main competition: Ohio State
Few teams are as hot as the Buckeyes are right now, as they have their sights set on a return trip to the Final Four. Since losing three of four games in mid-February, Ohio State has won eight in a row, with six of those wins coming against teams in the tournament. There’s no Jared Sullenger to shoulder the load this year, but junior forward Deshaun Thomas is scoring 19 points per game to lead the way. They also have point guard Aaron Craft, who is one of the top on-ball defenders in the country and a pretty good scoring option on offense as well. Ohio State is tough defensively, they can dictate pace, and they are peaking at the right time; all of which make them serious contenders in what could turn into a wide-open West region.
Sleeper: Notre Dame
The Irish will be glad to get to the tournament and get away from Big East teams for a while, although they handled themselves well going 11-7 in conference play. This year, Notre Dame has a little more muscle than usual in the paint, with Jack Cooley, Tom Knight, and Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman manning the middle. Those three provide a nice compliment to Notre Dame’s usual band of under-rated guards that can shoot lights out from the outside. Mike Brey’s teams have usually improved a great deal by the end of the season, and this year’s team is no different, as they reached the Big East Tournament semi-finals before running into the indomitable Louisville Cardinals. A second round matchup with Ohio State will be tough, but if the Irish can knock outside down shots they can beat anyone in this region, which makes them a potential sleeper.
Tough out: Harvard
Harvard offers a nice blend of talented youth and experience. Upper classmen Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster are back from a team that challenged Vanderbilt in the first round last year. Meanwhile, youngsters Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers have handled a bulk of the scoring this season and can really light up the scoreboard from the backcourt. Harvard may be a year away from being able to pull off an upset, but they’ll force New Mexico to really work in order to earn a first round win.
Possible Cinderella: Belmont
This will be the third straight year in the NCAA Tournament for Belmont, which is usually a good omen for teams. The Bruins are made up mostly of upper classmen, including senior guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, who average more than 30 points per game combined. Belmont has a multitude of shooters that can stretch a defense and put up points in a hurry. They may actually have an advantage in the backcourt against first round opponent Arizona, and they have the horses to go even further than that. Head coach Rick Byrd has been at the school for 24 years. He runs a great program and if you’re looking for a team to become the next Butler, George Mason, or VCU, then Belmont could definitely be that team in 2013.
Upset alert: Pittsburgh over Gonzaga
This is a bit of a role reversal, as usually it’s the Panthers that are a top seed getting upset early in the tournament, but this year Pitt has a chance to bust some brackets. The Panthers finished 4th in the Big East, so an 8 seed seems a little low for them, which could mean a tougher than usual second-round matchup for top-seeded Gonzaga. After missing the tournament last year, the Panthers are back this year with a classic Pittsburgh team: deep, tough, physical, and great defensively. With big men like Dante Taylor, Steven Adams, and Talib Zanna, Pittsburgh should match up well with Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk, and make it difficult for him to score inside. The Panthers do not have a good track record in the NCAA Tournament under Jamie Dixon, but this year they will be the hunters, not the hunted, so if they can survive a first-round game with Wichita State, they’ll have a real chance at knocking off Gonzaga.
Player to watch: Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss
If you have yet to become acquainted with Henderson, now’s the time. He’s brash, fearless, and a gamer that was born to play in the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament provides. He’s averaging 20 points per game and just helped lead the Rebels to an upset of Florida and an SEC Tournament championship. He’s a guy that could thrive in the tourney and carry his team on his back to a victory or two. However, at times Henderson can be too aggressive and take too many shots, which can really hurt his team. Henderson has the potential to either play brilliantly in the tournament or flame out in a disastrous way. Either way, Henderson should be one of the more exciting players in the tournament to watch.
What to watch for:
If you’re looking for upsets, this could be the region where you find them. The top 12 seeds are all capable of advancing to the Sweet 16, which means upsets could happen early and often during the opening weekend of the tournament. This region also contains teams like Gonzaga, New Mexico, Wichita State, and Ole Miss that not too many people are familiar with. Some of the middle seeds like Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Belmont appear to be a bit under-seeded and could be quite dangerous. Things are definitely not easy for the top two seeds in this region. If Gonzaga and Ohio State can get past their second-round matchups they look good to meet up in the regional final, but if not, there’s no telling what could happen or who might make it to Atlanta out of this part of the bracket.