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Bracket Analysis: West Region

Zach Collins, Gonzaga
Prior to the season, Gonzaga still had questions about how they would replace stud forwards like Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, particularly in a West Coast Conference that looked like it would be as competitive as it had been in years. The Bulldogs answered those questions, and then some, going 32-1, winning both the WCC regular and postseason crowns and of course, locking down a top seed. Despite those accomplishments, many still believe Gonzaga is the weakest No. 1 seed, which is relatively understandable. The last time they were a one seed, they were overpowered by Wichita State in the second round, and their resume pales in comparison to some of the other top teams in the nation. Even so, I think 'Zaga still has the pieces to go on a long postseason run. Josh Perkins and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss are two terrific guards that have run an extremely efficient Gonzaga offense, and are underrated shooters. Gigantic center Przemek Karnowski is a load for any defense to handle, and is surrounded by exceptional bigs like Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams. Collins is just a freshman but his touch around the rim is already at an elite level and he can stretch the floor, while Williams (a Mizzou transfer) is a wonderful athlete that is a force on the boards. That core has helped Gonzaga average 84.6 points per game in '16-'17, good enough for 13th in the nation. It is so effective because it doesn't rely on just one person, which means that one bad game won't completely spell doom for the Bulldogs, which is obviously so important in March. Another big advantage for the 'Zags is the path deep into the tournament is not extremely difficult. A winner of Northwestern/Vanderbilt is not especially scary in the second round, and I foresee plenty of upsets among the other higher seeds. Despite their long run of success atop the WCC, Gonzaga has never made a Final Four. With their veteran leadership and offensive abilities, I would not be surprised at all if this is the year that changes.

There are few stories in college basketball better than Northwestern this season. The Wildcats have long been a Big Ten cellar dweller, failing to reach the NCAA Tournament once in their expansive history. Yet, Chris Collins has transformed the 'Cats into a factor in the Big Ten, and they took advantage of a weak conference and more experience to earn their first tourney appearance ever. Now, the next goal for Northwestern is to actually win some games in it, and they face an interesting battle in their opener against ninth-seed Vanderbilt. The Commodores lost 15 games (the most by an at-large bid team in the history of the NCAA Tournament) but put together an impressive resume and ended the year playing terrific basketball. The Wildcats will need a big day from their offensive superstar Bryant McIntosh (14.4 PPG, 5.2 APG) and contributions from fellow guards Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. Neither Lindsey nor Law are guys that will take over games, but both are good shooters and can also get to the rim and finish through contact, which will be key against a physical Vandy squad. Northwestern does their most work on the defensive side of the ball, where a motivated and well-coached "D" allows just 65.1 points per game (34th in the country). If they come in and play up to their potential, this is a team that can certainly keep their feel-good season going. Though, I always worry about rust and possibly a hangover from the excitement of simply making the field with a team like this, which makes me very cautious about the 'Cats.

If you are looking for a great dark horse team, Princeton may just be the perfect fit. The winners of the first ever Ivy League conference tournament, the Tigers are among the hottest teams in the entire nation, with 19 straight victories. That includes a flawless conference record, in which they went 14-0. That number is very impressive when considering how much better Ivy League basketball has become over just the past five years. Last season, Yale took down Baylor and has a ton of talent, while Harvard has become an extremely consistent program under head coach Tommy Amaker. Princeton is not a very flashy team, especially offensively. Senior forward Steven Cook is a superb wing that can take over from deep, while guard Devin Cannady is a quick and athletic instant source of offense. Yet, Princeton still has a very methodical and smart offense that likely will never put up 100 points but gets the job done. Defensively, the Tigers are as good as anybody, allowing just 61.6 PPG, 10th in the country. It will be interesting to see how that stifling defense fares against a Notre Dame team that has been well known as offensive-minded for awhile under Mike Brey. Overall, Princeton is a disciplined, balanced team that is riding a major wave of momentum. In a region that appears to be pretty wide open, that could just be enough to make a deep run.

Florida Gulf Coast will always go down in history for what they did in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. As a 15 seed they blew out second-seeded Georgetown, then followed it up with a second round victory, making them the first-ever 15 seed to make the Sweet 16. Years later, the Eagles are once more incredibly dangerous, this time as a 14 seed. Head coach Joe Dooley has kept the program incredibly consistent after Andy Enfeld ditched for the USC gig following that tourney run, and they have become the class of the Atlantic Sun, with another conference title this season. "Dunk City" is still definitely alive, as the Eagles feature a number of attacking wings that are explosive. Incredibly reliable Brandon Goodwin is the team's star, leading them in points and assists per game, while shooting 52 percent from the field. Fellow guard Zach Johnson is another athletic playmaker, that is incredibly disruptive on the defensive side of the ball, while big man Demetris Morant is a force to be reckoned with on the block, which will be important in a region that has some elite-caliber big men. Rayjon Tucker had a thunderous dunk that was so powerful the shot clock malfunctioned in the A-Sun Conference Championship, but could also provide a lot to FGCU as a shooter. What makes the Eagles especially dangerous is the path they can take to make some serious noise. They open the tournament against Florida State, who is a good team but has struggled as of late and has an incredibly inconsistent offense. If Florida Gulf Coast can pull an upset there, it would get the winner of Maryland-Xavier. The Musketeers haven't had the year they envisioned and just lost their star point guard, while the Terrapins appear to be a relatively weak six seed and are super young. This team may not have some of the flash of that '13 squad, but is an ideal position to wreak similar havoc if things go right.

Picking the West Region
First Round
1 Gonzaga over 16 South Dakota State... The barely-over-.500 Jackrabbits made a great run to win the Summit League, but they don't have the size or experience to pull off the major upset here.
8 Northwestern over 9 Vanderbilt... The Commodores may be hotter at the moment, but Northwestern's guards and motivation give them a serious advantage.
12 Princeton over 5 Notre Dame... With 19 wins and counting, Princeton is among the hottest teams in the entire field. If they can shut down versatile ND forward Bonzie Colson, they should get the job done.
13 Bucknell over 4 West Virginia... WVU thrives on creating pressure and turning the ball over, but Bucknell is extremely poised and a much better team down low.
6 Maryland over 11 Xavier... The Musketeers are a great March team, but are without star point guard Edmund Sumner. Maryland should use their own star PG, Melo Trimble, to get the job done.
14 Florida Gulf Coast over 3 Florida State... At one point, FSU looked like a National Championship contender but they've struggled over the past month, and FGCU has enough weapons to pull off the upset.
7 Saint Mary's over 10 VCU... While Gonzaga won the WCC handily, their conference rival, St. Mary's still looked very impressive. If the Gaels can hit the three in this one, they should win.
2 Arizona over 15 North Dakota... The Big Sky Champion North Dakota Fighting Hawks won the conference in both football and basketball. They'll need a slight miracle to overcome this Arizona team.

Second Round
1 Gonzaga over 8 Northwestern... While their backcourt may be terrific, Northwestern doesn't have the size up front to counter fabulous big men Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins.
12 Princeton over 13 Bucknell... It is hard to imagine this game being very flashy or high-scoring. Princeton is a better shooting team, which should be enough to guide them to a Sweet 16 appearance.
6 Maryland over 14 Florida Gulf Coast... Terrapins have many flaws, but a backcourt of Trimble and true freshman Anthony Cowan should be enough to stifle the upset-minded Eagles.
2 Arizona over 7 St. Mary's... Don't overlook the dangerous Gaels here, but they won't have any answer for explosive scorer Alonzo Trier and the rest of the Wildcats lineup.

Sweet 16
1 Gonzaga over 12 Princeton... The Tigers' Cinderella journey won't last past the Sweet 16. Gonzaga is too talented and has enough size underneath to take advantage of undersized Princeton.
2 Arizona over 6 Maryland... Unless an average Maryland defense can find a way to stop Arizona's plethora of playmakers, the Pac-12 Champions should roll to another Elite Eight.

Elite Eight
2 Arizona over 1 Gonzaga... These two teams met earlier in the year, with Gonzaga coming out on top. However, Arizona is much healthier than they were then, and a much better team.

West Region Champion: 2 Arizona Wildcats

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