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2021 Bracket Analysis: West Region

Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

The first team to enter March Madness undefeated since the 2014-2015 Kentucky Wildcats, Gonzaga locked down the top overall seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Obviously, there are a lot of reasons to like the Bulldogs chances of taking home the National Title. For one, they have built an incredibly strong resume in the non-conference, beating Kansas, West Virginia, and Iowa. In addition, they have three of college basketball's best players in Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, and Drew Timme. And finally, their path to the Final Four is straightforward. Of the other three top seeds in the bracket, two have serious COVID concerns that are almost definitely going to be disruptive while the other (Iowa) is dealing with an injury to its second-best player in Joe Weiskamp and also has a very tough draw in the second round. With those factors all working in Gonzaga's favor, you'd be very bold to take anyone but the Bulldogs out of the West Region. 

If you happened to read my "Dark Horse Mid-Major NCAA Tournament Teams" post, you know how high I am on Ohio's Jason Preston. Preston is a production machine, putting up a stat-line of 16.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 7.2 APG while shooting 53% from the field. In the MAC Championship victory over Buffalo, Preston also showed his defensive prowess by compiling five steals in the 84-69 win. He's the type of player that becomes a household name in March, and the Bobcats have a really nice draw. They go up against fourth-seeded Virginia in the first round, a team that isn't even sure if it will be able to make the trip due to COVID problems. Even if they do, the Cavaliers have not been playing great basketball in the season's second half, and simply don't have the offensive punch to be a second weekend team. Assuming they are able to upset the Cavaliers, Ohio then has a decent shot at possibly meeting up with UC-Santa Barbara, who will be a popular upset pick over Creighton. It's a really nice setup for Preston and the Bobcats, who I'm picking to make the Sweet 16.

Wichita State and Drake were two of the last teams to make the Field of 68, a fairly notable surprise given they are both mid-majors without extremely strong resumes. I really like Wichita's chances to not only defeat Drake in their "First Four" matchup, but also possibly take down USC in Round One. The Shockers will have to deal with future Top 5 NBA Draft selection Evan Mobley, but there's still a lot of reasons to roll with the American Athletic regular season champs. For one, they are a physical enough basketball team to deal with Mobley in the post, and they also rebound very well. They're also led by two extremely capable lead guards in Tyson Etienne and Alterique Gilbert that will be a load for both Drake & 'SC to handle. Lastly, it's a team entering the NCAA Tournament with quite a bit of momentum, even after losing a heartbreaker in the AAC semifinals. Prior to that the Shockers had won eight straight, including a win over then-No. 6 Houston. This isn't a Final Four good Wichita team like the 2013 team, but they are certainly good enough to win a game or two.

Don't be surprised if the Oregon Ducks are a popular pick to not only win in the first round, but possibly even upset Iowa in the second. Oregon suffered through an injury-plagued campaign and still wound up 20-6 overall and 14-4 in the Pac-12. Forward Eugene Omoruyi is the only starter to have played in all 26 games this season, with Chris Duarte, Will Richardson, N'Faly Dante and L.J. Figueroa all missing action. Now at full strength, they should be favored against VCU in Round One, and that potential matchup with the Hawkeyes will be interesting. Iowa obviously has one of the game's best players in Luka Garza, but they are an atrocious defensive team that is dealing with a few injuries. Most notable may be the loss of big Jack Nunge, who unfortunately suffered another season-ending knee injury. His absence leaves them with a dearth of size, which Oregon or others could definitely exploit.

Speaking of Iowa, their first round game against 15-seed Grand Canyon won't exactly be a cakewalk. The Antelopes won the WAC after putting together a 9-3 regular season in the conference. They are coached by Bryce Drew, a guy with his own track record of March Madness success, and it's also a team that plays really strong defense. Whether they have the offensive skills necessary to hang with the Hawkeyes for an entire 40 minutes is another story, but they could give Iowa a tough opener. Grand Canyon isn't playing as great of basketball as they were over the season's first half so picking a massive upset here would be unwise, but it might have the best chances of any 2-15 matchup although that Houston-Cleveland State game in the Midwest Region may be worth monitoring.

Picking the West

Round One

1 Gonzaga over 16 Applachian State (First Four Winner) ... The top overall seed this year isn't losing to a 16 seed, as the Bulldogs roll.

8 Oklahoma over 9 Missouri ... The Sooners are not a typical eight seed, battling in the brutal Big 12 all season long. Savvy veteran guard Austin Reaves helps them overcome a Missouri team that has struggled down the stretch.

12 UC-Santa Barbara over 5 Creighton ... Big West Champion UCSB takes advantage over a Creighton squad that has dealt with some drama as of late following insensitive comments made by head coach Greg McDermott.

13 Ohio over 4 Virginia ... Virginia isn't even sure if they are going to be able to make it to Indiana and even if they do, they have no answer for Jason Preston.

11 Wichita State (First Four Winner) over 6 USC ... The Shockers shut down Evan Mobley defensively, while Etienne and Gilbert propel them on offense.

3 Kansas over 14 Eastern Washington ... Another team dealing with COVID problems, the Jayhawks are able to overcome the feisty Big Sky Champs.

7 Oregon over 10 VCU ... Oregon at full strength ends up being too much for VCU and Mike Rhoades, particularly if Chris Duarte can get things going after a poor showing in the Pac-12 Tournament.

2 Iowa over 15 Grand Canyon ... The Antelopes simply don't have the offense to keep up with Luka Garza and Joe Weiskamp.

Round Two

1 Gonzaga over 8 Oklahoma ... Oklahoma will not be an easy second round test for Gonzaga, but the trio of Suggs, Kispert and Timme is too much for them to overcome.

13 Ohio over 12 UC-Santa Barbara ... Jason Preston again should have a big day for the MAC Champion Bobcats, who make their first Sweet 16 since 2012.

3 Kansas over 11 Wichita State ... Wichita's upset in Round One sets up this inter-Kansas showdown, but the Jayhawks' depth helps them come out on top.

7 Oregon over 2 Iowa ... Even with Garza, Oregon may have an advantage in the paint, and the Hawkeyes' offensive streakiness worries me.

Sweet 16

1 Gonzaga over 13 Ohio ... Any hopes of Ohio continuing their Cinderella run ends in the Sweet 16 when they run into the buzzsaw that is 2021 Gonzaga.

3 Kansas over 7 Oregon ... This is a testament to Bill Self and this Kansas program. Even with all their questions right now, I still like them to make the Elite Eight.

Elite Eight

1 Gonzaga over 3 Kansas ... The Jayhawks have a chance for vengeance after losing to Gonzaga earlier in the season. They'll play the Bulldogs tougher this time, but won't be able to spring the upset.

West Region Champion: 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs

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