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2024 Bracket Analysis: West Region

R.J. Davis, North Carolina

The Top Seed: North Carolina Tar Heels

Few teams enter March as battle-tested as the North Carolina Tar Heels, who faced down a brutal non-conference schedule and outlasted the rest of the ACC to cement a No. 1 seed this year. In many ways, it feels a lot like the type of team we used to see Roy Williams trot out on a regular basis ahead of March. There's veteran pieces throughout the lineup, namely a guard who has gotten better each and every year and is searching for a grand finale to their career (R.J. Davis), plus a dominant low post presence who is a force on both ends (Armando Bacot). But, this year's Heels are different in many ways - for one, they've plugged holes in their roster with key veterans through the portal, including Cormac Ryan and Harrison Ingram, and also lean heavily on the energy of the young guys, led by Elliott Cadeau. Hubert Davis has done an excellent job building up this roster and keeping together the core, which he deserves plenty of credit for in this era of college basketball. And, the Heels did enough to earn top billing even when they took their lumps during the non-conference, including beating Duke in a regular season finale that likely bumped them up to the No. 1 seed line. The Selection Committee not only gifted them that No. 1 seed, they were also rewarded with arguably the weakest region on the bracket, with the most underwhelming set of top four seeds of any region. That doesn't mean UNC is going to have a cake-walk deep into the Tournament, but the ingredients are in place for a program that is no stranger to deep stays in the NCAA Tournament, including playing for a National Title two years ago.

The Storyline Team: Michigan State Spartans

It wouldn't be March without the Michigan State Spartans entering the Big Dance with significant momentum, poised to cause chaos with a higher seed next to their name than normal. It's a script we've seen countless times since Tom Izzo has taken over in East Lansing - the Spartans start with a high preseason rank, struggle mightily in the non-conference and early portion of the Big Ten schedule, before catching fire at the right time before March and going on a deep Tournament run. Although, to be fair, this year's Michigan State team doesn't fit the script perfectly - they still had their fair share of issues down the stretch and were subsequently bounced in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament by the Purdue Boilermakers. Even so, they're going to be a popular pick this time around and on paper, this is one of Izzo's best teams in recent years. Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard are a superb 1-2 punch out of the backcourt, Jaden Adkins is a killer from three-point territory, and up front, Malik Hall and Maddy Sissoko give opposing teams plenty to worry about. But, even with all that said, I'd exercise a bit of caution if you have the Spartans going deep this time around. As good as the team looks on paper, they haven't shown up in reality consistently enough to make me a believer, and the offense has a frustrating knack to disappear for long stretches of time. Don't discredit their first-round matchup, either - Mississippi State is going to give them a battle in Charlotte on Thursday. In short, storylines are great, and the history backs up Izzo and the Spartans - but just because something has happened in the past doesn't mean it will play out in practice this March.

The Cinderella Possibility: New Mexico Lobos

Even before they went on a tear to win the Mountain West Tournament, I was a firm believer in Richard Pitino's New Mexico Lobos. The Lobos have gone through their ups-and-downs all season in a league that ended up sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament, but they have a roster built to win in March and are playing their best basketball at the right time. You need guards to win in March, and New Mexico doesn't just have one they can throw at you, but an elite trio in Donovan Dent, Jaelen House, and Jamal Mashburn Jr., all of whom finished the season with averages in the double digits. Even better, all three appear to be fully healthy for one of the few times this season, namely Mashburn, who has been dealing with a nagging thumb injury most of the year. He dispelled any notion that was going to be an issue this March by having one of the best games of his season in the MW Championship, dropping 21 points on San Diego State in the 68-61 victory. Those three should power the Lobos, while forward J.T. Toppin and Nelly Junior Joseph work down low. Neither of the bigs are going to be leaned on the way these guards are, but give this team enough in the paint to ensure they won't be overpowered against bigger opponents, namely Clemson in the first round. All in all, for all my grievances against Pitino for many years as Minnesota head coach, he's done a superb job building the Lobos, and seems to have a roster that can finally deliver him his long-awaited March success. Another reason to believe? New Mexico faces the weakest six seed on the bracket in the first (Clemson) and if they win, they could face the weakest three seed (Baylor) - the path to the second weekend lines up perfectly for the Lobos.

Don't Touch this High Seed: Baylor Bears

There shouldn't be any denying that Scott Drew is one of the top coaches anywhere in college basketball today and he's done well to earn Baylor another top three seed in the Big Dance despite playing in the toughest conference in college basketball. Yet, I remain very wary of the Bears, despite what Drew and company have accomplished over the years. The offense is balanced enough and statistically has been strong all season, but has struggled to shoot the ball in some of their most important games of the season. Even so, the Bears have still had to win game after game by shootout because the defense has suffered some uncharacteristic lapses over the course of the 2023-24 campaign. There's no stopper like Davion Mitchell on this year's Baylor team - you can beat them off the dribble and get to your spots in a way we aren't used to seeing from Scott Drew-coached teams. Just as concerning, I'm not sure the Bears have the size up front to contend with the true elites in the field this year. True freshman Yves Missi has been impressive and played an important role for this team, but the blue-chipper is still prone to the typical freshman mistakes, and there's not a ton beyond him that inspires confidence. This team has really missed the presence of energetic big Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua, whose devastating knee injury last year has resulted in him playing sparingly over the course of this season. We haven't seen him play since early March against Texas Tech and there's no reason to believe he'll see any significant action in this NCAA Tournament, the type of absence that could have a larger impact than the average onlooker realizes. Add in the fact that Baylor has had two short-lived stays in March in the two years since their National Title, I'd suggest looking at other options in this region if you don't want to pick either of the top seeds, UNC and Arizona.

The Strangest Team in the Region: Long Beach State Beach

There's no sporting event quite like the NCAA Tournament, and every year it gives us strange nuggets that only add to the fascination and allure associated with it. This March, one of those strange nuggets comes courtesy of the Long Beach State Beach (yes, that's really their name) and head coach Dan Monson. Monson has been with Long Beach State since the late 2000s, building a consistent winner out west that went to the NCAA Tournament in 2012. But, the program had tailed off in recent years and it was clear the administration wanted to go elsewhere, with both sides announcing they would be parting ways at the conclusion of the season. But, Monson was given the opportunity to finish up the year and coach the team through the conference tournament and wouldn't you know it, they ended up going on a tear and winning the Big West in impressive fashion. Now, Monson is essentially coaching LBSU as a fired head coach, a strange scenario as they prepare for Arizona in the first round. The odds of the magic continuing into the NCAA Tournament are slim, but guards Marcus Tsohonis and Jadon Jones make them interesting, and we've seen Arizona upset as a two seed before - just last year, in fact. No matter what happens, this is one of those stories that reminds you what makes these few weeks in March and April so engrossing - you can never be sure what's going to take place, or what scenario is going to unfold. Sometimes, you just have to sit back and let it happen.

Picking the West

First Round

1 UNC Tar Heels over 16 Wagner Seahawks (First Four winner) -- We've seen teams based out of New Jersey and NYC create chaos in recent years (ahem, Saint Peter's), but I don't suspect that will be the case for Wagner here.

9 Michigan State Spartans over 8 Mississippi State Bulldogs -- Expect a physical contest between these two, which could come down to the final shot. I'll side with Michigan State because of their March history, but the Bulldogs are a tougher foe than most people may realize.

5 Saint Mary's Gaels over 12 Grand Canyon Antelopes -- Grand Canyon head coach Bryce Drew has created March magic in the past, but I don't see it happening here - the Gael guard play is simply too good, and overpowers the Antelopes.

13 Charleston Cougars over 4 Alabama Crimson Tide -- The Cougars were a popular upset pick last March, but were unable to finish the job. A year later than expected, I envision them pulling the upset over an awfully streaky Tide team.

11 New Mexico Lobos over 6 Clemson Tigers -- I contend that Clemson is the weakest 6-seed on the bracket, and the Lobos are flaming hot - I'm taking them to keep on rolling here.

3 Baylor Bears over 14 Colgate Raiders -- Colgate puts up points and plays at a frantic tempo, making them an intriguing upset possibility each and every year. I don't see it happening here, but this could be a fun one in Memphis.

10 Nevada Wolf Pack over 7 Dayton Flyers -- Neither Dayton nor Nevada ended the season on a high note, but the Flyers are a remarkably weak seven seed. They did not beat a single at-large team in the entire field this season.

2 Arizona Wildcats over 15 Long Beach State Beach -- No first-round shocker to a 15-seed this time around for Arizona, as Caleb Love and company over the Big West Champ.

Second Round

1 UNC Tar Heels over 9 Michigan State Spartans -- It doesn't get much better than two of the sport's top brands colliding in the second round. Tyson Walker and R.J. Davis should be a joy to watch, but the Spartans simply don't have an answer for Armando Bacot down low.

5 Saint Mary's Gaels over 13 Charleston Cougars -- Charleston hasn't lost a game since February 1st, but this is going to be a tough matchup for them. The Gaels do a superb job controlling tempo, and will have the Cougars off-balance from the opening tip.

11 New Mexico Lobos over 3 Baylor Bears -- Should be some fun guard play in this one, but the deciding factor for a New Mexico win? J.T. Toppin's work underneath, helping the Lobos spring the upset and advance to the second weekend.

2 Arizona Wildcats over 10 Nevada Wolf Pack -- Nevada is under-seeded as a ten, and lead guard Jarod Lucas is no stranger to March heroics. Yet, I just can't pull the trigger on the upset here, particularly with Tommy Lloyd's Wildcats extra motivated after last year's debacle.

Sweet 16

1 UNC Tar Heels over 5 Saint Mary's Gaels -- Much like the UNC-MSU matchup, this should be a fun matchup of skilled guards, but the difference remains the same: Bacot is too much to handle down low, especially if Cormac Ryan and company can help space out the defense with a couple timely threes.

2 Arizona Wildcats over 11 New Mexico Lobos -- I would say I'm lukewarm on the Wildcats entering the NCAA Tournament but the path is clear, and sometimes it just works out this way. They put a stop to New Mexico's run in the Sweet 16.

Elite Eight

1 UNC Tar Heels over 2 Arizona Wildcats -- As boring as it may be to pick the one seed over the two to win the region, I'm hedging my bets here. I expect the West Region to be the one that devolves into complete and utter chaos, so this is all about playing the odds.

West Region Champion: 1 North Carolina Tar Heels

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