NCAA Bracket 2017: Complete Guide to West Region

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2017

NCAA Bracket 2017: Complete Guide to West Region

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    The Final Four is going to be played out west for the first time in 22 years, when UCLA came from the West Region and went on to win the national title in Seattle. Considering that history, it stands to reason the 2017 NCAA champion that will be crowned in Glendale, Arizona, in April could be coming from this region.

    If that's the case, there are some great candidates to choose from, starting with top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 2 Arizona. They combined to win 62 games and met earlier this season, with Gonzaga claiming that matchup in Los Angeles by seven.

    The West Region includes seven teams that earned automatic bids and nine at-large selections, with two squads making the field for the first time.

    North Dakota makes its debut after moving up to Division I in 2009, while Northwestern can finally cross its name off the list of original D-I programs never to get an invite.

    Great pairings are all over for the first round, and the possibilities for stellar matchups later in the region are endless. Here's our breakdown of what to expect in the West.

Round-of-64 Schedule and TV Info

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    Bonzie Colson and Notre Dame will open the NCAA tourney against Princeton at 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday in Buffalo.
    Bonzie Colson and Notre Dame will open the NCAA tourney against Princeton at 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday in Buffalo.Al Bello/Getty Images

    Thursday

    (games in Salt Lake City, Utah)

    No. 1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs. No. 16 South Dakota State (18-16), 2 p.m. ET (TBS)

    No. 8 Northwestern (23-11) vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt (19-15), approx. 4:30 p.m. ET (TBS)

    No. 7 Saint Mary's (28-4) vs. No. 10 VCU (26-8), 7:20 p.m. ET (TBS)

    No. 2 Arizona (30-4) vs. No. 15 North Dakota (22-9), approx. 9:50 p.m. ET (TBS)

    (games in Buffalo, New York)

    No. 5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs. No. 12 Princeton (23-6), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

    No. 4 West Virginia (26-8) vs. No. 13 Bucknell (26-8), approx. 2:45 p.m. ET (CBS)

    (games in Orlando)

    No. 6 Maryland (24-8) vs. No. 11 Xavier (21-13), 6:50 p.m. ET (TNT)

    No. 3 Florida State (25-8) vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7), approx. 9:20 p.m. ET (TNT)

Must-See Games

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    Northwestern's players celebrate after earning the program's first-ever NCAA tournament bid.
    Northwestern's players celebrate after earning the program's first-ever NCAA tournament bid.David Banks/Getty Images

    Northwestern vs. Vanderbilt

    No first-round game has more history attached to it than this one, but for very different reasons.

    Northwestern is making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance after so many previous close calls, and its journey into the field brought out the school's many notable alums from both the sports media world and the entertainment industry.

    We're going to the dance, boys! @NUMensBball making history! #proud #B1GCats #poundtherock #NCAA @marchmadness pic.twitter.com/TpuoqtvxRV

    — Julia Louis-Dreyfus (@OfficialJLD) March 12, 2017

    The eighth-seeded Wildcats didn't sneak in, either, accomplishing two other firsts by winning 10 games in Big Ten play and then reaching the conference tournament semifinals.

    For Vanderbilt, its inclusion in the 68-team field stands out most because of how many losses the ninth-seeded Commodores have: 15, the most by any at-large team in tourney history.

    Vandy was 8-10 and riding a four-game losing streak in late January before getting hot, scoring wins against future NCAA tourney teams Arkansas, Iowa State, South Carolina and Florida (three times) to outweigh all those defeats.

    Getting in means a lot for each team, but the work is just starting. Whoever wins this 8/9 matchup will likely get top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round.

    Florida State vs. Florida Gulf Coast

    There are plenty of teams fortunate enough to be playing their first-round games in their home state in the 2017 NCAA tourney field, but only one matchup pairs in-state squads against each other on relatively familiar turf.

    Orlando is just 157 miles from Florida Gulf Coast's campus in Fort Myers, while Florida State only has about 260 miles to travel from Tallahassee to get to the Amway Center.

    Combined, third-seeded Florida State and No. 14 FGCU have played 44 games in the Sunshine State this season and won 40 of them, with FSU winning all 20 in-state contests. Neither played in Orlando, though, and they've only met once since FGCU joined Division I in 2007-08—it was ironically a postseason clash but in the NIT instead of the NCAA tourney, with the Seminoles claiming a 58-53 home victory.

    Geographic similarities aside, both teams also love to push the pace and drive to the hoop. FGCU has returned to its "Dunk City" roots that were born from its Cinderella Sweet 16 run in 2013, averaging 79.4 points per game and making 57.1 percent of its two-point shots, while FSU scores 82.5 points per game and makes 54.1 percent of its twos.

    The 'Noles, who are making their first NCAA appearance since 2012, have matched their highest seed in tourney history.

Top Storylines

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    Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed for the second time in program history.
    Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed for the second time in program history.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Gonzaga Must Prove It Deserves No. 1 Seed

    As other unbeaten teams got knocked off throughout the season, there was Gonzaga, cruising past each and every opponent with little or no resistance. And with each win there was more and more speculation about whether the Bulldogs could keep that run going and make it into the NCAA tournament with a perfect record.

    And despite that perfection—which ended abruptly on March 4 when Gonzaga was shocked at home by BYU in its regular-season finale—there was still plenty of uncertainty about whether the school would earn a No. 1 seed.

    The Bulldogs' 32-1 record was impressive, but because of the relative weakness of the West Coast Conference, their overall resume might not stack up well with teams from power conferences who had more losses but also plenty more quality wins.

    The selection committee decided Gonzaga was still worthy, ranking it as the fourth-best No. 1 seed. Now comes the real challenge: being able to warrant getting that seed.

    The Bulldogs were in a similar boat in 2013 when they got the No. 1 spot in the West but then fell to No. 9 Wichita State in the round of 32. A year later, Wichita entered the tourney unbeaten and earned the No. 1 seed in the Midwest but was bumped off by eighth-seeded Kentucky in the round of 32.


    Welcome To The Party, Northwestern

    Northwestern won 20 games for just the fourth time in school history, recording its best Big Ten record ever at 10-8 and then reaching the conference tournament semifinals for the first time. But even with all of that working in their favor, the Wildcats weren't ready to declare themselves into the NCAA tourney for the first time.

    It wasn't until "Northwestern" popped up on the screen on CBS on Sunday afternoon that the team knew it had finally ended its long drought. When its name was announced, the team and thousands of fans crammed into Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted into celebration.

    Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who in his fourth season at the school has increased its win total each year, told CBS Sports' Greg Gumbel the selection completed a long journey for the program.

    "When I came (here) four years ago it was (for) a belief in a day like today," Collins said.

    With its bid, Northwestern is removed from the list of schools that were in Division I when the first NCAA tournament was played in 1939. Those still on there: Army, The Citadel, St. Francis (New York) and William & Mary.

    Can Sean Miller Finally Get to the Final Four?

    Just as Northwestern is glad to no longer be associated with those original NCAA programs who had never made the NCAA tourney, so too would Arizona's Sean Miller like to erase his name from an infamous list, as one of the best college basketball coaches to have never made a Final Four.

    Miller's been close many times, reaching the Elite Eight first with Xavier in 2008 and then three times with Arizona (2011, 2014-15). All three shortfalls with the Wildcats have come in West Regional finals played in California, the same state that's hosting the West Regional this year in San Jose.

    The Final Four also happens to be nearby, too, being played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. That's about two hours from where the Wildcats play in Tucson, Arizona, meaning they would have a considerable home-court advantage if they made their first Final Four since 2001.

    Miller has won 17 NCAA tourney games, second only to Gonzaga's Mark Few (21) among active coaches without a Final Four.

Stars to Watch

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    Saint Mary's junior Jock Landale has been a breakout starin 2016-17.
    Saint Mary's junior Jock Landale has been a breakout starin 2016-17.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame

    Colson is one of nine players in Division I who average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, four of whom are on NCAA tournament teams. When you throw in those who also record at least one assist, steal and block per game, Colson is in a world all his own.

    Not bad for a 6'5", 225-pound junior who is considered his team's "big man."

    Colson averages 17.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 52.3 percent for Notre Dame. He also makes 79 percent of his free throws and has gone 22-of-54 (40.7 percent) on three-pointers.

    The Fighting Irish tied for second in the ACC and reached the conference tourney final thanks to Colson, who led the nation's deepest league in rebounding.

    Mike Daum, South Dakota State

    Top-tier recruits always tend to end up at the most notable programs, but that doesn't mean stars can't emerge from other schools.

    Daum is a perfect example of this, a 6'9", 245-pound sophomore from Nebraska who garnered no interest from power-conference schools coming out of high school, but since he's started playing for South Dakota State, he's been one of the best all-around players in the game.

    After a freshman year in which he averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds in helping the Jackrabbits make the NCAA tourney, he's followed that up with an even bigger season.

    At 25.3 points per game, he's the top-scoring player in the tournament, and his 250 free throws are tops in the nation and 71 more than anyone else in the field.

    Daum shoots 51.6 percent from the field and 41.6 from three-point range, and he knows how to take over a game.

    In SDSU's run through the Summit League tournament as the No. 5 seed, he averaged 29.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, and over his last 13 games, he's scoring at a 30.9 points-per-clip with four of his nine double-doubles.

    He had 16 points and six boards on 5-of-13 shooting in last year's NCAA tourney loss to Maryland.

    Jock Landale, Saint Mary's

    Saint Mary's has a recruiting pipeline to Australia that has produced NBA stars such as Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, with Landale possibly the latest prospect from Down Under to go through Moraga, California, to get to the pros.

    But while Dellavedova and Mills were stars right away, it took until Landale's junior year to break through.

    And boy did he.

    The 6'11", 255-pound Landale averages 16.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 60.9 percent from the field. He has 11 20-point games (going for 33 on 15-of-20 shooting in a November win over Mountain West champ Nevada) and he'd have even more such performances if foul trouble didn't get in the way.

    Landale has had four or more fouls 10 times this year, with each of the Gaels' four losses occurring in those instances.

    Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

    As much as we'd like to think of college basketball as its own separate entity, the truth is that the sport is considered an unofficial farm system for the NBA. Players get evaluated for their pro potential even before starting college, and when they're in school, each and every performance is used to gauge what kind of a fit they'd be at the next level.

    So when a player enters college who already has the kind of makeup we're regularly seeing in the NBA, it's hard not to project his future potential. The NBA has a love affair with big men who can shoot the three, and that's an apt description of Markkanen, a 7'0" freshman from Finland who is Arizona's No. 2 scorer, leading rebounder and most prolific perimeter shooter.

    Markkanen averages 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds, makes 43.2 percent of his threes and is an 82.4 percent foul shooter. His 67 triples are 25 more than any other Wildcat and the most ever by a college player standing 7'0" or taller (per Draft Express' Jonathan Givony).

    Melo Trimble, Maryland

    Trimble was one of the last players who declared for the NBA draft last spring to withdraw his name and come back to school. The decision to return to Maryland was met with mixed reviews, many of the negatives related to the likelihood the Terrapins would be facing a rebuilding season in 2016-17.

    That didn't end up happening, as the Terps tied for second in the Big Ten to earn a third straight NCAA tourney appearance. Much credit for getting back to the Big Dance goes to the play of Maryland's freshman class, but without Trimble's guidance, leadership and experience, it's unlikely to have happened.

    The 6'3" junior guard leads Maryland in scoring (17.0 points per game) and is tied with guard Anthony Cowan in assists per game (3.7). The first-round matchup with Xavier will be his sixth NCAA tournament game, and in the first five, he's averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

Favorites Most Likely to Fall

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    Florida State's No. 3 seed is tied for its best in program history.
    Florida State's No. 3 seed is tied for its best in program history.Lance King/Getty Images

    Florida State

    The Seminoles found themselves right in the middle of the pack in the ACC's preseason poll, an eighth-place ranking that figured to be good enough for their first NCAA tourney appearance since 2012.

    Finishing in a tie for second in the toughest and deepest conference in the country didn't seem possible, but thanks to a mix of veterans and one really good freshman, they exceeded all expectations.

    That earned FSU a No. 3 seed and also made it susceptible to a common trend in NCAA tourney history in which teams who are seeded high after not being in the field for a few years end up flaming out early.

    In 2016, California was a No. 4 seed after having missed the previous two NCAA tourneys, and it ended up getting upset by No. 13 Hawaii. Other examples from the past include No. 2 South Carolina getting bounced by No. 15 Coppin State in 1997 and fourth-seeded Ole Miss losing to No. 13 Valparaiso in 1998.

    West Virginia

    The Mountaineers look capable of beating any team in the country on one night and vulnerable to being picked off by anyone a day later.

    That's been evident all season, as the Mountaineers won at Virginia in early December just eight days after losing to a Temple team that would finish 16-16. In Big East play, they had wins over Baylor and Kansas but also fell to non-NCAA teams Oklahoma and Texas Tech, and they struggled to beat Texas and Kansas State in the Big 12 tourney.

    West Virginia's frenetic, pressure-filled style of defense is predicated on forcing turnovers and converting those into points, and it works great most of the time. But when it can't get steals and create havoc and thus has to play a more standard defense, the results aren't as good, and that's compounded by a half-court offense that's below average.

    Bucknell, the No. 13 seed, isn't particularly good at taking care of the ball, as it averages 13.3 turnovers per game and has a turnover rate (16.9 percent) that's in the bottom third nationally. That bodes well for West Virginia to avoid getting bumped from the first round for the second year in a row after losing to Stephen F. Austin in 2016, but stranger things have happened.

Most Likely Cinderella

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    Florida Gulf Coast

    Remember Dunk City? If you don't, you will between now and when the Eagles take on Florida State in the first round, since it's one of the best Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history.

    A quick refresher: In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast earned its first NCAA bid and was given a No. 15 seed, paired up with Georgetown in the first round. The Eagles made the tourney thanks to an up-tempo style that revolved around forcing turnovers and getting out in transition to slam it home, and it resulted in them being the first No. 15 to reach the Sweet 16 after upsets of both Georgetown and San Diego State.

    FGCU's coach at the time, Andy Enfield, parlayed that two-game run into getting the USC job. His successor, former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley, has the program in the field for the second straight year and with arguably the program's best team ever. It won 27 games while averaging 76.4 points per game, with quite a good portion of that scoring coming on dunks.

    The "Dunk City" theme has been revived this year to the point FGCU players made videos of themselves dunking on unsuspecting students throughout campus.

    Despite being seeded 14th, FGCU is playing close to home, in Orlando, and the chance to take out an in-state power in third-seeded Florida State will get the juices flowing (and probably the dunkers soaring). FSU will have all the pressure on its shoulders, and it's proved this season not to play well outside of Tallahassee.

    If the Eagles get to the second round, they will have the crowd on its side for a game against either Maryland or Xavier. Neither of those teams are playing particularly well right now, and they could wear each other out on Thursday with the winner having little left to deal with a dunk-happy team.

Who Will Make the Sweet 16?

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    Xavier is seeking its eight Sweet 16 apperance and sixth since 2008.
    Xavier is seeking its eight Sweet 16 apperance and sixth since 2008.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Arizona

    The second-seeded Wildcats had the majority of fans in attendance at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas over the weekend, and many of those supporters will make the drive to Salt Lake City.

    A tough matchup against either Saint Mary's or VCU in the second round will be challenging, but Arizona has been playing its best heading into the NCAA tourney.

    Gonzaga

    The Bulldogs are a Senior Day brain cramp against BYU from being unbeaten heading into the NCAA tournament, something they're probably glad not to have to be dealing with.

    There's pressure enough on Gonzaga to justify being a No. 1 seed despite coming from the West Coast Conference, and the selection committee didn't hesitate to give it difficult early opponents.

    South Dakota State is among the best No. 16 seeds ever, and then either Northwestern or Vanderbilt will be champing at the bit to pull an upset, but the Bulldogs will power through.

    Notre Dame

    Coach Mike Brey has never made the Final Four, but he's at least figured out how to make navigating the opening weekend less stressful.

    Notre Dame only advanced beyond the second round once in its first nine NCAA appearances under Brey from 2001-13, but the last two years they advanced to the Elite Eight, including as a No. 6 seed last season.

    A third straight Sweet 16 will come via wins over Princeton and what should be a hard-fought clash with West Virginia.

    Xavier

    The Musketeers began this season in the top 10, but injuries have reared their ugly head, first with point guard Edmond Sumner getting lost to a torn ACL and then playmaker Trevon Bluiett missing some time.

    Xavier lost six straight late in the year but played much better in the Big East tournament, and there's still enough talent at coach Chris Mack's disposal to get through the softest quadrant of the West Region.

The Elite Eight Matchup Will Be…

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Arizona vs. Gonzaga

    Their first meeting was billed as a potential preview of an Elite Eight or Final Four matchup, but Arizona's depleted roster took some of the sizzle away from when the Wildcats and Gonzaga played in the HoopHall LA event at Staples Center on Dec. 3.

    Gonzaga won 69-62, but Arizona was without sophomore guard Allonzo Trier (suspended) and junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (ankle injury).

    Trier didn't make his debut until late January, missing the Wildcats' first 19 games after testing positive for a banned substance. Since his return, he's averaged 20.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists while making 43.3 percent of his three-pointers and 80 percent of his free throws.

    The Arizona-Gonzaga rivalry has become one of the best out west, with the teams meeting eight times since 2000—including twice in the NCAA tourney.

    Arizona is 6-2 against the Bulldogs, including victories in the 2003 second round and 2014 third round.

And the Final Four Team Is...

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    Arizona will reach the Final Four for the first time since 2001.
    Arizona will reach the Final Four for the first time since 2001.John Locher/Associated Press

    Arizona

    The Wildcats have been so close in recent years, losing in the West Regional final to Wisconsin in both 2014 and 2015 as well in 2011 to eventual national champion Connecticut. Those three losses were by a combined 10 points, including one in overtime.

    Juniors Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic were bit players on the 2015 Elite Eight team, but the memories of those close calls are hard to avoid in Tucson.

    This year's team looked to have the makeup to break through to the Final Four, but then a series of unavoidable instances thinned out the roster as players either opted to play overseas or were injured during the preseason, and the hurdles continued with Allonzo Trier's 19-game NCAA suspension.

    The Wildcats managed to go 17-2 without Trier and have won 13 of 15 with him available, with two wins over UCLA and a Pac-12 tournament title over Oregon since then.

    They're peaking at the right time, and with the allure of having the Final Four in their home state, the stars look aligned for them to make their first national semifinal appearance in 16 years.

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.