by Peter Walsh
Favorite: No. 1 Arizona
Though they lost the Pac-12 championship to UCLA, the Wildcats boast one of the most talented rosters in the field. The loss of Brandon Ashley certainly hurt Zona’s chances and make them much more beatable, but the triumvirate of Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson and TJ McConnell are as good as any threesome in the Western region. McConnell is the engine that makes head coach Sean Miller’s offense run. The pass-first point guard makes the game easier for his teammates and is the perfect player to run this talented of a roster. The Wildcats are deep (seven players play at least 20 minutes), great on the boards (18th in the nation) and one of the best defensive teams in the country.
No. 6 Baylor
The Bears have always had the talent but just haven’t been able to get over the hump and get to the Final Four under Scott Drew. This season, Baylor slipped under the radar after a rough mid-season stretch but got hot at the end of the year, winning six in a row before falling to Iowa State in the Big 12 final (who they beat by 13 on March 4). Led by senior guard Brady Heslip, former SLAM All-American Isaiah Austin, and senior forward Cory Jefferson, the Bears are good enough to beat anyone in the West.
No. 4 San Diego State
Head coach Steve Fisher has put together one of the most consistent programs in the nation. Every season the Aztecs quietly work their way up the ranks and end up earning a high-seed in the Tournament. Rarely getting a big-time recruit, the Aztecs’ success is a testament to the coaching job done by Fisher and Co. This season, San Diego State finished with a 26-4 record and did it with defense; the Aztecs gave up just 56.6 points per game (second in the nation) and held teams to under 40 percent shooting.
No. 9 Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have had an up and down season but when they are playing well, they are as good as any team in the country. Marcus Smart’s triumphs and tribulations have been discussed ad nauseum and the simple fact is this kid is good enough to put a team on his back and carry them deep into the Tournament. The Cowboys are the last team Arizona wants to face in the third round and Oklahoma State should be considered a real threat to make a deep run.
Upset Watch: No. 14 UL-Lafayette vs No. 3 Creighton
Creighton is a tough team to figure out. Yes, they have the best player in college basketball in Doug McDermott but they are also undersized, live and die by the three-ball and if M become an average team at best when McDermott is struggling (which is rare). In the Big East Final, Providence gave the blueprint on how to stop the Blue Jays; play physical with McDermott, dictate the pace and crash the boards. The Blue Jays have a hard time guarding in the post and UL-Lafayette forward Shawn Long, who averaged 18.7 points and 10.5 boards per game, could give them problems. If the Cajuns defend well on the perimeter and get a big game out of Long on the post, an upset could be brewing.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Elfird Payton, G, UL-Lafayette
One of the best guards in the country no one is talking about, Payton averaged 19.1 points, 5.9 boards, 6.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game this season. The junior guard doesn’t shoot the ball well from deep but is big and and physical enough to get to the basket and is a legit NBA prospect. Payton has a chance to make a name for himself and climb up draft boards with a big game against Creighton.
Doug McDermott, F, Creighton
The nation’s best player, McDermott is near impossible to stop. A 3,000 career-point scorer, what makes the senior so good is how active he is off the ball. Whether it’s setting a pick, sealing his man, moving along the perimeter, or coming off screens, the senior is moving every second he is on the court. Though he is one of the top three-point shooters in the country, McDermott is also effective in the post and has a Dirk-esque fadeaway jumper that is unstoppable.
Sim Bhullar, C, New Mexico State
At 7-5, 355 pounds, Bhullar is tough to miss. Averaging 3.4 blocks per game, the big man alters way more shots than he blocks and is a disruptive force for any guards driving to the hoop. At his size, Bhullar doesn’t move very well but he does play 26 minutes per game which is impressive considering his mammoth stature. Bhullar has been playing great ball as of late and strung together games of 22 points, 12 boards, 5 assists against Grand Canyon, 24 points, 14 boards, 3 assists, 5 blocks against Seattle and 14 points, 9 boards, 3 assists against Idaho. If Bhullar performs well, the Aggies are a team to keep an eye on.
Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State
After a tumultuous season, Smart has a chance to redeem himself with a strong performance in the Tournament. Good enough to carry a team on his own but also erratic enough to disappear from games, the future lottery pick finished the season out strong after being suspended for three games late in February.
Nick Johnson, G, Arizona
The Pac-12 Player of the Year and finalist for both the Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy, Johnson improved in a big way this season and became a complete player capable of hurting opposing teams in all facets of the game. The highly-touted recruit has lived up to the billing and has Arizona in contention for a National Championship.
In what is hopefully a pure coincidence and not an intentional move by the selection committee, five of the top-10 shooting teams in the nation are in the West region. This actually plays in Arizona’s favor as the Wildcats are one of the top defensive teams on the perimeter and are holding opponents to just 58.1 points per game. Arizona has been a tough team to beat all season and of their four losses, one came on a last-second shot and the another came in double overtime. A tough road lays ahead but the Wildcats are too good to get bumped by any of the other teams in the region.