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The West Regional is the most tightly contested, according to Vegas. Four teams – Kansas, UCLA, Gonzaga, and UConn – have odds of +500 or better to claim the regional’s Final Four bid, and picks will undoubtedly be split among brackets across the country. If you correctly select the escapee from Las Vegas in your bracket pool, you will have a serious leg up on the competition.
Odds-On Favorite: 1 Kansas (+350), 2 UCLA (+350)
Other Favorites: 3 Gonzaga (+410), 4 UConn (+500)
The Challengers: 6 TCU (+800), 5 Saint Mary’s (+1100), 8 Arkansas (+2000)
The Case for the Favorites
Kansas is No. 7 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and with how well this team does on the defensive glass, it can be tough for opponents to find opportunities for second-chance points. Dajuan Harris Jr. won the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and the backcourt combination of him and Kevin McCullar makes for one of the most intimidating perimeter defenses in college basketball.
The Jayhawks love to share the ball. They have four players averaging double-double scoring and are in the top-15 nationally in assists per contest. Jalen Wilson (20.1 points per game) is the one most often on the finishing end, though Gradey Dick (14.1 points per game) gets his, too. As a team, Kansas isn’t outstanding from beyond the arc, but Harris and Dick are both 40-plus percent shooters from deep.
The Bruins have the most efficient defense in the country, according to KenPom, giving up an average of just 60.3 points per performance. Jaylen Clark was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and for good reason – the junior guard has pulled off 78 steals, is fourth in Division I in defensive rating (85.3), and takes the top spot nationally in defensive box plus/minus (6.7). His 2.8 defensive win shares are only good enough for fourth in the country, surpassed by his own teammate Jamie Jaquez’s 3.0, which leads college basketball.
Speaking of Jaquez, the senior is scary on the offensive end, too. He makes big shot after big shot and can hurt you from anywhere on the floor; a hand in his face is nothing. For someone who takes the shots Jaquez does, 47.4 percent from the field is incredible. He’s also formidable on the glass and leads the line for a talented rebounding group – UCLA topped the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds this season with 395 (11.6 per game).
If you want to watch beautiful offensive basketball, plug yourself into some Gonzaga hoops this March.
The high-flying Zags present a multitude of maladies for their opponents. First, the speed at which the Bulldogs get the ball down the floor in transition is intense and dizzying; it’s not strange for Gonzaga to score while most of the opposition’s players are still on the other end of the court. Second, the Zags get to the rim frequently with a collection of uber-talented guards and Drew Timme, who connects on 65.2 percent of his two-point attempts, manufacturing tons of layups and kick outs to sharpshooters.
That brings me to three: deep shooting. Gonzaga hits at a 38.7-percent rate from beyond the arc and has five marksmen in its rotation who splash triples better than 38 percent of the time. Combine it all, and you have a team scoring an NCAA-leading 87.5 points per game.
The Zags have won every game in which they’ve scored 75 points or more. Opposing defenses know their magic number, but it’s another thing to actually do it against an offense this lethal.
Don’t let UConn’s No. 4 seed fool you – the Huskies are a major Final Four contender. They’re ranked fourth in KenPom and T-Rank and sixth in Sagarin and BPI, which puts them firmly in the mix for a deep run this March.
Connecticut’s offense has several ways to hurt defenses, but its best attribute is generating off the glass. UConn is sixth in the country in offensive rebounds per game (13.42) and it has seven players who usually get at least one offensive board each contest, illustrating a team effort to crash hard after the shot. As a whole, the Huskies are one of the best rebounding outfits in this tournament.
This team also has one of the nation’s best rim protectors in 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan. His 1.8 blocks per game were fifth in the Big East this season, and he’s part of a daunting frontcourt that’s in Division I’s top 20 for swats per contest (5.0). You won’t find many easy looks around the basket against the Huskies.
I haven’t even mentioned Adama Sanogo or Jordan Hawkins, who both finished in the top three of the Big East in points per game (16.8 and 16.1, respectively). This team can score, defend, and goes deep. You can’t underestimate it.
Dark Horse to Monitor: 6 TCU
In the NCAA Tournament, it’s common for a team to ride a hot hand deep into the event. That player is typically a guard who can get to the rim at will and score from anywhere. TCU’s Mike Miles fits that description to a tee. His 17.3 points per contest were third-best in the Big 12 this season, and he’s virtually impossible to stop once he gets going downhill. Miles can flat-out take over games.
Offense isn’t even TCU’s strong suit, defense is. So long as the Horned Frogs defend like they’re capable of and Miles is putting the ball in the basket on the other end, they have a real chance at navigating through this region. TCU forces a lot of turnovers and blocks a ton of shots, and it loves to turn those into quick points for itself – the Horned Frogs lead the country in fastbreak points per game (18.81) by a wide margin. This is not an easy team to put points on, and sloppiness with the ball will be punished.
Cinderella Candidate: 12 VCU
When you defend like the Rams, you’ll always give yourself a chance.
VCU is a premier defensive team. It’s in KenPom and T-Rank’s top 20 for adjusted defensive efficiency, and it’s held opponents to an average of just 62.9 points per game. The Rams utilize an unrelenting, full-court defense that is designed to rattle opponents and stop or slow their possessions before they cross the timeline. When VCU successfully turns its opponent over at a high rate, its win percentage is tantalizingly juicy, and this is a team that ranks in the top 10 nationally in steals per game (9.1).
In the first round, VCU is paired with No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s, a team that has had some issues with full-court presses lately. The Gaels prefer not to shoot early in the shot clock, even if an opponent’s press leads to open looks. This could turn out to be a very friendly matchup for VCU, plus its dogged press means they’re never out of games and can come up with ways to score even if their half-court offense dries up.
Scoring is an issue. The Rams are not very good in the half-court, and they’re horrible from the free-throw line (69.7 percent). This team is not winning the national championship, and it will only go as far as its defense will take it. But we’ve seen unique defensive styles confuse teams in this single-elimination amalgamation of methodologies, and how the Rams play could get this double-digit seed into the second weekend.
Elite Eight Prediction: 4 UConn vs 2 UCLA
I’m betting on UConn’s rebounding to be a difference-maker against most teams it might face in this tournament, even though I think VCU and Iona both present tough matchups for the No. 4 seed. The Huskies are just so dominant on the glass, and if you’re manufacturing yourself more opportunities to score and taking ones away from your opponent, you’ll always be in a good position to win. I’m going with UConn over Kansas, because the Jayhawks’ three-point shooting and free-throw line percentage concern me. Sometimes, Kansas looks impotent on offense and can go through long windows without scoring, and I fear that would rear its ugly head against this Huskies defense.
I expect another meeting between Gonzaga and UCLA in the Sweet 16, showcasing to the world a total clash of styles. Whoever controls the tempo in that game will win it, and I trust Mick Cronin and the Bruins to follow the playbook laid out by Saint Mary’s earlier in the season on how to slow the Zags down. UCLA has much better personnel than the Gaels, plus incredible size on its roster. With Tyger Campbell controlling the reins and the Bruins exploiting Timme’s defensive deficiencies inside, UCLA will hold the Bulldogs to below their 75-point threshold and score enough to get to the Elite Eight.
Final Four Representative: 4 UConn
I want to preface this by reiterating that UConn’s poor turnover rate (18.9) concerns me, especially against some of the teams in this West Regional. If a team effectively exploits that in an early round, I could look very dumb here. But I’m a big believer in rebounding, so that’s what I’m going with.
The Huskies are one of the rare teams that have the size to match up with UCLA. The Huskies can play in a mucked-up contest like the Bruins want, and they can do so comfortably. UConn has the best offensive rebound percentage in the country (39.2), according to T-Rank, while UCLA finds itself in the middle of Division I in defensive rebound percentage (27.6). What this means to me is a lot of second-chance opportunities for Connecticut and a lot of extra defense for UCLA.
Plus, I’m a bit wary of how many mid-range jumpers the Bruins take. It’s part of why their shooting percentages (45.8 from the field, 50.4 from inside the arc) aren’t that great. Bad shots are a good way to give the ball away, and a highly-efficient offense like UConn’s is equipped to penalize just that.