Second in our Big Dance series. Previous: South Region.
Coming soon: East and Midwest Region overviews.
At first glance
It’s Gonzaga vs. the thumpers in this region. The top-seeded Zags may have lucked out by being placed the weakest region on paper, but when you take a closer look, they might have to face some of the most rugged and underrated teams in the Big Dance. Their potential round of 32 matchup against the Pittsburgh/Wichita State winner could be the most challenging of all the No. 1 seeds. Then, if the seeds hold, they could face Kansas State or Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 and Ohio State in the Elite Eight. You might consider this region easier than the others, but it isn’t easy by any means. If the Zags survive and advance, they’ll have the bruise marks to prove it.
By the numbers …
0 – Number of national championships won by head coaches in this region, making it the only one without a title-toting tutor.
9.8 – Three-pointers per game made by Iowa State, tops in Division I.
36.5 – Field-goal percentage allowed by Southern defense, which ranks second in Division I.
GONZAGA: If the only knock you have against the Zags is their conference affiliation, you don’t have a great argument. Look at their nonconference schedule, when they beat five Big 12 schools, and three of those (West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas State) were blowouts. Look at their consistency and how they were never a no-show this season. Look at their 31-2 record and consider it inflated because of the West Coast Conference, but then look at their talent and notice one of the best frontcourts and backcourts in the nation. This is a quality basketball team that rebounds and plays defense in addition to being the typical good offensive Gonzaga squad. No, they haven’t been tested much lately, but they have been a true giant this season.
OHIO STATE: Deshaun Foster is one of the best scorers in the country, and point guard Aaron Craft is an incredible defender and floor leader. And the Buckeyes are playing their best basketball at the right time. They’re on an eight-game winning streak, including two victories over Michigan State, one over Indiana and one over Wisconsin.
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are one of the few teams besides Gonzaga that can score with anyone. They averaged 79.6 points per game (fourth in Division I) this season. They lead the nation in three-point field goals per game (9.8). If the Cyclones get hot, they could do some damage.
BOISE STATE: The Broncos are a dangerous team that can shoot the 3 (7.8 per game at 39.1 percent accuracy). Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are a high-scoring perimeter tandem. If the Broncos can beat La Salle in the First Four, they’ll be a headache for Kansas State. Boise State lost by four at Michigan State in November, and the Broncos lost in overtime at home against New Mexico. They’re due for an upset.
Headed for a fall?
KANSAS STATE: Bruce Weber is a solid coach (though not a great recruiter) who has done a terrific job with the Wildcats in his first season in Manhattan, Kan., earning a share of the Big 12 regular-season title with rival Kansas. But Weber has been a mediocre tournament coach since leading Illinois to the national championship game in 2005. None of the past four teams Weber has taken to the Big Dance has advanced past the first weekend.
Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk is a legitimate player of the year candidate. The 7-footer can score inside or outside. He’s a good ball handler and passer, and he’s tougher than he’s given credit for. Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas is a great scorer who averaged just shy of 20 points per game and can be a matchup nightmare. Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder was a good player under former coach Frank Martin, and he has continued to produce for Weber. He averaged 15.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Bo Ryan doesn’t employ an enjoyable style of play, but his Badgers are always effective and tend to overachieve. Wisconsin might be the most dangerous No. 5 seed in the tournament.
Best players you might not have heard of
Marshall Henderson, Mississippi: The outspoken and sometimes vilified Ole Miss guard will shoot it from anywhere, and it works for him. Henderson, a Utah transfer, shot a ridiculous 367 three-pointers this season and averaged 20.1 points per game.
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: He averaged 13.5 points and 5.0 assists this season, but when the balanced Lobos need him to do more, he certainly can. Evidence: He scored points against Colorado State earlier in the year.
Jack Cooley, Notre Dame: The 6-9 forward averages 13.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. He’s sneaky good. He can get a double-double against any caliber of frontcourt.
And the winner is …
Gonzaga. Olynyk is the difference maker. There isn’t a player comparable to him in this region.