NCAA March Madness: West Region Preview (Pt. 1)

NCAA

March 7, 2017; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) celebrates against the Saint Mary’s Gaels during the first half in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


The March Madness season officially kicked off on Sunday, when the ranking and seeding of all 68 men’s teams who made the NCAA tournament bracket were announced in the annual “Selection Sunday” broadcast show. This is the time where college hoops comes to the forefront of the basketball landscape, with excitement and upsets abound.

Every fan filling out a bracket wants to know the inside scoop — what do all the numbers mean? Who matches up well with who? What team could be this year’s Cinderella? What top seeds are most susceptible to being knocked out early?

We know you don’t have time to watch every team and study them in depth — but here at BBALLBREAKDOWN, we do! So we have compiled information and summaries on each team to help you prepare for the tournament, make the best bracket choices available and enjoy the most exciting time of the year in sports.

Here is part one of our look at the West Region, featuring Gonzaga, Arizona and a ton of loaded major conference programs ready to push for a spot in the Final Four.

The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Salt Lake City, UT

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. 16. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Eighteen years after its Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga enters the 2017 tournament with one of its strongest resumes ever. The Bulldogs beat top 20 teams Florida and Arizona during the non-conference portion of its schedule. During conference play, Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s, another top 20 team, three times between the regular season and conference tournament. The Bulldogs are led by John Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss, a dangerous scorer who is efficient at nearly every spot in the floor. His versatility offensively gave opposing defense fits this year, leading to an 124.4 individual offensive rating.  

Gonzaga surrounds Williams-Goss with shooters. Silas Melson, Josh Perkins, and Jordan Matthews all shot over 38 percent from behind the arc on at least 98 attempts. Big men Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie, and Zach Collins all showed an ability from time to time to space the floor, as all three shot over 40 percent on three-pointers on limited attempts. That spacing provides a lot of room for Williams-Goss, an already skilled offensive player, to operate and create for both himself and his teammates.

Defensively, Gonzaga was even better this year, ranking second in the country in KenPom’s efficiency rankings. Gonzaga’s defense is led by Zach Collins, who ranked top 40 in the country this year in block rate. Gonzaga’s rim protection led to their opponents producing just a 41.6 effective field goal percentage, the top number in the country.

Though the West Coast Conference isn’t one of the stronger conferences in the country, Gonzaga’s production on both ends of the floor is good enough for them to compete with anyone in the country. Gonzaga is a prime candidate to make a deep run in this year’s tournament, and their neutral court success early in the year should give them an edge in close games. With a home weekend in Salt Lake City and a decently favorable draw, we could finally be seeing the ‘Zags in the Final Four. — Matt Way

Remember the name Mike Daum. He is second in the nation in scoring, averaging 25.3 points per game. He gets to the free-throw line at an incredulous rate (287 free throws attempted this year) and with 185 three point attempts, he’s a matchup nightmare for opposing centers. Teams cannot hide their big man on his frontcourt mate Reed Tellinghuisen either; he leads the team in three-point attempts and shoots 34 percent.

Beyond Daum, the Jackrabbits are actually a more difficult matchup than their record and metric might indicate. They have good size in the backcourt, shoot a ton of threes (and are susceptible to get hot) and are constantly in attack mode. Daum is a matchup nightmare, but pay too much attention to him and one of the other Jackrabbits will find a way to bite you. First year coach T.J. Ostenberger has toggled with the rotation as of late, and predicting just which Jackrabbit will be next up behind Daum, frontcourt mate Tellinghuisen and point guard Michael Orris is nearly impossible.

South Dakota State doesn’t have a good win on their resume this year, and they got blasted by Wichita State, the one tourney team they’ve faced. It’s not likely that they make their imprint by being the first ever sixteen seed to beat a number one, but if the Zags don’t have the right game plan to take Daum away without letting them get to the free throw line, the Jackrabbits could give them a scare. They’ll need to learn how to play defense first though. — Adam Spinella

8. Northwestern Wildcats vs. 9. Vanderbilt Commodores

Four years into his tenure at Northwestern, Chris Collins has already brought the school to its first ever NCAA Tournament. Chicago’s Big Ten team is legit!

Northwestern’s first ever trip to the tournament began with a successful 11-2 record in non-conference play, including wins over Dayton and Wake Forest. They finished what they started in Big Ten play, going 10-8 with signature wins over Wisconsin and Michigan. Northwestern enters the tournament on a bit of a bad stretch, having lost seven of their last twelve games.

The Wildcats are led by junior point guard Bryant McIntosh, who leads the team in both points and assists per game. McIntosh is top 40 in the country in terms of assist rate, and he scores by getting to the free throw line and shooting a very efficient 86.1 percent when he gets there.

McIntosh’s favorite targets are fellow junior Scottie Lindsey, who shoots 51.4% on two point field goal attempts, and sophomore Vic Law, the team’s best three point shooting attempt. McIntosh, Lindsey, and Law combined for nearly 58 percentof Northwestern’s points this season.

For Northwestern to make any serious run in their first tournament, McIntosh, Lindsey, and Law will all need to have strong offensive performances. Northwestern plays at a very slow pace, and they will likely to need to shorten the games as they face tougher competition in the tournament. At the end of the day, though, Northwestern isn’t a very good candidate to make it to the second weekend without some good fortune. The miracle season may end rather quickly. — Matt Way

After an embarrassing loss to Wichita State in the first four last season, in a game in which it looked like the Commodores gave up, Vanderbilt lost its’ coach Kevin Stallings to Pittsburgh and their two best players, Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin, to the NBA. Although fans were excited about new coach Bryce Drew, most were resigned to a rebuilding season. Halfway through the season, after a 20-point loss at Missouri, the Dores were 12-13 and 5-7 in the SEC. At that point, the NIT might have been a stretch.

But Bryce Drew made the bold moving of benching leading scorer Matthew Fisher-Davis, after his third disciplinary issue, and the team has taken off since. Vanderbilt finished the season 7-2, and boasts a resume that includes three wins over Florida and wins against Iowa State, South Carolina and Arkansas.

Offensively, Vanderbilt employs a 5-out system, taking advantage of their SEC leading three-point shooting. Senior center Luke Kornet, a seven footer on the fringes of the NBA draft board, is a good outside shooter who provides the Commodores with maximum spacing. They seem to have a different leader in every game between guards Riley LaChance, Joe Toye, Nolan Cressler, Fisher-Davis and forward Jeff Roberson. Defensively, Vanderbilt abandoned their 2-3 zone in favor of man-to-man, and it’s worked. They held Texas A&M to 41 points in the SEC tournament and Mississippi State to 48 in a regular season meeting.

To be fair, at 19-15, Vanderbilt has the most losses of any team to receive an at-large bid. But the Commodores have to feel good about drawing a Northwestern team in the eight-nine matchup they can outscore. Vanderbilt is one of the hottest teams in the country and their shooting and defensive integrity give them an outside shot at the Sweet Sixteen. — Eli Horowitz

The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Buffalo, NY.

5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. 12. Princeton Tigers

As usual, Mike Brey and Notre Dame enter the tournament on the strength of their offense, while their defense leaves a lot to be desired. Notre Dame ranked 16th in the country this year in offensive efficiency according to KenPom. Notre Dame’s offense thrives off its fundamentals: the team shoots efficiently and doesn’t turn the ball over. In fact, Notre Dame had the lowest turnover rate in the country this year.

Part of the reason for Notre Dame’s low turnover rate is the dominance of its star player, center Bonzie Colson. Colson stands at just 6’5 but he gives opposing defense fits both in the paint and from the perimeter. Colson is a terrific rebounder on both ends of the floor and he combines a strong post game with a 40 percent three-point shooting stroke. Colson is as versatile an offensive player as there is in the country, and he’s a reliable option for Notre Dame every single night because of it.  

Surrounding Colson is what Mike Brey’s offense is known for: shooters and more shooters. Rotation members Matt Farrell, Rex Pflueger, and Matt Ryan all shoot above 40 percent from behind the arc. And then there’s Notre Dame’s highest volume shooter, V.J. Beachem. Beachem attempts 6.7 three pointers per game and, as a result, provides as much spacing as any player in the country. Beachem knocks down threes at a 37 percent clip and can shoot Notre Dame back into any game at any time.

Defensively, Notre Dame ranked 58th in KenPom’s rankings this year. They are average to below-average at pretty much everything except opposing free throw rate (where they rank 20th in the country). As is often the case with teams with low foul rates, Notre Dame’s opponents shoot well from the floor and don’t turn over the ball very often. Those poor aspects of Notre Dame’s defense may ultimately be their downfall in the tournament.

But, Notre Dame’s ability to space the floor around one of the best offensive players in the country makes them a serious threat every time they take the floor. If they can get hot from behind the arc for a few weeks, fans in South Bend could be in for a fun ride. — Matt Way

Mitch Henderson has done an unbelievable job with these Tigers, especially after losing two starters early due to season-ending injuries. His Princeton attack has not changed; the Tigers are still cutting and swirling with as much passing and little dribbling as possible. But this is more of an up-tempo, Princeton-on-steroids team than we’re used to seeing. Princeton shoots a ton of threes, scoring 42 percent of their points from behind the arc, one of the five highest rates in the country. And they rarely turn the ball over! Press on the three point line too much and that’s when the dizzying display of backdoor cuts and quick passing that the Tigers have always been known for will win them some games.

Helping Princeton breeze through a difficult Ivy League this year was the ascension of sophomore Devin Cannady. Cannady filled the starting role due to one of those injuries, and ended up leading the team in scoring this year, shooting 42 percent from behind the line and an astounding 94 percent from the charity stripe. Starting point guard Spencer Weisz has been brilliant in pacing the Tigers throughout the season as well. Henderson rarely uses subs in his backcourt or on the wings behind his top four, but has the opposite approach in the frontcourt, juggling a 6’11” Pete Miller that locks down the paint and two shooting centers that stretch defenses from the top of the key on the other end.

Princeton is a solid to above-average defensive team, and they limit easy second chance points. They have the legitimate potential to be a sleeper for the Cinderella; Ivy League teams usually fare well in the tournament, and these Tigers won’t change anything about what they do for their possible foes. Henderson will be a hot name to watch on the coaching carousel if the Tigers pull off an upset or two. Their makeup and style has Sweet Sixteen darling written all over them. — Adam Spinella

 

4. West Virginia Mountaineers vs. 13. Bucknell Bison

Long, athletic, nasty and determined. These Mountaineers are a dangerous squad this March that more folks need to be talking about. Six of their top seven are upperclassmen. Five players get at least one steal per game. And when the Mountaineers get after it for forty minutes and provide pressure from the tip to the final buzzer, they are never out of the game.

Bob Huggins always gets his teams to know who they are and play in his style. That’s why the Mountaineers, fifth in the country in KenPom efficiency on defense, force turnovers on 28 percent of opponents’ possessions, the highest rate in the country. Playing that style allows the Mountaineers to play in the open court, getting tons of easy dunks and layups and leverage their supreme athleticism.

Leading the way for the Mountaineers is point guard Jevon Carter, a rugged attacker that averages more steals (2.6) than turnovers (1.9) — an incredible feat for a point guard. He and backcourt mate Tarik Phillip are both in the top fifteen in the country in steal rate, an amazingly brutal combo for any backcourt that faces them. Sitting behind them is freshman center Sagaba Konate, who comes off the bench. Konate blocks 16.3 percent of opponent shots when he’s on the floor, a rate that would by far be tops in the country if he qualified for ranking with enough minutes played. Konate’s presence allows their guards and wings to pressure on the perimeter and know they have help behind them.

Of course this playing style leaves weaknesses elsewhere and areas that Huggins is overtly trying to mask. West Virginia struggles in the half-court, finding an inability to score against a set defense or generate enough spacing for driving lines. They only shoot 36 percent from three (a fairly mundane mark), are a poor free throw shooting team and struggle with turnovers. The right disciplined opponent that clogs driving lanes and dares the Mountaineers to shoot threes will have success. Those same teams will have to take away West Virginia’s biggest offensive strength — crashing the glass. The Mountaineers are seventh in the country in offensive rebounding rate.

West Virginia will try to turn these games into a track meet in the NCAA Tournament, hoping their ability to control pace and superior athleticism will bring them to the Final Four. But if a team can withstand that pressure and pick apart the press without letting up, the Mountaineers might not have enough offensive firepower against a set defense to proceed past the Sweet Sixteen. — Adam Spinella

Coach Nathan Davis has brought the Bison back to the NCAA Tournament, and he was part of the Bucknell coaching staff that took down #3 seed Kansas in 2005. The former Division III Head Coach has a young group, starting zero seniors and playing one in their top nine. They play with a ton of composure and grit for a young team, and have really figured out how to ride the hot hand and share the ball. An early season win at Vanderbilt was their best non-conference win, and other than difficulty with rival Lehigh, the Bison have cruised in a sneakily difficult Patriot League.

Leading the way for Bucknell is junior forward Zach Thomas, the team’s leading scorer and most dangerous creator. He’s a lights out shooter from three (42 percent) and can do a ton of damage against other four-men guarding him that struggle to move on the perimeter. Steady backcourt play has helped Bucknell throughout the season: Kimbal Mackenzie is a streaky three point shooter that’s deadly when hot, while the Bison are best when Stephen Brown is driving the lane and creating for others. Don’t forget about athletic big man Nana Foulland either!

What’s dangerous about Davis’ team is their ability to go on a run. They opened the second-half of the Patriot League Championship game with a 20-3 run on rival Lehigh. They outscored Navy 30-1 during a first-half blitzing earlier this month. They hit nine three-pointers in a half against Holy Cross. The Bison are a good offensive team that’s fundamentally sound in the half-court on D. Don’t be surprised if they give West Virginia all they can handle thanks to their multiple ball handlers and a shot blocker in Foulland. — Adam Spinella


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