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 BBALL BREAKDOWN, 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 our look at the bottom of the bracket in 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 Orlando, FL
6. Maryland Terrapins vs. 11. Xavier Musketeers
Maryland enters the tournament winning just four of its last ten games. Maryland struggled to find consistency late in the season, as it had much of the season. Maryland won road games at Oklahoma State, Michigan, and Northwestern, but lost home games to both Pittsburgh and Nebraska.
As it for going on two seasons, Maryland rises and falls on the shoulders of Melo Trimble. Trimble used 28.7 percent of possessions when he was on the floor, and he was inconsistent from game to game doing so. Trimble’s big weakness is his inconsistent 32 percent three-point shooting, which often dictates how Maryland performs.
Trimble and his backcourt partner Anthony Cowan distribute the ball fairly well, and their favorite target is freshman Justin Jackson, who knocked down three-pointers at a 43.4 percent clip in his first season at Maryland. Cowan’s real strength is in his ability to get to the free throw line, though. Cowan ranked 18th in the entire country this season in free throw rate.
Cowan’s ability to get the line could provide a big boost for Maryland if Trimble can find his shooting touch in the tournament. The Terrapins are certainly ready to rely on their two stars, but a tough draw leaves them susceptible to an early exit. If Trimble struggles, Maryland could be looking at an early exit. — Matt Way
On Jan. 29th, Xavier beat St. John’s to improve to 15-6 and 5-3 in conference. But in the win they lost their sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner, a projected first round pick averaging 5 assists per game and 15 points per game. After winning their next three games with freshman Quentin Goodin taking over at point guard, Xavier went on a six game losing streak that dropped them onto the bubble heading into the Big East tournament. But in beating DePaul and then Butler before falling to Creighton, Xavier was able to salvage their season and earn an 11 seed.
The Musketeers are led by juniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. Bluiett, a fringe second round pick, is a streaky scorer who can put up huge numbers. He scored 40 points in a loss to Cincinnati and has to play well in order for them to have a chance against Maryland. Xavier is 40th overall in Kenpom, but their defensive efficiency is 74th as Sumner was a huge loss not only on offense, but also on defense. Goodin will have his hands full with Maryland point guard Melo Trimble and a good offensive team in Maryland. They’ll be wise to employ their 1-3-1 zone, which could give Maryland problems as Maryland coach Mark Turgeon is better known for his defensive schemes than his offensive tactics.
Xavier has actually held serve on offense without Sumner as all eight players in their rotation contribute. They’re 33rd in offensive efficiency, and have more than enough to win a game. The loss of Sumner certainly changed the ceiling of this team, and it won’t be easy against a talented Maryland team, but between the coaching prowess of Mack, their tricky zone, and Bluiett’s potential to go off, Xavier could surprise people. — Eli Horowitz
3. Florida State Seminoles vs. 14. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Behind their big three of Jonathan Isaac, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and leading scorer Dwayne Bacon, the Seminoles have a lot of pieces they can throw at teams. Four through twelve will all get minutes; sometimes substantial minutes if the matchup dictates. It’s a nifty trick that Leonard Hamilton has kept up his sleeve to help the Seminoles go 13-4 against tournament foes and 12-6 in a loaded ACC. The downside: pushing that many buttons leads to a lack of continuity in a time where a fairly young team might need a reliable veteran presence.
Isaac might not be the team’s leading scorer, but he’s their most versatile player and big-time prospect. The near seven-foot athlete can handle the ball in the open court, shoot the outside jumper and defend the rim. He’s a unicorn five that NBA franchises ogle over, and now he’s on the national stage to showcase his talents. Depending on the matchup he’ll start at the four or the five, but just knowing he can be plugged in wherever helps the Seminoles become a dependable threat.
Both their offense and defense are above-average and they are a really good team at scoring inside the three-point line. With multiple players toggled in and out before they can get warm, it is to be expected that the Seminoles struggle most from behind the line.
Nonetheless, their body of work is impressive and has earned them a three seed with a decently favorable matchup. They stay close to home in Orlando, can wear down Gulf Coast with their depth, and stay fresh for a tough Saturday draw with either the stingy Musketeers or the guard-oriented Terrapins. Xavier’s length would give the Seminoles some trouble. The sights of this squad are set higher than the Sweet Sixteen, but with Leonard Hamilton’s coaching history, this Florida State team can’t take anything for granted. — Adam Spinella
Look who’s back in the NCAA Tournament — “Dunk City”! The high-flying group from Florida is making its second consecutive appearance in the tournament, only five years removed from their Sweet Sixteen Cinderella run. Joe Dooley, a long-time assistant coach, now has the reigns and has the Eagles playing with a different type of gusto. Don’t worry… the dunks are still as prevalent as ever, setting a school record with 149 dunks already this year.
Brandon Goodwin (18.2 points, 4.0 assists) is as good of an offensive player as you’ll find in the mid-majors, leading the offensive attack. But games are no longer being pressed to be played in the seventies and eighties. Instead, this veteran FGCU team can slow things down a bit and be patient on offense, trusting their years of defensive experience will help them. Anchoring that defense are two seniors in the front court, Demetris Morant and Marc-Eddy Norelia. Norelia, the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, broke his hand to start this year and ended up disappearing for a large stretch of this year for personal reasons. His numbers on the season (8.9 points, 4.8 rebounds) are nothing compared to his from a season ago (17.1 points, 9.3 boards) that led him to test the NBA waters last Spring. Norelia is peaking at the right time — he averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds in the Atlantic Sun Tournament, and his energy was exactly the spark the Eagles needed.
Dooley’s team is fun to watch and gets up and down the floor with the best of them — but they struggle to shoot the ball, and a team that can match their energy or athleticism will be difficult to beat. The Seminoles have that for sure, but have looked vulnerable in recent losses. — Adam Spinella
The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Salt Lake City, UT
7. Saint Mary’s Gaels vs. 10. VCU Rams
Saint Mary’s enters this year’s tournament with just four losses, three of which came against Gonzaga, one of the top teams in the country. Saint Mary’s boasts just one top 50 win this season – against Dayton in the third game of the season. Despite that, Saint Mary’s is a legitimate threat in this year’s tournament because of its outstanding junior center Jock Landale.
Landale nearly averaged a double-double this season, scoring 16.8 points and grabbing 9.3 rebounds per game. That production landed Landale as KenPom’s number two player of the year this season. Landale’s dominance in scoring and rebounding was striking – he ranked top 50 in the country in offensive and defensive rebounding, usage, and true shooting percentage.
Saint Mary’s spaces the floor around Landale with four 40 percent three-point shooters, including major rotation players Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson, and Evan Fitzner. Landale’s dominant inside game combined with the Gaels’ backcourt’s spacing led to Saint Mary’s 15th ranking KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings.
If the Saint Mary’s guards can continue to knock down their outside shots to take some pressure off Landale, Saint Mary’s could bust some brackets and make a run as far as the Elite Eight. The first-round matchup with VCU won’t be easy, but if the Gaels can throw it inside and combat the pressing style of the Rams, they could make some noise against Arizona. — Matt Way
Shaka Smart is gone and Will Wade has done an incredible job keeping the momentum rolling for VCU. They still employ that same “Havoc” type of play that led to their initial success, and the holdovers from those successful teams are now the leaders. Mo Alie-Cox is a wondrously athletic forward that scores in transition in bunches. JeQuan Lewis steadies their attack on offense and on the perimeter. He’s their best outside shooter, best creator and overall best player.
When we say Lewis is their best outside shooter, we mean it. He’s made over 40 percent of all VCU threes, and nobody else who gets regular minutes is above 31 percent. Without the spacing threat of multiple shooters, the Rams are still one of the best finishing teams at the rim in the country. Their ability to move in transition and get easy baskets off steals helps to ease the burden on their half-court offense.
Lewis and Doug Brooks apply the pressure on the perimeter, while Cox and athletic rim protector Justin Tillman clean up the mess on the second line. Tillman cleans up the boards behind everything, and he’s a rough matchup for teams that don’t have mobile big men that can keep up with his motor. The old adage that a pressing team doesn’t like to be pressed remains true for VCU, as they battle turnover issues through much of the year. While the turnover sabermetrics don’t indicate a high propensity for turnovers, they also have many possessions that spawn from transition — an area where few turnovers will exist. During a half-court battle, VCU may struggle to find the right shots as they continue to force drives towards the rim.
At the end of the day, VCU has a difficult first-round matchup with a really strong St. Mary’s team in Salt Lake City. A trip that far will be difficult for the Rams, and a capable Arizona team would then stand between them and the Sweet Sixteen. Wade needs to leverage the experience of his main players and allow them to carry the team to the zenith of their abilities. The faster the pace, the better the chance VCU has to win. St. Mary’s doesn’t want to slow down and that could play into VCU’s hands. But the Rams can’t let it be a three-point shooting contest, either. — Adam Spinella
2. Arizona Wildcats vs. 15. North Dakota Fighting Hawks
After a first round exit to Wichita State in last year’s tournament, the Wildcats have their sights on a much deeper run this year. Sean Miller’s team is a lot more experienced this time around, and is versatile as well. Arizona won the Pac-12 tournament convincingly with wins over UCLA and Oregon and lost just four times this season, to Butler, Gonzaga, UCLA and Oregon on their way to a co-title with Oregon for the Pac-12 regular season crown.
On the perimeter, they return sophomore Allonzo Trier, a projected late first round pick this year who played in just 15 games after serving a suspension for a positive PED test. This team was good without Trier; with him, they have a closer and go-to-guy. Complementing Trier on the perimeter is senior Kadeem Allen and freshmen Rawle Alkins. They also have good size with freshmen stretch four Lauri Markkanen, Dusan Ristic and Chance Comanche. Markkanen is a 2017 lottery pick, and fits the bill of the modern, NBA unicorn. From Finland, Markkanen is seven-footer with deep shooting range and the flexibility to defend on the perimeter.
Overall, the Wildcats roster makes for a great defensive team with rim protection, mobility from Markkanen and scrappy defense from their guards. Watch for Kadeem Allen on defense, he averaged 1.5 steals per game and is a pest to deal with. In practice, Arizona twice shut down UCLA, the best scoring team in the country.
Offensively, Arizona is no slouch. Markkanen can catch fire and Trier is a bonafide scorer. When this team is in attack mode they are hard to defend as they spread the floor well, shooting 40 percent from three as a team. If there’s a weakness, it’s that at times they can get bogged down and slow down the pace to a fault. They’ve had a few moments of hot potato in crunch time, such as in their home loss to UCLA. But too much talent is a good problem to have, and Arizona could easily win the whole thing. — Eli Horowitz
Head coach Brian Jones leads North Dakota into their first ever NCAA Tournament, following a 22-9 season where they won both the Big Sky regular season and conference tournament titles. They did that, however, without playing a single tournament team in their first 31 games. North Dakota drew Arizona in the first round, so the competition is about to get much tougher very quickly.
North Dakota was a middle of the road team both offensively and defensively in the regular season. They turn the ball over a lot and don’t grab many offensive rebounds, but they did shoot rather efficiently- the Fighting Hawks ranked top 80 in the country in both two-point and three-point shooting percentage. North Dakota’s offense is led by backcourt members Geno Crandall, Quinton Hooker, Corey Baldwin, all of whom measure in at 6’4” or shorter. Crandall, Hooker, and Baldwin all were rather efficient shooters in the regular season, though, and that will need to continue if they have any chance of beating Arizona.
Defensively, North Dakota was a bit better, ranking 149th in the country according to KenPom’s efficiency rankings. The Fighting Hawks did a good job forcing opponents to turn the ball over this season, led by Crandall and Hooker who combined for nearly 4 steals per game. North Dakota’s defensive successes begin and end with turnovers, unfortunately.
For North Dakota to upset Arizona, they will need to take much better care of the ball than they did during the regular season, particularly because Arizona’s length should give them a lot of troubles. Even if they do that and make a lot of shots, North Dakota is going to have a tough time stopping Arizona from scoring on the other end. The Fighting Hawks are undoubtedly thrilled to be in the tournament, but their first ever trip will likely be short-lived. — Matt Way