Arizona was awarded the top seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region, after the fourth-ranked Wildcats beat Michigan and San Diego State on the road and handled Duke on a neutral floor early in the season, then regrouped well after losing top forward Brandon Ashley last month. Easy call.
Conference tournaments were tough on all the top teams in this bracket, though. Arizona, No. 3 seed Creighton and No. 4 seed San Diego State all lost in the finals of their conference tournaments. No. 2 Wisconsin lost in the semis.
The best player in the region is Creighton forward Doug McDermott, who should be the national player of year by acclamation. He’s a clinician on the floor and leads Division I with a 26.8 points a game.
Arizona spent eight weeks atop both polls and boasts Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson, a jumping jack with good bloodlines — he’s the nephew of former NBA All-Star Dennis Johnson. The junior averages 16 points and was one of two Arizona players on the league’s all-defense team, joining point guard T.J. McConnell. Center Kaleb Tarczewski, a 7-footer, and 6-9 freshman forward Aaron Gordon can rebound and defend. The Wildcats rank in the top 10 nationally in rebound margin, total defense, defensive field-goal percentage and scoring margin.
Wisconsin: The Wildcats are not alone. Wisconsin is the only team in the 68-team NCAA field to have beaten two No. 1 seeds, Florida and Virginia. Knocking off a third is certainly not out of the question for the Badgers, whose interchangeable parts can provoke matchup problems.
Creighton: The Bluejays average 10 3-pointers a game, not only because of McDermott’s range but also because opponents have to pay so much attention to him.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were in danger in dropping out of the tournament field when they lost seven straight games, the final three while Marcus Smart served a suspension for pushing a Texas Tech fan. (What kind of 50-year-old fan heckles a college kid, anyway?) Coach Travis Ford has righted the ship, and the Cowboys have weapons to complement Smart in Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and 3-point specialist Phil Forte. They beat Kansas and Kansas State in the past two weeks, playing more more like the team that won 15 of its first 16.
Baylor: The Bears had won 10 of 11 games before losing to Iowa State in the final of the Big 12 tournament.
Oklahoma State (9) vs. Gonzaga (8): Smart and Oklahoma State will be looking to avenge a 69-68 loss to Gonzaga in a game played in Stillwater, Okla., on New Year’s Eve last season. Kevin Pangos led the ‘Zags with 23 points in that contest, and Smart had 23 points but missed two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining with the Cowboys trailing by two. Gonzaga is making its 16th straight NCAA appearance.
No. 12 North Dakota State over No. 5 Oklahoma: North Dakota State has won 17 of 20 games since a 17-point loss to Ohio State in mid-December, and success breeds confidence. Taylor Braun, a 6-foot-7 guard and one of three seniors who start, was the Summit League player of the year. The Bison entered last weekend tied with Duke for 11th in fewest turnovers in Division I. Oklahoma plays hard but overachieved this season.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 3 Creighton: The Wildcats likely would put long, smooth defender Aaron Gordon on uber scorer McDermott. The duel would be fascinating.
Marcus Smart, PG, OK State, So.: He may regret returning to school this year after a sobering season, but his NBA skill set remains.
Sim Bhullar, C, New Mexico State, So.: The 7-foot-5 center is the tallest player on the tallest team in the country.
Arizona: Free-throw shooting has been its only weakness. The Wildcats travel well, and crowds in San Diego and Anaheim will be loud and red.