The 2019 NCAA Tournament is upon us. After a thrilling Championship week that saw some teams come out of nowhere to earn bids to the Big Dance and other favorites sweep their way to titles, March Madness is here. Over the next two days before the Tournament tips off we’ll be taking a look at each of the four regions in the Tournament. We continue with the West Region where the #1 seed is the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who are the only team to beat a fully healthy Duke squad this season. Michigan is the #2 seed after a run to the Championship Game last season and brings back a stifling defensive team. Two of the First Four matchups were featured in this group as Fairleigh Dickinson topped Prairie View A&M for the 16-seed on Tuesday and Arizona State topped St. John’s for the 11-seed on Wednesday.
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1. Gonzaga vs 16. Fairleigh Dickinson
Salt Lake City, UT
Gonzaga made another brilliant run through the West Coast Conference where they did not lose a game until the tournament final when they fell to St. Mary’s. The Bulldogs have the most efficient offense in the nation and average 88.8 points per game. Rui Hachimura (20.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG) has the talent to win the region’s most outstanding player award. The Zags have plenty of scoring depth behind Hachimura with Brandon Clarke (16.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG), Zach Norvell (15.3 PPG, 3.0 APG), and Josh Perkins (11.0 PPG, 6.5 APG). Four of their top 5 scorers shoot above 36% from beyond the arc, making Gonzaga a difficult matchup as they will run ball screen and force bigs to defend on the perimeter. Fairleigh Dickinson staged a comeback from an early deficit to beat Prairie View A&M in the First Four. The Knights are led by Darnell Edge (16.9 PPG) who went for a game-high 33 points in the win over Prairie View, and Jahlil Jenkins (13.8 PPG, 4.6 APG) who added 22 in the opening round win. Mike Holloway (12.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and Kaleb Bishop (10.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG) both had double-doubles in the win. Fairleigh Dickinson is one of the top 3-point shooting teams (40.4%) in the Tournament.
8. Syracuse vs 9. Baylor
Salt Lake City, UT
Syracuse is always a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament as their 2-3 matchup zone is a difficult adjustment for most teams to attack. The Orange got good news this week as leading scorer Tyus Battle (17.2 PPG), who missed the ACC Tournament with a back injury, will return for the NCAA Tournament. Jim Boeheim’s team also has a tandem of quality forwards in Elijah Hughes (13.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG) and Oshae Brissett (12.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG). The bad news for Syracuse came out on Wednesday when it was announced that guard Frank Howard (8.9 PPG, 2.9 APG) would be suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Syracuse is not a deep team and may turn to Battle at the point with Howard out. Baylor had an up-and-down year that featured two bizarre non-conference home losses to Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin. The Bears rebounded for a 6-game winning streak in January that included wins over Texas Tech and bubble team Alabama. They completed a sweep of Iowa State in February to secure their spot in the field but have lost 4 in a row entering the Tournament. Since losing leading scorer Tristan Clark in January, Baylor has relied on their guards for scoring. Makai Mason (14.6 PPG, 3.3 APG), Mario Kegler (10.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG), and Jared Butler (10.1 PPG) have carried the load on the offensive end. This is a matchup of a decent Baylor offense against Syracuse’s tough zone defense.
5. Marquette vs 12. Murray St
Mark your calendars for this one. Two of the top scorers in the entire NCAA Tournament will square off as Marquette’s Markus Howard (25.0 PPG, 4.0 APG) takes on Murray State’s Ja Morant (). For much of the season, Marquette led the Big East. But the Golden Eagles stumbled down the stretch, losing 5 of their last 6 games. Marquette, who averages 77.7 points per game, was within 10 points in all of their losses down the stretch. The Golden Eagles will need someone other than Howard and forward Sam Hauser (14.9 PPG, 7.1 PPG) to score if they are going to make a run. Marquette is one of the top 10 3-point shooting teams in the nation (39.3%). On the other side, Ja Morant (24.6 PPG) might be the first non-Duke player taken in the NBA Draft. He has exploded onto the scene this year with a variety of highlight-reel dunks and leads the nation in assists with 10 per game. The Racers have one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation, averaging 83.3 points per game. In addition to Morant’s outstanding play, Shaq Buchanan (13.0 PPG), Tevin Brown (11.7 PPG), and Darnell Coward (10.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG) have all been significant contributors. Murray State will be a popular upset pick and for good reason as Marquette has backed their way into the NCAA Tournament. Either way, this figures to be an outstanding matchup between two of the elite scorers in the field.
4. Florida State vs 13. Vermont
The Seminoles made a run to the ACC Championship Game that included a victory over regular season champion Virginia. Florida State made a run to the Elite 8 last year from the #9 seed that included a second-round upset of top-seeded Xavier and a Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga. The Committee has given the teams a chance for a rematch in Anaheim if both Gonzaga and Florida State can successfully navigate the first weekend. Leonard Hamilton has a deep squad and will rotate up to 11 players into the game. As such only 2 players, Mfiondu Kabengele (12.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and Terance Mann (11.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG) average in double-digits. As Virginia found out in the ACC Tournament, Florida State’s team is stacked with length and athleticism and can cause problems on the defensive end for any team. Vermont has dominated the America East over the last three seasons and got revenge on UMBC in the conference championship game this season. The Catamounts are not as deep as Florida State and rely heavily on three players for their offensive production. Junior forward Anthony Lamb (21.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG) won the conference player of the year award. In the backcourt, Ernie Duncan (13.9 PPG) and Stef Smith (12.3 PPG) along with Lamb and Everett Duncan all shoot over 36% from beyond the arc. If Vermont is going to hang with Florida State, they are going to need to knock down the outside shot. The University of Vermont is just 200 miles from the game site in Hartford, nearly 1000 miles closer than Florida State, which gives the underdog Catamounts a geographic advantage.
6. Buffalo vs 11. Arizona State
The storyline in this matchup will be about Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley taking on his former team and protege Nate Oates. Buffalo is a solid squad that spent much of the season ranked in the Top 25. The Bulls made a name for themselves last year when they upset Arizona in the first round of the Tournament. Now, after running through the MAC regular season and Tournament, they have a favorable seeding. Buffalo is led by CJ Massinburg (18.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.0 APG) who is the catalyst for the entire offense which averaged 85 points per game. Nick Perkins (14.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and Jeremy Harris (14.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG) provide complementary pieces to Massinburg. Buffalo ranks in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Arizona State was one of the last two teams in the field and topped St. John’s in the First Four play-in game. The Sun Devils also scored victories over Kansas and Mississippi State early in the year that helped them be the third Pac-12 team in the field. The backcourt duo of Luguentz Dort (16.1 PPG) and Remy Martin (13.4 PPG) carried Arizona State for much of the season. Dort went for a team-high 21 points in the win over St. John’s while Zylan Cheatham (11.8 PPG, 10.4 PPG) put up a double-double. Both of these teams rank in the top 50 in the nation in tempo, which means this game should be played at an up-and-down fast pace between Bobby Hurley and his former squad.
3. Texas Tech vs 14. Northern Kentucky
Texas Tech tied Kansas State for the Big 12 regular season title, the first time in 14 years that Kansas did not win or share the title. The Red Raiders have the top defensive efficiency in the nation. On offense, they are led by the dynamic guard play of Jarrett Culver (18.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.7 APG). Texas Tech utilizes a guard-heavy offense that features Culver, Davide Moretti (11.6 PPG), and Matt Mooney (10.9 PPG, 3.3 APG). All three are capable outside shooters. Texas Tech’s defense will get a challenge in defending Northern Kentucky’s offense which averages 79.1 points per game. The Norse are making their second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. They are not a deep team but their starters are all quality scorers, led by Horizon League Player of the Year, forward Drew McDonald (19.1 PPG, 9.5 RPG) who shoots over 40% from 3-point range. McDonald is joined in the frontcourt by Dantez Walton (11.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG) while the Norse backcourt features the tandem of Tyler Sharpe (14.1 PPG) and Jalen Tate (14.0 PPG, 4.1 APG).
7. Nevada vs 10. Florida
Des Moines, IA
Nevada was one of the Committee’s top 16 teams in February, but the Wolfpack did not do much to improve their resume in the month since then. In that span, they also lost to Utah State and in the Mountain West semifinals to San Diego State. They rank in the top 35 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and have the talent to make it back to the Sweet 16 where they fell to Loyola-Chicago last year. Nevada is led by the Martin twins. Caleb (19.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG) is their top scorer while Cody (11.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and Jordan Caroline (17.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG) have all combined for a formidable front line. Nevada’s top 4 scorers can all shoot from the outside as well, giving them an inside-outside game which makes for a difficult matchup. Florida’s quarterfinal victory over LSU, their second win over the Tigers in the last month, was enough to get the Gators into the field. Florida is the first team to earn an at-large bid with 15 losses, and they struggled away from home this season. Florida is not a deep team, but they perform well in most computer metrics thanks to their defense which ranks in the top 15 in efficiency. The Gators are also one of the 10 slowest-paced teams in the country, which means this should make for a slow, drag-out, game. Florida has just one double-digit scorer in KeVaughn Allen (12.0 PPG) but have other talented players in Noah Locke (9.6 PPG) and Jalen Hudson (9.0 PPG).
2. Michigan vs 15. Montana
Des Moines, IA
Michigan reached the national championship game last season and is an absolute threat to make it back this year out of a similar West Region that once again features Florida St and Gonzaga in the top half of the bracket. This is also a rematch of last year’s opening round game between the Wolverines and the Grizzlies. Michigan ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency and in the top 20 in offensive efficiency. John Beilein’s squad did not lose a game outside of Quad 1 this season and can shut down nearly any offensive attack. The Wolverines are led by Canadian freshman Ignas Brazdeikis (15.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and the guard duo of Jordan Poole (12.8 PPG), and Charles Matthews (12.0 PPG) who were both on last year’s team. Montana rolled through the Big Sky once again and have won 16 of their last 18 games. Senior forward Jamar Akoh (15.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG) is the leading scorer and essentially Montana’s sole big man. The Grizzlies run a guard-heavy lineup around Akoh. Amaad Rorie (15.1 PPG, 4.0 APG), Sayeed Pridgett (15.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG), and Michael Oguine (13.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG) are all upper-classmen who have been to the Tournament before. That said, Montana generally prefers a smaller, guard-driven lineup and will likely struggle to compete on the inside with Michigan’s size.