NCAA West Regional primer: Ohio St. playing its best at right time
The 'Zags (31-2) went undefeated in West Coast Conference play and won the conference tournament. They've won 14 straight, rising to No. 1 in the polls for the first time in school history and achieving their first NCAA No. 1 seed. Longtime followers of the program believe this to be the most athletic and balanced team of coach Mark Few's 14-year tenure.
The backcourt of Kevin Pangos (11.7 ppg, 42.5 percent three-pointers) and Gary Bell Jr. (9.3 ppg) can shoot the lights out, and freshman David Stockton -- a distributor in the mold of his NBA father, John -- provides quality minutes. But the Bulldogs' difference-maker, by far, is likely All-America center Kelly Olynyk (17.7 ppg, 66.8 percent field goals), the 7-footer who, following a redshirt season, emerged as one of the nation's top big men, joining veteran Elias Harris (14.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg) in a frontcourt that presents significant matchup problems.
However, there's plenty of reason for skepticism about the Zags, given they've been cruising the past two months against inferior competition. Their last game against a Top 25-caliber foe was also their last loss, a buzzer-beater at Butler on Jan. 19. Gonzaga had some nice early season wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma but no real signature victory. That, plus the Bulldogs having never made it past the Sweet 16 under Few may give pause when picking Gonzaga to go to the Final Four.
The Bruins have emerged as a perennial NCAA tournament team under coach Rick Byrd but have yet to break through and win a tournament game in five tries since 2006. This could be Byrd's best chance yet, what with a veteran team that ranks second nationally in effective field goal percentage (56.8). Senior guards Ian Clark (18.1 ppg, 46.2 percent three-pointers) and Kerron Johnson (13.5 ppg. 4.7 apg) could cause problems if second-round opponent Arizona doesn't take them seriously enough.
Seriously -- this is one of the least confidence-inducing regions ever assembled, starting right at the top with overseeded Gonzaga through recently hot but unavoidably flawed No. 2 seed Ohio State, largely unproven No. 3 seed New Mexico and right on down the list. No one team stands out as upset-prone; they all are.
Love him or hate him, Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson (20.1 ppg) has become one of the most captivating players in the country, having led his team to its first NCAA berth in 11 years. However, he and the up-tempo Rebels could not be running into a more diametrically opposite team in every facet than laborious Wisconsin, whose defense is specifically geared to neutralize gunners like Henderson. (The Badgers rank 10th nationally in three-point defense.)
After taking a backseat his first two seasons to previous Buckeyes stars Jared Sullinger, William Buford and even current teammate Aaron Craft, Thomas asserted himself this season as a big-time scorer, averaging 19.6 points and consistently taking over in key stretches. He led the star-studded Big Ten in scoring, edging Michigan's Trey Burke.
The MAAC Player of the Year averaged 23.0 points, leading the fourth-seeded Gaels to a surprise championship in last week's conference tournament. The Harlem native transferred in 2011 from Arizona, where he averaged 9.7 points on the Wildcats' Elite Eight team that year.
The Zags have spent more than a decade trying to shed the stigma from playing outside a traditional power conference and this year have garnered unprecedented respect from poll voters and committee members. Now they'll be expected to back it up, which, given their lofty seeding, means nothing less than the Final Four.
Boise State will be looking for its first-ever NCAA tournament win Wednesday night in Dayton against LaSalle, losing in its previous five attempts. Despite being relegated to a play-in game, the Broncos' No. 13 seed is actually the best they've ever had.
The Big Ten was the nation's best conference, and the Buckeyes were the best team in it over the past four weeks, winning eight straight, including at No. 1 Indiana. The Buckeyes may have a tough time against New Mexico in a possible Sweet 16 game, but they're far more tested to date than the Lobos or Gonzaga.