Gonzaga is the overall No. 1 seed in the men’s NCAA Tournament. Normally, that should make the Zags the favorite. Not everyone sees it that way.
Once again, the Zags will have to prove they are good enough to win a national championship. They are often dismissed because of their conference affiliation, the West Coast Conference. The WCC has always lacked respect, and it’s no different this season even though it’s been the best one in the league’s history. The WCC has three teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, fans think Gonzaga plays weak competition in the WCC, but consider this: The Zags obliterate it, winning by a nation-leading 22 points per game, five more points than the second most. That’s what the Zags are supposed to do.
In their most difficult non-conference games, the Zags beat Texas, UCLA and Texas Tech; lost to Duke and Alabama. It was a body of work good enough to be placed on the top seed line.
With the talent coach Mark Few convinces to encamp to remote Spokane, Wash., Gonzaga probably will win a national championship eventually. It could happen this year as the Zags are among the best shooting and highest-scoring teams in the country and decent enough defensively. Not many teams can match their big men, Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren. The big guys get the ball delivered to them by a top-notch point guard, Drew Nembhard.
The biggest problem for the Zags is that they are grouped with second-seeded Duke in the West Region. In all likelihood, the Zags are going to have to beat Duke as Mike Krzyzewski coaches his final season, if they have any chance of winning the championship.
Despite that, Gonzaga does not have the most difficult path to the Final Four. Baylor, seeded first in the East, could face serious challenges from North Carolina, Saint Mary’s, Indiana, UCLA, Purdue, and maybe most significantly, Kentucky. The East is loaded.
Arizona is the top seed in the South and will also have to win some tough games to make it to New Orleans, the site of the Final Four. Illinois, Houston, Tennessee, Ohio State, Villanova, and even Colorado State pose a threat.
Kansas might have the smoothest path as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. The higher-seeded teams here are vulnerable ones like Auburn and Providence. The Jayhawks could have a tough second-round matchup with San Diego State, however.
Other bracket thoughts:
▪ No team of consequence was left out although in my weirdly arranged thought processes, I would still rather see Toledo, North Texas, and Northern Iowa than Rutgers, Indiana, and Michigan.
▪ I was surprised the committee rewarded Saint Mary’s with a five seed and Murray State with a seven seed. Was expecting both to be under-seeded. Not this time. Murray State could have a fascinating second-round match against its fellow state school, Kentucky.
▪ The best first-round games would be North Carolina vs. Marquette, Saint Mary’s vs. either Wyoming or Indiana, Murray State-San Francisco and Iowa-Richmond.
▪ The most unappealing first-round game is LSU vs. Iowa State, two teams going nowhere.
▪ Possible upsets could occur in these first-round games: UConn-New Mexico State, Davidson-Michigan State, Virginia Tech-Texas, Chattanooga-Illinois, Loyola-Ohio State and South Dakota State-Providence.
▪ Kentucky has me worried. I thought the Wildcats could win it all but they have been beaten pretty soundly by Tennessee twice recently. Meanwhile, the Vols, once offensively challenged, have jelled and might be a sneaky Final Four team.
▪ Defining what a “sleeper’' is can be difficult. Its meaning isn’t the same to everyone. To me, if Murray State upsets Kentucky in the second round, the Racers are a sleeper. It could happen, but I don’t think it will. New Mexico State could find its way to the Sweet 16 as could Virginia Tech.
▪ Projecting further into the bracket, Colorado State and Saint Mary’s are two long-shot Final Four candidates. Definitely sleepers in that sense.
▪ New England has five teams: UConn, Providence, Vermont, Yale, and Bryant.
The Huskies are seeded fifth in the West with some tough matchups. Providence is a veteran team made for March, but I’m not sure what to make of that big loss to Creighton in the Big East tournament. Not a good sign.
Vermont has Arkansas in the first round. The Catamounts are fun, but just not talented enough to pull off an upset. Yale has a great guard in Brockton’s Azar Swain, but will most likely be overwhelmed by Purdue’s size.
Bryant has Peter Kiss, the leading scorer in the country at 25.1 points per game, and a chance to win its First Four game against Wright State in Dayton, Ohio. That would match Bryant with No. 1 seed Arizona in San Diego.