The road through March has been and will continue to be teeming with trials and tribulations for every team that’s made it to the NCAA basketball championship tournament. Even for No. 1 overall Gonzaga men’s basketball, who Twitter users love to berate for playing in a “Mickey Mouse conference,” for “not having played a real team since December,” or even now having “the easiest path to the Final Four in the last 12 years,” there will be a substantial amount of adversity for the Zags to overcome if they want to make it to the final weekend of tournament action.
Particularly in the West Region, featuring five other programs that finished the regular season in the Associated Press top 25 and six other conference champions, GU’s got its work cut out for itself already. In the first round already, the Zags are facing the winner of a first four play-in game between Norfolk State and Appalachian State; both schools winners of their respective conference’s championship tournament. Norfolk State uses a high-tempo offense to accompany a solid defense, while Appalachian State is very much of the three-and-free mindset that makes the Mountaineers apt to putting up a lot of points as they did throughout the four game winning streak they’re coming off of.
Should the Zags make it into the second round that starts Sunday, as many experts predict, GU will be taking on the winner of Oklahoma and Missouri, the respective No. 8 and 9 seeds in the West Region. Both programs boast battle-tested rosters that will be sure to give GU a competitive match, especially given that every team in the West region will be clambering to knock off the only No. 1 team in the nation all season if given the chance.
On top of that general target on GU’s back, revenge will be sought after by the region’s No. 2 through 4 seeds as all of them lost to GU early on in the regular season.
Regional No. 4 Virginia could have the first chance to meet back up with GU during the Sweet Sixteen. First, the Cavaliers will face Mid-American Conference champions Ohio, a team that’s won nine of its last 10 games.
Then, Virginia will have to overcome the winner between a 20-win Creighton squad that remained ranked for most of the season, and the No. 12 seed University of California, Santa Barbara who many have picked to be an upset machine this tournament. From there, the victor will get its shot to potentially play GU in the Sweet Sixteen.
If the Zags are to again win that game and make it to the Elite Eight, there’s a more than likely chance it will be against another familiar foe in either No. 2 seed Iowa or No. 3 Kansas (KU). However, it won’t be smooth sailing from either of those programs if they hope to get to a point where they can exact their revenge on GU.
Iowa’s first round matchup against Western Athletic Conference champions Grand Canyon University (GCU) is far from your typical No. 2 vs. 15 opening round matchup. Iowa is known for its height and ability to stretch the floor, but so is GCU, who is the 12th best team in the country when it comes to effective height measurement, which is five spots higher than Iowa.
Whichever team the winner of that matchup goes on to face in the second round will have had a lot of experience playing and winning in March, as first round foes No. 7 seed Oregon and No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth University share 34 tournament appearances between the two programs. Oregon shooting guard Chris Duarte has the ability to take over a game with his three-point shooting, and VCU’s Nah’Shon Hyland has similar capabilities as the Atlantic 10 player of the year.
As for KU, the Jayhawks have already been hindered by COVID-19 this postseason and had to leave for Indianapolis without starting forward David McCormack, making the Jayhawks early picks to be upset prey in the West region.
“The one thing I’ve found out through this, as much as anybody, is to expect the unexpected,” KU Head Coach Bill Self said to ESPN. “I’m not privy to comment on specifics but I’ll stick to what I’ve said all along that we anticipate (McCormack) joining us this week.”
KU will play No. 14 seed Eastern Washington in the first round after the Eagles went 16-7 on the year and won the Big Sky tournament for the first time since the 2014-15 season. The winner of that showdown will face either No. 6 seed USC or the winner of an 11 seed play-in game between Wichita State and Drake, both programs that fell just short of an automatic bid by losing in their conferences’ title game.
USC ended the regular season ranked No. 24 in the country before being upset by Colorado in the PAC-12 semifinal, but expect USC to make a formidable run this tournament while the team still has projected top 5 NBA pick Evan Mobley.
Whichever two teams do make a deep enough run out of the West to get to the Elite Eight, as Zag fans are hoping that GU is one of them, it will be a battle for who gets the coveted Final Four spot. Teams with depth and experience like GU often fair base down the stretch of the tournament, but GU fans as much as anyone else should never count out the possibility of a Cinderella run in the West region.