Thursday, April 2, 2020

NCAA Tournament Projection: West Region first round

March 24, 2020
Michigan guard Zavier Simpson (right) talks to a teammate during a game against MSU.The Spartans defeated Michigan, 87-69, at the Breslin Student Events Center on January 5, 2020.
Michigan guard Zavier Simpson (right) talks to a teammate during a game against MSU.The Spartans defeated Michigan, 87-69, at the Breslin Student Events Center on January 5, 2020. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

Yes, we don’t have March Madness, but because of great minds like Joe Lunardi at ESPN, we can have a glimpse at what the bracket might have looked like. In the latest State News series, we analyze and project what the NCAA tournament may have looked like, round by round, region by region.

Here is our projection of the West Region first round.

#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 Prairie View

Preview: In a season that’s been one of the weirdest in recent memory, Gonzaga has provided some welcome consistency, routinely crushing their opponents with the top-ranked scoring offense in college basketball. Filip Petrusev has been an unprecedented force for a talented Zags team that only lost to Michigan and BYU in the regular season. Are they due for a rematch with either team as tournament play progresses?

Prairie View definitely has talent in first-team All-SWAC players like Gerard Andrus and Devonte Patterson. With that being said, it’s going to take a miracle for them to keep up with a Zags team that can turn on in the second half like no other.

Prediction: Per usual, the Zags get off to a hot start in the final twenty minutes and don’t let go. Like, at all. Gonzaga 95 Prairie View 74.

#8 LSU vs. #9 Oklahoma

Preview: Led by Head Coach Lon Kruger, the Sooners finished with a .500 record in Big 12 play off the strength of Kristian Doolittle, Brady Manek and Austin Reaves’ play. De’Vion Harmon showed a lot of promise in his freshman year but beyond those four, this isn’t an especially deep or intimidating team.

LSU failed to win back-to-back SEC titles this year after a mass exodus of talent. Concerning? Not really. Despite bidding farewell to Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, the Tiger's top-ten offense is still in the safe hands of Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays. A deep run may not be in the cards for LSU but expect them to take care of business in the first round.

Prediction: An overwhelming LSU offense ranked among the nation’s best takes down Oklahoma in a tournament to determine the national champion. Sound familiar? LSU 80 Oklahoma 71.

#5 Michigan vs. #12 Yale

Preview: Juwan Howard had the Wolverines off to a hot start this year, but injuries and inconsistent play pushed Michigan to a fourth place finish in the Big Ten. Still, this team is not one to be trifled with when Isaiah Livers is healthy, and it’s shown in upsets of rival Michigan State, Gonzaga and Creighton. Zavier Simpson is tied with Livers at 12.9 points per game to lead the Wolverines in scoring while Franz Wagner, Jon Teske and Eli Brooks all average over 10 points per game. Not every team boasts the scoring options Michigan has and they’ll be duly appreciated as Howard looks to lead his team past the first round.

Yale is led by Paul Atkinson (17.6 points per game) and Jordan Bruner (10.9 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game). They shoot threes at a high rate with good results (36.9% from the arc as a team), play above average defense and won’t be easy to take down. Forget the history of upsets between #5 and #12 matchups in the tournament: the Bulldogs can flat-out play, and it’s gonna take a strong Michigan effort to put them away.

Prediction: In a battle of Public Ivy versus Ivy League, Michigan comes out on top in a much closer affair than originally anticipated. Michigan 81 Yale 80 2OT.

#4 Oregon vs. #13 New Mexico State

Preview: The Ducks feature arguably the second best 2019-2020 Pac-12 Player of the Year on campus in senior Payton Pritchard. On his way to garnering first-team All-American honors, Pritchard oversaw an Oregon team that battled its way through an ever-bizarre Pac-12 while shooting 39.6% from deep. Head Coach Dana Altman has already taken the Ducks to one Final Four in 2017, and with this roster, he’s got a solid shot to make it back.

After starting the season 6-6, NMSU finished the season on a wild 19-game win streak that saw them win in every way possible to achieve perfection in WAC play. Trevelin Queen (13.2 points per game) is the best player on an Aggie squad that can’t afford to make many mistakes if they want to make their upset dreams a reality.

Prediction: Oregon ends NMSU’s 19-game streak as the Ducks move on to the second round. Oregon 64 NMSU 42.

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#6 BYU vs. #11 Indiana

Preview: It’s safe to say that Hoosiers Head Coach Archie Miller might not be the biggest fan of Lunardi’s prospective seeding. But after finishing with a 9-11 record in Big Ten play, it appears that Miller did enough to earn his first NCAA appearance three years into his rebuild at Indiana. This team has shown that they’re capable of pulling off big upsets during the season (see: Florida State) but they’ll need to lean on the scoring efforts of Trayce Jackson-Davis and Justin Smith if they want to keep pace with BYU.

And how about the Cougars? In only his first year as head coach, Mark Pope has BYU back in the tournament following their best regular season since Jimmer Fredette’s final go-around in Provo. This is in no small part due to their devastating offense: the Cougars are statistically the best three-point shooting team in the country while distributing the rock at a high rate to rank sixth in assists per game. Jake Toolson stands out from the pack with a 47.7% shooting percentage from the arc, grim numbers for an Indiana team that wasn’t exactly a great defensive team this year.

Prediction: Indiana hasn’t won a tournament game since 2016, and this won’t be the year they break that streak. BYU’s offense flat-out overpowers the Hoosiers in a game that isn’t as close as the final score suggests. BYU 77 Indiana 65.

#3 Seton Hall vs. #14 Eastern Washington

Preview: It’s hard to talk about Seton Hall without talking about Myles Powell. And for good reason: the first-team All-American and Big East Player of the Year has impressed this season to propel the Pirates to a coveted share of the Big East regular season title, their first since 1993. Beyond Powell, Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili have stood out on a team that aims to make this Head Coach Kevin Willard’s deepest run yet.

That being said, don’t overlook Eastern Washington. The Eagles average 80.9 points per game, good for sixth in the country, and feature some quality scorers in Jacob Davison and Mason Peatling. Can this team get it done for the Big Sky?

Prediction: EWU leads by two at the half, but Seton Hall bunkers down defensively to stifle the Eagles offense in the second half and moves on. Seton Hall 72 EWU 60.

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#7 Arizona vs. #10 Texas Tech

Preview: Sure, Texas Tech didn’t exactly live up to expectations this year following their remarkable run to the 2019 National Championship game. But maybe we’re not giving them the credit they deserve. They’re still a sound defensive team, holding opponents to 63.5 points per game. Replacing Jarrett Culver is an impossible task, but true freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey has filled in admirably for the Red Raiders, leading the team in scoring at 15 points per game; and they’ve played some of the nation’s best in Kansas, Baylor and Louisville very well this season. Those experiences will factor heavily into what figures to be a pressure cooker of a game against Arizona.

Another year, another tournament appearance for Sean Miller and the Arizona Wildcats despite persistent allegations of NCAA violations. Regardless, this is still a good team that’s got young talent at every position. Nico Mannion has great draft prospects, so he gets the most attention out of all the freshmen, but it was Zeke Nnaji that took home Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors for the Cats. Factor in Josh Green’s scoring output and if this team plays to their ability, they’re going to be a handful for any opponent.

Prediction: While Arizona earned the higher seed, Texas Tech is slated as a one-point favorite over the Wildcats. On that note, I’d like to congratulate the Wildcats on a hard-fought upset victory over TTU. Arizona 63 Texas Tech 61.

#2 San Diego State vs. #15 UC Irvine

Preview: Questions over whether or not San Diego State can be considered a legitimate contender erupted after their 26-game win streak came to an end in a loss to UNLV and unsurprisingly, they haven’t stopped. While it’s impossible to sell everybody on the Aztecs as a whole, I think most fans can get behind the idea of second-team All-American Malachi Flynn being considered one of the nation’s best players. The Washington State transfer has played a huge role in SDSU’s resurgence by averaging 17.6 points per game for the Aztecs, much needed production for a team looking to prove themselves in the tournament. Oh, and did we mention that SDSU’s defense is ranked third in the nation?

UC Irvine won a decidedly mediocre Big West, but didn’t exactly impress the nation. Interestingly enough, the Anteaters have a similar scoring average (74 points per game) to SDSU (74.8 points per game) and field four players averaging 10 or more points per contest. That being said, I just don’t see UC Irvine packing the offensive wallop needed to keep the Aztecs on the ropes for 20 minutes, much less a whole game.

Prediction: SDSU keeps the dream season alive as UC Irvine returns to Orange County without a win. San Diego State 68 – UC Irvine 52

Second Round matchups:

#1 Gonzaga vs. #8 Louisiana.

#5 Michigan vs. 4 Oregon.

#6 BYU vs. #3 Seton Hall.

#7 Arizona vs. #2 San Diego State.

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