2017 March Madness: West Regional Preview and Predictions for 1st Round

by Taylor Smith
on March 14, 2017

The West Regional looks about as wide open as any heading into the 2017 NCAA Tournament. We have Gonzaga, who suffered just one defeat all year, at the top, but the Bulldogs certainly have their fair share of question marks coming into this.

No. 2 seed Arizona has the pedigree, but they were ousted in the first round last season as a sixth seed by Wichita State. Florida State, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Maryland all have plenty of talent, but none of these teams have been able to get over the hump in recent years, either.

How will it shake out?

No. 1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs. No. 16 South Dakota State (18-16)

  • Offensive efficiency: Gonzaga 120.7 (10th), SDSU 110.8 (72nd)
  • Defensive efficiency: Gonzaga 87.6 (2nd), SDSU 102.2 (119th)
  • RPI: Gonzaga 8th, SDSU 155th

Not a single No. 1 seed has ever fallen at the hands of a No. 16 in the history of the tournament. Top seeds are 128-0 all-time in the first round and have won their games by an average margin of 25.1 points.

In 2016, top seeds won their first-round games by an average of 29.3 points per game. While winning in the first round certainly doesn’t guarantee the ‘Zags of an eventual trip to the Final Four, they should have very little issue with South Dakota State, who finished the regular season just two games above .500.

This one should be a rout.

Pick
Gonzaga
93
South Dakota State
65

No. 8 Northwestern (23-11) vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt (19-15)

  • Offensive efficiency: Northwestern 111.2 (68th), Vanderbilt 112.3 (58th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Northwestern 95.7 (35th), Vanderbilt 96.1 (41st)
  • RPI: Northwestern T-48th, Vanderbilt 38th

As you would imagine based on the seeding, the No. 8 vs. No. 9 games are essentially toss-ups most years. However, No. 8 Villanova in 1985 remains the lowest seed to ever go on to win it all. In the history of the tourney, No. 8 seeds won their first-round matchup 64 of 128 times for a success rate of 50%. So, this game tends to be dead-even.

Northwestern will be making their first-ever tournament appearance. They got in on the heels of a strong regular season and also made a fairly deep run into the Big Ten tournament, beating Rutgers and Maryland along the way.

Vandy is legitimately lucky to even be here. They finished the season with 15 losses and got blown out by Arkansas in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. The Commodores have the most losses by a team that received an at-large bid in the history of the tournament.

Northwestern’s Cinderella story keeps rolling.

Pick
Northwestern
72
Vanderbilt
66

No. 5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs. No. 12 Princeton (23-6)

  • Offensive efficiency: Notre Dame 118.9 (16th), Princeton 109.4 (83rd)
  • Defensive efficiency: Notre Dame 97.8 (58th), Princeton 96.9 (46th)
  • RPI: Notre Dame 23rd, Princeton T-48th

Notre Dame is coming off a run all the way to the ACC Championship Game where they fell short against a red-hot Duke squad. The Irish are coming off of back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight and will be looking to finally take that next step as a No. 5 seed this time around.

Princeton will not be an easy foe, to say the least. The Tigers are currently riding a 19-game winning streak and toppled Yale to win the first-ever Ivy League tournament on Sunday.

Princeton didn’t exactly play the toughest regular season schedule, but they did beat one tournament team (Bucknell). They don’t boast one do-it-all scorer, but did have four players that averaged better than 10 points per game during the season.

The Irish are truly battle-tested, though, and should have enough to come out of this one unscathed.

Pick
Notre Dame
70
Princeton
58

No. 4 West Virginia (26-8) vs. No. 13. Bucknell (26-8)

  • Offensive efficiency: West Virginia 116.5 (28th), Bucknell 109.1 (87th)
  • Defensive efficiency: West Virginia 89.7 (5th), Bucknell 100.3 (88th)
  • RPI: West Virginia 24th, Bucknell 63rd

Many (yours truly included) tabbed the Mountaineers to do some damage last March, only to see them get bounced in the first round against Stephen F. Austin as a No. 3 seed.

Well, West Virginia is back again, this time as a No. 4, with hopes of actually making a run this time. While WVU made their name last season as a lethal three-point shooting outfit, they have been one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country this season. They press their opponents up-and-down the floor, and actually led the nation in turnovers forced per game.

West Virginia doesn’t exactly have the most dynamic offense, though, and a team that slows the pace could give them some problems. Bucknell likes to do just that around big man Nana Foulland. Foulland proved to be a handful for Patriot League opponents all season long, averaging 14.9 points, 7.8 rebound and better than two blocks per game.

It’s hard to believe the Mountaineers will suffer an embarrassing first-round defeat two years in a row. The press will give Bucknell major problems in this one, and it may not even be close once it’s all said and done.

Pick
West Virginia
74
Bucknell
56

No. 6 Maryland (24-8) vs. No. 11 Xavier (21-13)

  • Offensive efficiency: Maryland 113.6 (39th), Xavier 114.8 (33rd)
  • Defensive efficiency: Maryland 98.8 (64th), Xavier 99.5 (74th)
  • RPI: Maryland T-32nd, Xavier T-36th

Maryland goes as Melo Trimble goes. The junior guard was one of the nation’s most electrifying players this season, averaging 17 points per game to go along with 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. While he’s clearly the No. 1 option offensively, the Terps do have some young freshman weapons in Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson.

As for Xavier, Trevon Bluiett is their heart-and-soul. Despite battling a nagging ankle injury, Bluiett’s strong play helped Xavier to an impressive win over No. 18 Butler in the Big East tourney. The junior averages better than 18 points per game.

These teams are fairly evenly-matched, which should make for a compelling contest throughout. If we get a Trimble-Bluiett mano-a-mano showdown, it could get fun down-the-stretch. Bluiett isn’t one hundred percent at this point, though, and Maryland has decent firepower outside of Trimble.

Pick
Maryland
70
Xavier
68

No. 3 Florida State (25-8) vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7)

  • Offensive efficiency: Florida St.116.5 (25th), FGCU 109.5 (72nd)
  • Defensive efficiency: Florida St. 94.0 (24th), FGCU 104.5 (172nd)
  • RPI: Florida St. 13th, FGCU T-85th

You may remember Florida Gulf Coast as the sparky underdog that dunked their way through the first few rounds of the 2013 tournament as a No. 15 seed. They beat Georgetown and San Diego State before falling to the Florida Gators in the Sweet 16.

While the Eagles have plenty of athleticism, they play at a slower pace than they did in 2013 and tend to struggle with the three-ball. A cold shooting night could be their undoing.

Florida State legitimately boasts 12 rotation players and has as much talent as any team in the country. For them, it’s all about consistency. The Seminoles have had their struggles at the free-throw line this season, where they’ve connected on just 68.9 percent of their attempts.

While it would be fun to see another run from FGCU in March, they don’t have the depth necessary to handle Florida State’s talented squad in this one.

Pick
Florida State
88
FGCU
69

No. 7 St. Mary’s (28-4) vs. No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth (26-8)

  • Offensive efficiency: St. Mary’s 119.0 (15th), VCU 110.0 (72nd)
  • Defensive efficiency: St. Mary’s 94.3 (26th), VCU 95.7 (36th)
  • RPI: St. Mary’s 17th, VCU 18th

VCU is the more recognizable name here thanks to their run to the Final Four under Shaka Smart a few years back, while St. Mary’s has been away from the tourney for a few years. They gave top-seeded Gonzaga a few problems in their three meetings during the season, but the Gaels ultimately came up empty against the Bulldogs.

VCU, meanwhile, boasts nine players that averaged double-digit minutes during the regular season. The Rams forced their opponents to turn the ball over more than 15 times per game, which was one of the top marks in the nation.

A matchup to watch will be St. Mary’s big man Jock Landale going up against a vulnerable VCU frontcourt. The 6’11” junior nearly averaged a double-double during the season for the Gaels and VCU really doesn’t have the size to compete with him on the block.

However, the Rams are just deeper and play a defensive brand of basketball that typically breeds success in March. Don’t be surprised to see an upset in this spot.

Pick
VCU
71
St. Mary’s
65

No. 2 Arizona (30-4) vs. North Dakota (22-9)

  • Offensive efficiency: Arizona 117.6 (20th), North Dakota 102.9 (200th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Arizona 94.8 (28th), North Dakota 103.2 (159th)
  • RPI: Arizona 2nd, North Dakota T-143rd

Gonzaga will rout South Dakota State in their first-round meeting, but this game between Arizona and North Dakota could wind up being even more lopsided.

Arizona, of course, is led by freshman phenom Lauri Markkanen. The seven-foot Finland native and future NBA lottery pick averaged 15.6 and 7.1 rebounds per game this season and connected on better than 43 percent of his attempts from three-point range. He’s a matchup nightmare, particularly for collegiate bigs that aren’t used to defending around the perimeter.

North Dakota did average 80 points per game, but it’s really difficult to see how the Fighting Hawks are going to be able to contend with the Wildcats on the glass. This was one of the most mediocre rebounding teams in America this season and Arizona just has too much size along the frontline.

The Wildcats get an easy win here.

Pick
Arizona
91
North Dakota
67
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