This is Gonzaga’s best chance to get to a Final Four because this is easily the weakest of the four regions. Arizona is a deserving No. 2 seed — the Wildcats should have been the fourth No. 1 over North Carolina — and Sean Miller is almost as due a Final Four trip as Mark Few.
When the teams met in December in Los Angeles, Gonzaga won, but Arizona didn’t have Allonzo Trier at the time. The first question though is whether the two will meet again. Gonzaga will have a tricky opener against a South Dakota State team that plays to its nickname (Jackrabbits), and the Northwestern-Vanderbilt winner awaits.
Coach Chris Collins will must convince his Northwestern team that, now that it’s in the tournament for the first time in history, it has to play an actual game. Vanderbilt shouldn’t be in the tournament — it was 10-8 in the decidedly mediocre Southeastern Conference — but could easily beat the Wildcats.
Gonzaga should advance to San Jose to play Notre Dame. The Irish are the only team in the field that has been to back-to-back regional finals. They’re old as Coach Mike Brey likes to say, and their experience will be important in the first round against a Princeton team that defends like crazy. The other first-round game in that quadrant, Bucknell-West Virginia, has upset potential. The Bison handle the ball well enough to deal with the Mountaineers’ press, and if they can do that, they can pull the upset because they have a really good point guard and can shoot. Still, Notre Dame should play Gonzaga in the round of 16, and the Irish are more than capable of winning that game if they can find a way to handle Przemek Karnowski, who is huge and can pass.
Arizona will get a tough second-round test against either Saint Mary’s or VCU. The Gaels lost four games this season — three to Gonzaga. It would be wonderful if Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga matched up in the regional final if only to shut up the big-conference apologists who claim the West Coast Conference isn’t any good.
Remember Florida Gulf Coast’s run back in 2013? This Eagles team, coached by George Washington grad Joe Dooley, might be better. Of course, Florida State should be a tougher first-round out than Georgetown was that year because of its size, but if the Eagles get running, Leonard Hamilton’s team could be in trouble.
As for Maryland, the committee cut the Terrapins a break with a No. 6 seed but did them no favors with a game against Xavier in Orlando. Although the Musketeers lost point guard Edmond Sumner, they are a tournament-tested team. The Terrapins could make the Sweet 16 and probably face Arizona. They could also be home by the weekend.
The pick to win? Gonzaga. Why? Because I like Mark Few.