NCAA Tournament West Region: Top first-round matchups, upsets, predictions

There was legitimate discussion to be had about whether North Carolina still deserved a No. 1 seed after getting upset by North Carolina State in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday night. Some prognosticators believed that Iowa State — which pummeled eventual 1-seed Houston to win the Big 12 Tournament — could make a claim for the final spot.

[MORE: 2024 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket here]

When the dust settled, North Carolina got the nod courtesy of a 27-7 overall record and an ACC regular-season title. The Tar Heels missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago and have bounced back nicely in the third season under head coach Hubert Davis.

The bottom half of the bracket belongs to No. 2 Arizona, which came within a whisker of earning a 1-seed before an early exit in the Pac-12 Tournament. No. 3 Baylor and No. 4 Alabama feel like reasonably good draws for the top two seeds in this region, though No. 7 Dayton is a legitimate wild card.

Here’s a complete breakdown of the West:

Of the top four seeds, which team has the most favorable draw?

The bracket sets up nicely for second-seeded Arizona to make a lengthy NCAA Tournament run and potentially reach the Final Four for the first time since 2001. It’s been nine years since former coach Sean Miller brought the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in consecutive seasons, and current head coach Tommy Lloyd will be eager to string together a few wins after getting upset by No. 15 Princeton last March. 

A bottom half of the bracket that includes No. 3 Baylor, No. 6 Clemson and No. 7 Dayton is a very clean draw for Arizona, which was on track to earn a 1-seed until dropping two of its final three games to finish 25-8 ahead of the Big Dance. The best team in that trio — Baylor — struggled to find consistency down the stretch by dropping four of its past eight games amid the brutality of the Big 12, a league deeper than any other this season. The Bears, led by coach Scott Drew, have made it past the Sweet 16 only once in their past seven tries. 

There’s a strong chance Arizona reaches the Elite Eight where a potential showdown with No. 1 North Carolina looms. 

What is the most intriguing first-round matchup in this region? 

For fans of perimeter shooting, the game to watch is No. 4 Alabama against No. 13 Charleston

Under the direction of head coach Nate Oats, who just signed a contract extension that will reportedly make him one of the five highest-paid coaches in the country, the Crimson Tide play an analytically driven brand of basketball that encourages players to let it fly from 3-point range early and often. Alabama, which ranks second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, attempts 46.8% of its shots beyond the arc to rest comfortably among the top 20 teams in the country for that category. 

Meanwhile, Charleston, which won the CAA Tournament to earn an automatic bid to this year’s NCAA Tournament, shoots from 3-point range even more often than Alabama. More than 47% of the Cougars’ shots originate beyond the arc, which ranks 16th nationally and third among teams who qualified for the Big Dance. They have five players with at least 30 made 3-pointers this season, led by guard Reyne Smith, whose total of 109 is tied for sixth in the country.

Who are the must-see players in this region? 

DaRon Holmes, center, Dayton: One of the best players in the country that casual fans probably haven’t heard of, Holmes tore apart the Atlantic 10 by averaging 20.4 points., 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. He finished fourth in the Player of the Year race on KenPom behind Purdue‘s Zach Edey, Auburn‘s Johni Broome and UConn‘s Tristen Newton

RJ Davis, point guard, North Carolina: The senior increased his scoring average from 16.1 points per game a season ago to 21.4 per game this year, good enough for 11th nationally and third among players from power conferences. He’s an excellent 3-point shooter (40.6%) and free-throw shooter (87.3%) who is capable of getting the Tar Heels to the Final Four. 

Oumar Ballo, center, Arizona: A native of Mali, Ballo transferred to Arizona ahead of the 2021-22 season after playing his freshman year at Gonzaga. The 7-foot, 260-pound bruiser averages a double-double with 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. He plays smart basketball and has never been called for more than three fouls in a game all season. 

Which team should be on upset alert in the opening round? 

The most popular pick will likely be No. 11 New Mexico over No. 6 Clemson because of how strong the Lobos have looked at times this season and how hot they are entering the NCAA Tournament.

It was Jan. 28 when New Mexico, which is coached by Richard Pitino, the son of St. John‘s coach Rick Pitino, demolished Nevada by 34 to improve to 18-3 overall and 6-2 in the very competitive Mountain West. By then, the Lobos had won five consecutive games by 18 or more points. They stumbled slightly down the stretch — at one point losing six of 10 to end the regular season — before roaring to life with four straight wins to emerge from their conference tournament unscathed. 

Clemson, meanwhile, is arguably the weakest 6-seed in the tournament after posting a 21-10 overall record and an 11-9 mark in conference play during a down year for the ACC. The Tigers have lost three of four entering the Big Dance.

Which team do you view as the potential Cinderella of this region?

On paper, there don’t appear to be many great candidates among the double-digit seeds in the West. No. 12 Grand Canyon has a difficult matchup against a talented Saint Mary‘s team. No. 13 Charleston could have its hands full with Alabama’s explosive offense. No. 14 Colgate probably doesn’t have the firepower to threaten Baylor.

So, the choice here is — once again — New Mexico. Assuming the Lobos get past Clemson in the first round, Pitino’s team has enough balance to pose problems for opponents from the power conferences. New Mexico ranks 41st in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency with a roster that is among the top 40 in the country for Division I experience.

Who will be in the regional final? Who will win it? 

In what feels like it could be a fairly chalky region, the Elite Eight will come down to No. 1 North Carolina against No. 2 Arizona. It’s a fitting matchup for the two teams who traded blows over the past few weeks while jousting for the final 1-seed in this year’s field. 

A backcourt matchup between Davis and Arizona’s Caleb Love (18.1 points per game) — who joined the Wildcats after three seasons with the Tar Heels — would showcase two of the best scoring guards in the country. While the interior battle between Ballo and North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (14.1 points, 10.2 rebounds per game) might feel like a throwback to the old school centers of yore.

When it’s all said and done, Arizona cuts down the nets to advance to the Final Four.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him at @Michael_Cohen13.

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