Seed outlook: Gonzaga is the best club in the West with a substantial margin, but the Zags, despite reaching the final two years ago, have performed well beneath the tournament’s glowing lights. However, Gonzaga has a 70 percent probability of reaching the Elite Eight, according to our model, as well as the third-best odds of any group to accomplish the national championship match (26 percent).
If Gonzaga face Syracuse in the second round, the zone defense of the Orange will give the Bulldogs trouble. This is the best offense Mark Few has had in Spokane, but it may be tested by any of those terrific defenses in the West: Four of the best 15 can be found in this region, including the top two in Texas Tech and Michigan.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 4 Florida State. A fixture at the KenPom Top 20 for the majority of the season, the Seminoles are hoping to build on last season’s championship run, which saw them come within a 4-point margin of creating the Final Four. FSU has a dominant defense (No. 9 in Pomeroy’s ratings) plus a balanced roster that saw four players collect at least 2.5 win shares. This draw isn’t terrible, either: Vermont isn’t particularly tough as a first-round foe, and Marquette is quite beatable (more on that below). No. 1 seeded Gonzaga probably looms after that, and also we give FSU a 24 percent chance against the Zags — but the Seminoles could have a 48 percent probability of making the Final Four if they had been to pull off the upset.
Don’t wager on: No. 5 Marquette. Teams seeded fifth aren’t usually good bets to make it past the Sweet 16 anyway, but Marquette could be a particularly terrible choice. As stated by the FiveThirtyEight power ratings, the Golden Eagles are by far the worst No. 5 seed in the area, and a first-round date using breakout mid-major superstar Ja Morant didn’t do them any favors. Marquette has a star power of its own in junior guard Markus Howard, who ranks sixth in the country with an average of 25 points per game, but this team lost five of its final six games and has a challenging tournament road before it.
Cinderella watch: No. 10 Florida. The Gators might have been one of the bubble teams to sneak into the area of 68, but they are poised to do some damage now that they are here. They brought Nevada, a so-so No. 7 seed, at the first round, and also we give Florida a 42 percent chance of pulling the upset that. Last year’s national runner-up, Michigan, probably waits in Round 2, and that is a difficult matchup (23 percentage odds for Florida) — but if the Gators win, then they’ve a 38 percent chance of earning the Elite Eight. In a region with quite a few good-but-flawed options, Florida looks better than the typical 10-seed.
Player to watch: Gonzaga, Brandon Clarke The Zags’ linchpin isn’t the consensus lottery pick, nor the two guards that have started 87 percent of the games of Gonzaga over the past two seasons. It is a transfer from San Jose State who is in his first active season with the group, Brandon Clarke. He is possibly the most underappreciated player in the nation.
On a group that comes with a 7-footer protecting the rim, it is Clarke. Clarke has reacted by setting a single-season blocks record and posting the maximum block speed of any group under Few.
“Should I feel like when I could get a good, quick jump , I will pretty much jump with anyone,” Clarke told me. “I mean, I have seen Zion (Williamson) coming down through the street before on TV, and if I can’t jump at the ideal time, I likely would not jump , however… I don’t actually see myself not jumping with anybody.”
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Baylor over No. 8 Syracuse (48 percent); No. 10 Florida over No. 7 Nevada (42 percent); No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette (32 percent)
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