The West region of the 2021 NCAA Tournament can unofficially be known as the mid-major bracket. Of the 18 teams in the region, just seven hail from a major conference, which is the fewest of the four brackets.
How did this happen?
For starters, Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed. Also, the First Four battle in this region features Wichita State and Drake, two mid-majors. Throw in Creighton and VCU and the West figures to be a fascinating study in how well mid-major programs match up against power-conference foes.
Let’s take a closer look at the West Region, as we try to figure out what team will end up in the Final Four.
Top Seed: Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Bulldogs earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament after getting through the regular season undefeated.
Mark Few’s team challenged itself early in the season, beating teams like Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia. Ironically, three of those four teams are also in the West Region and will have to go through Gonzaga to reach the Final Four.
Meanwhile, getting a scare against BYU in the WCC Championship Game may have been what the Bulldogs needed to refocus before the Big Dance because they will face challenges in this region.
Main Competition: Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes might have crashed out in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, but they are more than capable of making a Final Four run. Luka Garza is arguably the best player in the country and will give Iowa a chance to win every game they play.
The guys around Garza are also quality offensive players, which is why the Hawkeyes lead the country in assists and are top-10 in scoring. Iowa shares the ball as well as any team in the country, enabling them to get quality shots.
As long as those shots are falling, the Hawkeyes can beat anyone, including Gonzaga.
Sleeper: Oregon Ducks
Until losing to Oregon State in the Pac-12 semifinals, the Ducks had won 11 of 12 games. They are still one of the hottest teams in the country despite the loss.
Senior guard Chris Duarte is a pro-caliber player, and he makes Oregon a dangerous team. However, the Ducks are far from a one-man team.
Oregon has five players who average double figures. That includes junior point guard Will Richardson, who missed the early part of the season because of a thumb injury. Oregon’s late-season run coincided with Richardson’s return.
The Ducks also missed most of January due to a pause, but over the last six weeks, they’ve played a lot better than a No. 7 seed, making them a potential sleeper.
Tough Out: Eastern Washington Eagles
A month ago, Kansas would have been thrilled with a No. 3 seed. But the Jayhawks don’t exactly get a break with Eastern Washington.
The Eagles are close in proximity to Gonzaga and also have similar characteristics to the Bulldogs. Eastern Washington has good size for a Big Sky team and balanced scoring with five players who average at least 10 points.
They have enough skill and size that they won’t be easily overwhelmed by the athleticism of a power-conference team like Kansas, enabling them to put up a fight.
Possible Cinderella: UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Just the name Gauchos makes them feel like a team that people will gravitate to as a Cinderella. Name aside, UC Santa Barbara is a serious threat as a No. 12 seed.
JaQuori McLaughlin, who started his career at Oregon State, is a serious player. He averages 16.2 points and 5.2 assists per game and leads a team filled with upperclassmen. McLaughlin and Ajare Sanni can both get hot from the perimeter while Amadou Sow provides a strong post presence.
Keep in mind the Gauchos will open up against a Creighton team that looked beyond horrible in the Big East Tournament final. The Gauchos can win that game and shouldn’t be ruled out from winning another.
Upset Alert: Ohio Over Virginia
The Bobcats were just the No. 5 seed in the MAC Tournament, but they looked outstanding, knocking off the top seeds Toledo and Buffalo.
If you missed him during the MAC Tournament, James Preston is something to watch. He’s scoring over 16 points and dishing out more than seven assists per game. He’s also one of Ohio’s best rebounders.
To be fair, the Cavs have a defense that could trouble Preston. The Bobcats also lack the size to compete with Jay Huff on the boards. However, Ohio went toe-to-toe with Illinois back in November, losing by two points. They can score against quality teams and they can play with anyone, which is why the team that lost to a No. 16 seed a few years ago should be on upset alert again.
Don’t Buy the Hype: Drake Bulldogs
The Bulldogs made a lot of noise this season by starting out 18-0. But they’ve been a modest 7-4 since then. In fairness, two of those losses came against Loyola Chicago. However, injuries have left Drake short-handed heading into the Big Dance.
Point guard Roman Penn is done for the season while leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill hasn’t played in over a month, although there’s a chance he can play in the NCAA Tournament.
Earlier this season, Drake would have been a favorite to become a Cinderella. But things have not fallen into place for the Bulldogs recently, so don’t let those 18 straight wins trick you because Drake isn’t peaking at the right time.
Player to Watch: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton
There’s no excuse for how poorly the Blue Jays played in the Big East Tournament final. But that doesn’t change how we should look at Marcus Zegarowski.
The junior point guard was far from Creighton’s problem in the loss to Georgetown and is one of the most overlooked players in the country. If the players around him can bounce back, Zegarowski can help elevate the players around him and give the Bluejays the type of guard play that wins games in March.
In the end
This is Gonzaga’s bracket to lose.
As mentioned, they’ve already beaten Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia, who are their three biggest competitors in this region. If Kansas can get past the COVID issues that knocked them out of the Big 12 Tournament, the Jayhawks could pose a problem for Gonzaga in the Elite Eight because of how well they’ve played late in the season. However, Iowa and Virginia both face challenging paths while USC is a little young to be a serious sleeper.
In the end, look for the Bulldogs to take their undefeated record to the Final Four.
Photo: Getty Images