16 things to know about NCAA tournament's West region, plus who wins
[More regional breakdowns: East | South | Midwest]
Rating the region: This is the third strongest region, as Gonzaga sputters in after getting thumped in the WCC finals by Saint Mary's and six-loss Michigan isn't as menacing as some of the other No. 2 seeds on the board. Opportunity looms for No. 4 Florida State, which blew out Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 last season.
Contenders to cut down the nets in Anaheim: Without a Duke- or UNC-level favorite, this regional appears vulnerable to chaos. All the top four seeds – Gonzaga, Michigan, Texas Tech and Florida State – have the firepower to reach the Final Four. Don't sleep on No. 6 Buffalo, which is 31-3 and has enough seniors and an ornery-enough defense to make a run. Three of No. 7 Nevada's losses have come in the last month, but don't be surprised if they end up in Minneapolis.
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Pretenders who will be bounced early despite high seeds: No. 5 Marquette looks as vulnerable as any high seed in the NCAA tournament. They've lost five of six games and star guard Markus Howard has gone cold, including shooting 1-for-15 against Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. While Florida State has the talent for another deep run, coach Leonard Hamilton has a tortured NCAA tournament history with a 10-9 overall record and a history for big-game collapses.
Cinderellas: This bracket has the best collection of mid-major teams – Buffalo, Nevada, Murray State and Vermont can all make runs. Don't be surprised if 80 percent of the brackets pick Murray State over Marquette, as the Racers have a top-three NBA draft pick in Ja Morant and a vulnerable opponent in Marquette. They may end up favored by the time the game tips off. Vermont also looms as a sleeper, as the Catamounts (27-6) went 3-0 versus the Atlantic 10 this season and have a roster that's on a higher echelon than a typical America East team.
Team that doesn't belong: Both Arizona State and St. John's will play in Dayton, and the NCAA tournament needs these teams like Dick Vitale needs more caffeine. That matchup epitomizes how the committee rewards high-major mediocrity as opposed to mid-major excellence. Those spots deserved to go to Furman, Lipscomb or UNC-Greensboro. Feel free to watch “Law and Order” re-runs instead.
Chances of a 1-16 upset: Even the biggest degenerate gambles would struggle to muster an opinion on Prairie View A&M and Fairleigh Dickinson. Let's just say that whoever wins in Dayton will be summarily dispatched by Gonzaga in Salt Lake. There's a better chance of Gonzaga becoming a national champion in football than losing to one of them in the first round.
Best potential round-of-32 game: The matchup between No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 6 Buffalo will be the best second-round game in the NCAA tournament. Tech's Jarrett Culver is a future NBA lottery pick averaging 18.5 points per game. Buffalo's CJ Massinburg is a national Player of the Year candidate who averaged 18.3 points per game. It’d be a fun matchup between Tech coach Chris Beard's offensive wizardry and the relentless defensive style of Buffalo's Nate Oats. Both are among the country's brightest young coaches and could end up in greener pastures in a few weeks.
Best potential Sweet 16 game: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State. The Seminoles were a No. 9 seed in the NCAAs last season and just swallowed Gonzaga whole with its superior athleticism and depth. The Seminoles won that game, 75-60, and Mark Few had to curse when he saw them looming in the No. 4 slot out West. (The zone of either Syracuse or Baylor won't be pleasant in the second round, either.)
Best potential regional final game: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Texas Tech. There are two great tacticians on the sideline in Few and Beard and loaded teams on the court. Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura is a top-15 NBA pick and averages 20.1 points per game. The Zags have plenty of options, as Brandon Clarke (16.5), Zach Norvell (15.3) and Josh Perkins (11.0) all average double digits.
Best coach: Syracuse's Jim Boeheim doesn't have a very good team, but he's still a Hall of Famer who has won a national title (2003). (Boeheim will have star guard Tyus Battle back after he missed the ACC tournament.) And he also has a 2-3 zone that's enabled mediocre teams to go on deep NCAA tournament runs, especially out of region. Remember Syracuse ending up in the Sweet 16 from the First Four last year or the Final Four in 2016 as a No. 10 seed. Could Gonzaga pucker up against the Syracuse zone? Well, it did back in 2016.
Underrated coach: A quick peek at the résumé of Vermont's John Becker (193-83) will make folks wonder why he's still in Burlington. He's built the Catamounts to an Atlantic 10-level program in the America East. His tenure has included three consecutive regular season titles, three NCAA tournaments and a 31-game conference win-streak that was snapped this season. Few coaches at any level have been more dominant in their respective leagues, as Becker won 100 America East games in 120 attempts.
Best player: There's a fluidity and elegance to Murray State point guard Ja Morant's game that's difficult to encapsulate without seeing him play. He's averaging 10.0 assists per game, a rare accomplishment for a college player, to go along with his 24.6 points. (And the talent around him would be politely characterized as modest). Morant can shoot, anticipate and is delightfully unselfish. He'll be a treat to see go against Marquette's Markus Howard, who is averaging 25.0 ppg.
Best player you haven't heard of: Vermont's Anthony Lamb is a 6-foot-6 forward who is averaging 21.4 points per game. NBA prospects in the America East conference are about as rare as, well, NCAA tournament victories. But Lamb may develop into one, as he can stretch the floor and has a rugged 227-pound body. Look for UVM to space out Florida State. They'll need Lamb to showcase his versatility against the bruising and deep FSU frontcourt.
X-Factor: Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie returned from a seven-game injury absence to play in a pair of WCC tournament games for the Zags. Tillie may not be 100 percent, especially in conditioning, but his ability to provide quality minutes off the bench could be a huge determining factor in how far the Zags go in the NCAA tournament. He looked OK in the WCC tournament, but a fully healthy Tillie increases Gonzaga's chances to win the national title exponentially. He averaged 12.9 points per game for the Zags last season.
Welcome March sight: That would be Michigan's balletic offense, as John Beilein has strung together another remarkable season for Big Blue. The unique wrinkle to this edition of Michigan under Beilein is that the Wolverines' defense is better than their offense. They are ranked No. 2 in KenPom in defense and No 18 on offense. Don't be surprised if last year's national runner-up has another deep run in them. Beilein is the best active coach to not win a national title. As a bonus, they don't have to play Michigan State. Tom Izzo has beaten Beilein three times this year.
Best part of this bracket: Oh brother, this is easy. Nevada has the Martin twins, Caleb and Cody, who are the team's best scorer (Caleb 19.2) and on-ball defender (Cody). But Vermont may trump them for brotherly productivity, as there are three Duncan brothers – Ernie, Everett and Robin – among UVM's top six scorers. The Duncan brothers have combined to average 24.6 points per game and play an average of more than 77 minutes per game. All three started for UVM at one point this season.
Pete's Pick: Texas Tech. Look for chaos to unfold and Jarrett Culver to emerge as the region's biggest star. (Sorry, Ja.) Chris Beard will be cutting down the nets in Anaheim and administrators at UCLA will wonder if they can lure him to Westwood.
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