The 2023 NCAA Tournament field has been announced, and now college basketball fans everywhere will spend the next couple of days until brackets lock doing as much research as possible for their picks in Bracket Games. We're here to help you with region-by-region primers, turning our attention today to the West Region, with Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games being held in Las Vegas.
That setting is particularly notable when we begin our discussion around the region's No. 1 seed, Kansas. The Jayhawks were slotted for the West Region in part because of the selection committee's order of the four top seeds. Heading into conference tournament weekend, the Jayhawks were widely considered a lock for a No. 1 seed with the potential to be selected as the overall No. 1 seed. Such a distinction would come with regional preference, and with the Midwest Region holding its semifinal and final games in Kansas City, there was a natural excitement about the potential for a home-court advantage for the reigning national champions in their efforts to repeat.
Then Selection Sunday came, and it was Houston, which finished one spot ahead of Kansas in the final seed list, getting the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. Kansas now not only misses the opportunity to play pivotal tournament games in Kansas City, but it takes its talents out to a city where West Region competition like No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 seed Gonzaga have plenty of experience. If Kansas is going to make it back to the Final Four, it will not be a path that is free from significant adversity.
Those top three seeds are also notable for the fact that all three have Final Four appearances in the last two years, with Gonzaga and UCLA playing in an epic national semifinal back in 2021 and the Jayhawks cutting down nets last April in New Orleans. No other top seed combination can match the recent NCAA Tournament success of these three in the West Region, and the oddsmakers agree; by listing Kansas, UCLA and Gonzaga among the top six odds to win it all, this corner of the bracket is the one most likely to produce a national champion.
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Best first-round game
(8) Arkansas vs. (9) Illinois: This is a great ceilings and floors game. Arkansas' ceiling is going shot for shot in a three-point loss on the road to No. 1 overall seed Alabama, or eking out hard-fought wins against San Diego State, Kentucky and Texas A&M. At its best, Illinois can beat the likes of UCLA and Texas, and it can be within two possessions of upsetting Indiana or Purdue on the road.
There's a reason these teams are in the 8-9 game, however, and it's because neither team performed at its peak potential with any consistency. There will be a lot of intrigue — and for fans, anxiety — about "which team is going to show up" on both sides, and it sets a wide variance for outcomes -- many of which are entertaining. You've got an elite NBA prospect in Arkansas' guard Nick Smith, two teams that like to push the pace and the potential that neither team will be able to pull away from the other. Why? Both teams rank outside of the top 300 in 3-point shooting percentage and neither team ranks higher than No. 287 in free throw shooting percentage. No easy buckets basketball at a fast pace is bound to provide a thrilling ending.
Top potential matchup
(1) Kansas vs. (2) UCLA: Getting a rematch of the UCLA-Gonzaga Final Four epic would be incredible, and if any other No. 1 seed in this tournament placed in the West Region it would be the answer for top potential matchup. But while UCLA-Gonzaga would get us fired up for the recent rematch, it would not command the attention of Kansas and UCLA in the regional final. If UCLA can survive its injury issues, we could get a match up of bonafide blue bloods with the Final Four on the line. The résumé says Kansas has been better, but the predictive metrics and power ratings say UCLA has been better. Maybe we get to settle it on the court in Las Vegas.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(11) Arizona State vs. (11) Nevada winner: For the record, I'm picking TCU in our expert bracket to win, but I think there's a decent chance that the winner of Arizona State and Nevada on Wednesday could roll forward and catch TCU off guard in that late Friday game in Denver. TCU has to prepare for both teams early this week and it remains in the midst of its own roster issues after Eddie Lampkin left the team. Both Arizona State and Nevada also play at altitude regularly in their respective conferences, so they've got that advantage over the Horned Frogs. TCU has also shown, even recently, the ability have a clunker performance (the regular-season finale at Oklahoma comes to mind). I also picked VCU over Saint Mary's in a 12-over-5 upset, but more on that below.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(5) Saint Mary's: I'm projecting chalk in the West Region, at least in terms of the second weekend, with Kansas facing UConn in one regional semifinal and UCLA playing Gonzaga in the other. So there's not a dramatic early exit nominee except for my top upset pick in the region: VCU over Saint Mary's in the first round. The Rams have been playing their best basketball of the year in the last month, and it's the early game in an afternoon window on the East Coast for a West Coast team. Lte-arriving UConn fans — of which there will be many — are absolutely going to get boisterous with their support for the 12-over-5 upset as it pertains a potential second-round matchup for the Huskies.
Six players to watch
- Jalen Wilson, Kansas: A unanimous Big 12 Player of the Year and All-Big 12 First Team selection, Wilson finished the regular season as the conference's leading scorer at 19.8 ppg while also leading the Big 12 in rebounding (8.4 rpg) and double-doubles with 11. Kansas does not have an overwhelmingly efficient offense, but when the Jayhawks need a bucket it's been Wilson who gets the ball. More often than not, he's delivered.
- Drew Timme, Gonzaga: Already a three-time All-American, Timme is back in the mix for another year of All-American honors as he looks to add "national champion" to his bio as the greatest Zag in program history. Timme led the West Coast Conference with 20.9 ppg and has yet again been a force near the basket with 62.4% shooting and 7.3 rebounds per game.
- Jaime Jaquez, UCLA: The Pac-12 Player of the Year has been on a mission all season, elevating his level of play and emerging as one of the best small forwards in the country. Jaquez averaged 17.4 ppg and 8.0 rpg in leading the Bruins to a 29-5 record and program's first Pac-12 regular-season title since 2013.
- Tyger Campbell, UCLA: Another member of that UCLA team that went from First Four to Final Four in 2021, Campbell has been outstanding in tough spots for the Bruins. He provides elite experience at the guard position that's crucial for NCAA Tournament success.
- Nick Smith, Arkansas: The No. 1 player in the 2022 recruiting class, according to 247Sports ,hasn't been available all season, but when he's on the floor there is a remarkable difference in the Razorbacks' offensive ceiling. The 6-foot-5 combo guard is a potential top-five pick in the 2023 NBA Draft thanks to his ability to create and score on his own. If Arkansas is set to make a special run from the 8-9 game, then Smith will certainly have to be a factor.
- Mike Miles, TCU: After Miles suffered a knee injury on Jan. 28, TCU went on to lose five of its next six games. In fact half of TCU's 12 losses came with Miles hampered by injury. The 6-foot-2 junior guard is the engine of the offense, and everything works better when he can survey the floor, push the pace when needed and isolate TCU's best scorers (including himself) in favorable matchups.
West Region winner
(1) Kansas: Program strength is often defined by the ability to maintain a standard through personnel turnover as it reflects positively on player development and a coaching staff's ability to recruit both from high school and in the transfer portal. The Jayhawks lost so much production from last year's title team; however, unlike some other tournament teams, they did not need to remake their roster entirely through the transfer portal. Kansas did add Kevin McCullar through the portal and brought in five-star freshman Gradey Dick, but the Jayhawks' success has largely been thanks to players like Dajuan Harris, K.J. Adams and especially All-American candidate Jalen Wilson raising their level of play to meet the team's needs. In the Big 12, they've seen a variety of playing styles and faced some of the best competition in the country, preparing the Jayhawks for another run at a title.
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