If NCAA Tournament regions were cliche high school movie cliques, the West Regional would be the hangout for the kids that didn't quite fit in to other groups.
Xavier is certainly deserving of a No. 1 seed after winning the Big East regular season title and putting together an incredible year, but it got swept by Villanova and bounced early from the Big East tournament. North Carolina went toe-to-toe with overall No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday after beating Duke the night before, but it's also got 10 losses on the year. Michigan, the 3-seed, didn't really turn the corner until mid-February and Gonzaga is the only one of the bunch that has any geographical ties to the region.
None of the pieces seem to fit cleanly when predicting the outcome for the region and there's not clear-cut storyline, making the West the most intriguing of the four regions. It's in these scenarios we often get not only a few surprising results but really competitive and entertaining basketball. The West Region will have the games that make you change the channel from what you thought you would be watching, sneaking up on college basketball fans with some of the best moments of March Madness.
Three initial thoughts
1. It'll be good to see Michigan again
Michigan was the hottest team in college basketball until it faded from the college basketball consciousness during the hysteria of the past week. The Wolverines have won nine straight games, including wins against Michigan State and Purdue en route to claiming a second straight Big Ten conference tournament title. Will the fact that the Wolverines have been off since March 4 become a point of blame in the event of an early exit or considered an advantage with extra rest to get ready for the Big Dance?
2. It'll be great to see Michael Porter Jr. in the NCAA Tournament
Given his future earning potential as an NBA Draft lottery pick, there should not be (nor does there appear to be) any expectation that Michael Porter Jr. is here to lead Missouri on a Cinderella run. There's also no shortage of star power in this tournament and the Tigers have fielded a tournament-worthy resume with him on the bench for all but about 25 minutes of game action. That said, Michael Porter Jr. is a tremendous basketball talent and with one game under his belt to get comfortable it's going to be must-see TV when Missouri takes the floor.
3. North Carolina seems like a 1.5-seed
The Tar Heels' 2018 tournament profile is the perfect example for a discussion regarding the value of losses when judging resumes and seeding teams. North Carolina has more losses (10) than any other team with a top-four seed, and one of the worst losses of that 16-team group in a home defeat to Wofford. But because North Carolina has beaten Duke twice and has 13 wins against NCAA Tournament teams (including Ohio State, Michigan, Tennessee) it lands as the top 2-seed in the eyes of the committee. North Carolina could lose to almost anyone in the West, but it can also beat everyone in the West.
The national champion won't come from the West Regional
The West has lots of teams that are very good, and plenty of exciting matchups that will provide great entertainment during the first two weekends. But when it comes time to select an eventual champion, the top four seeds in the West all seem strong enough to make the Final Four but none seem like enough of a lock to pick to win it all.
Best potential matchups
1. Xavier-Gonzaga, Sweet 16
2. North Carolina-Michigan, Sweet 16
3. North Carolina-Gonzaga, Elite Eight
Upsets to watch for
1. South Dakota State over Ohio State. Mike Daum is one of the top scorers in the country and Ohio State seemed like it started to slide a bit towards the end of the Big Ten regular season. Oh yeah it's also a 5-12 matchup in Boise, Idaho so I'm not sure the Buckeyes will exactly be home court favorites.
2. Houston over Michigan. I think Michigan is strong enough to avoid slipping up against Montana, especially since so much of this team's core was part of the Sweet 16 run a year ago. But Michigan's style of play is something that Houston is used to, and Cougars guard Rob Gray is one of the most dangerous scorers in the region.
3. Providence over North Carolina. I don't think that the selection committee intentionally lines up these frequent foes in the NCAA Tournament, but I wouldn't put money against it given the scenarios we've seen over the years. Roy Williams and Ed Cooley squared off in the first weekend in 2014 and 2016, and now meet two years later after the Friars nearly won the Big East tournament.
Six best players
1. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
2. Joel Berry, North Carolina
3. Rob Gray, Houston
4. Moritz Wagner, Michigan
5. Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
6. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
Who I'm picking
North Carolina. Other teams might need the bracket to break their way to make the Final Four, but the Tar Heels are the only top team in the region that has the versatility to adjust to any opponent. UNC can go small without giving up its trademark advantage on the offensive glass, it's got young bigs that are starting to develop into regular contributors and better three-point shooting than either of the last two Final Four teams.