I could be jinxing the West Regional. I could be applying the kiss of death. Yet, on paper at least, the West Regional at the 2019 NCAA Tournament looks like the best regional of the four.
It’s not as though the other regionals are chopped liver. Each one has at least two if not three terrific matchups on paper over this weekend. Oregon-Virginia is really the only game I am not especially jazzed about. Every other matchup is compelling and interesting and could become special.
Yet, if you look harder at these four regionals in the Sweet 16, one thing stands out to me about the West: In no other region do all four teams have a relatively equal shot at getting to the Final Four.
Let’s be honest: Duke stands a cut above in the East. That doesn’t mean the Blue Devils are guaranteed to win. I think Virginia Tech and the LSU-Michigan State winner can both beat Duke. Nevertheless, if you sized up that regional in Washington, D.C., you would have to acknowledge that coaching experience and overall talent lean toward a few teams more than others.
The aforementioned Oregon-Virginia matchup makes the South a little less balanced than the other three regions, even though Purdue-Tennessee is a tremendous matchup loaded with significance.
The Midwest Regional is a terrific regional. I think Auburn-North Carolina and Houston-Kentucky have the potential to be outstanding games. Auburn-UNC could be the most fun game of the whole tournament. Yet, who would dispute the claim that Auburn is on North Carolina’s level? Auburn can win that game, but that’s not the same thing as saying that Auburn’s odds of making the Final Four are the same as Carolina’s.
The West is the one regional where everything seems truly balanced.
Start with Texas Tech and Michigan in what will be the late game in Anaheim on Thursday. These two teams play some of the best defense in the United States. Texas Tech’s Chris Beard has been able to take a young team — picked seventh in the Big 12 in preseason polls — to the Sweet 16 as a Big 12 co-champion (with Kansas State) because he has taught his players how to play top-tier defense.
Michigan’s doldrums in 2016 turned into a revival in recent seasons when John Beilein made his most important coaching hire at Michigan, tabbing Luke Yaklich as his assistant coach and, essentially, his defensive coordinator. Yaklich is the man behind Michigan’s defensive dominance. He should get a head coaching job soon enough. The Wolverines’ limitations on offense are — and have been — minimized by their excellent defense.
Tech-Michigan is a coin-flip game which figures to be played in the high 50s or low 60s. Those teams clearly stand on equal footing.
The first West semifinal on Thursday could be debated at greater length. You could make the argument that Gonzaga is noticeably better than Florida State, given that this is a 1-versus-4 game, and given that Florida State lost to Boston College and Pittsburgh this season, AND won’t have Phil Cofer due to the young man’s loss of his father. You could make the case.
However, Florida State bullied Gonzaga a year ago in the Sweet 16 — also in a West Regional semifinal — and has almost everyone else from that game back on the floor this year. Moreover, one can make a perfectly reasonable argument that no team looked more impressive in the round of 32 than Florida State did. Frankly, Texas Tech looked just as good, but Florida State dominated Murray State the whole way. FSU has muscle, size and power to neutralize Gonzaga’s waves of bodies in the paint. I am not predicting a Florida State win, but this is a big-boy game in which the 4 seed certainly has the physical heft to do battle with the 1 seed. This is the toughest challenge in the Sweet 16 for any of the four top seeds still in this tournament.
If Florida State had not lost to Pitt and Boston College, it would have been a No. 2 seed. As it is, the Seminoles have lost only two games since their 1-4 start in the ACC — to North Carolina and Duke away from home. Few teams have been better over the past eight weeks. Florida State went 2-0 against Virginia Tech, another No. 4 seed still in this tournament.
Put all this together, and you get a West Regional in which all four teams are Final Four contenders on the same basic plane — at least to an extent not matched by the other three regions.
We aren’t guaranteed two great games on Thursday night, but on paper, the West packs a punch. We will see if perception becomes reality in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
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