2019 NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

March 20, 2019
By K. Becks

The West Region is sneaky good, with its top seeds all having the talent to make the Final Four without raising too much hell in brackets. But those same teams also have dark secrets which could derail the chances of a deep Tournament run before they even begin.

Gonzaga hasn’t been tested since December. Michigan sometimes falls asleep offensively for long stretches. Texas Tech is asleep offensively, all the time. Florida State has been Jekyll & Hyde for as long as Leonard Hamilton has been head coach.

Chances are good that one or more of those dark secrets will bubble up to the surface before this team would like. And as a result, don’t expect this Region to go as planned. There is far too much variation from the best teams’ good and bad nights for that to ensue.

Round of 64 Games to Watch

#5 Marquette vs. #12 Murray State (Thursday, approximately 4:30 PM ET)

This matchup has real potential to be the best game of the entire Round of 64. It being the most anticipated matchup of the Round of 64 according to Around The Corn is a good start, nonetheless. Two of the Tournament’s most prolific scorers, Murray State’s Ja Morant and Marquette’s Markus Howard, will be on full display in this one. Morant’s game has been well publicized already as a future lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, but Howard is just as capable of going off for 40+ points. In fact, Howard was actually sixth in the country in PPG compared with Morant, who was eighth. Howard heads into this game coming off of a 1 for 15 night against Seton Hall, in which he appeared to suffer an injury to his shooting wrist. The Golden Eagles will certainly need him to be his normal self to have a chance in this game.

Whereas the Racers have won 11 straight games, Marquette stumbled down the stretch, dropping five of its last six. Murray State is solid on both ends and offers more offensively than just Morant with Shaq Buchanan, a terrific guard in his own right. It’ll take everything they’ve got for Steve Wojciechowski’s bunch to avoid the popular No. 5 vs. No. 12 upset, and for good reason Murray State is a popular pick for that to happen.

#7 Nevada vs. #10 Florida (Thursday, approximately 6:50 PM ET)

The Wolf Pack were one of the nice surprises in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and given the number of pieces that came back from that team, expected to do some major damage in 2019 as well. A slight cooling off by Eric Musselman’s squad near the end of the season coupled by being hurt by the perception of the Mountain West Conference landed Nevada with a really tough first matchup. Florida may be underseeded as a No. 10, having beaten LSU twice and suffering some extremely close losses to Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn. The Gators don’t shoot the ball particularly well, but are the toughest defense in the SEC, allowing just 63.6 points per contest.

Luckily for Nevada, its game plan won’t be to shoot lights out from behind the arc, since Florida allows opponents to shoot just 32 percent from the three point line. Instead, the Wold Pack will need to stick to the basics – allow the Martin brothers to get to the rim and draw the defense so that Jordan Caroline can have easy chances. A lot of people are tabbing this game as one where a bracket buster lies; there is certainly enough talent on both sides for that to occur.

Players to Watch

Ja Morant, Murray State

Morant garners a lot of attention wherever he goes thanks to his status as a future NBA first rounder and a go-to scorer for the Racers, but the 6’3” sophomore is as talented if not better as a distributor. Morant leads the country in assists, averaging 10 per game, one of the reasons why Murray State is such a tough team to stop offensively. His seemingly effortless ability to get to the basket has NBA scouts drooling as well.

The Racers will only go as far as Morant allows him, but that isn’t to say he must be the leading scorer for his team to have success. As long as he takes good care of the basketball and has it in his hands enough, defenses will have to tailor their approach to stop him, likely opening up golden opportunities for his teammates that he will capitalize on.

CJ Massinburg, Buffalo

There’s a lot of future NBA talent in the West Region, but one player that is overlooked due to where he plays is CJ Massinburg. The senior from Dallas leads his team in points, free throw percentage and three point percentage, and will also get his hands dirty on the boards. His leadership is key to this team – in last year’s Tournament, his 19 points on 5 for 8 shooting from behind the arc were instrumental in the Bulls’ huge upset over Arizona in the Round of 64.

Buffalo is an experienced group with the opportunity to make a deep run, and Massinburg will be instrumental in whatever success the Bulls do have. If the MAC champs happen to play Michigan in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, Massinburg has the skills to shine the brightest on a court full of talented guards.

Team That Could Make a Run

Buffalo

The Bulls won’t be intimidated by any of the Power 5 schools they face despite playing in the MAC. Last year’s team, from which the top seven scorers returned this season, knocked off heavily favored Arizona before succumbing to Kentucky in the Round of 32. Buffalo actually looks the part of a Power 5 school, with plenty of big, physical bodies, some of which will get a look by NBA teams down the road.

Nate Oats may not last a whole lot longer with this program, but he has built a consistent winner capable of hanging around at least until the second weekend of the Tournament. If the Bulls can pair superior rebounding with some good shooting nights, there is no reason why their physical style couldn’t get them to the Regional final or further. Buffalo can break down the strong defensive outfits they will likely see in the West as well as any team on that side of the bracket.

My Picks

Round of 64

#1 Gonzaga over #16 Fairleigh Dickinson

#8 Syracuse over #9 Baylor

#12 Murray State over #5 Marquette (upset alert)

#4 Florida State over #13 Vermont

#6 Buffalo over #11 Arizona State

#3 Texas Tech over #14 Northern Kentucky

#10 Florida over #7 Nevada (upset alert)

#2 Michigan over #15 Montana

Round of 32

#1 Gonzaga over #8 Syracuse

#4 Florida State over #12 Murray State

#6 Buffalo over #3 Texas Tech (upset alert)

#2 Michigan over #10 Florida

Sweet 16

#4 Florida State over #1 Gonzaga (upset alert)

#2 Michigan over #6 Buffalo

Elite 8

#2 Michigan over #4 Florida State

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