West Region Preview: ‘Zags Continue Quest for Perfection

Gonzaga has a chance to be the first team to complete an undefeated season since 1976.

The West region is headlined by the tournament’s top overall seed Gonzaga, who bulldozed a challenging non-conference schedule and the West Coast Conference en route to a 26-0 record. The Bulldogs’ non-conference slate included matchups with Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia.

Gonzaga is led by projected top-5 pick Jalen Suggs, who averages 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and two steals per game. Yet, the freshman point guard from St. Paul, MN didn’t win West Coast Conference Player of the Year; that honor goes to his teammate, senior forward Corey Kispert, who averaged 19.2 points per game while shooting an outstanding 44.4% from three-point range. No team has finished a season undefeated since Indiana in 1976, but Gonzaga has an excellent shot.

Although Gonzaga is undoubtedly the favorite to emerge from the West Region, the rest of the field is strong as well. Two seed Iowa came out of the best conference in the nation this season, the Big Ten, with a 21-8 record, good for fifth in the nation in the final AP Poll of the season. Wooden Award frontrunner Luka Garza is the star man, as the 6’11” senior averages 23.8 points per game with the skills of an old-fashioned big man while simultaneously shooting 43% from beyond the arc. However, Iowa hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 1999, and the team has injury worries after key rotation piece Jack Nunge was lost for the season. The Hawkeyes will go as far as Garza can take them.

If Kansas is able to recover from their current COVID-19 issues, the Jayhawks will be the three seed in the West Region, and they enter the tournament having lost once since Feb. 8. However, Kansas was forced to withdraw from the Big 12 Tournament after two players, including leading scorer David McCormack, tested positive for the virus before their semifinal date with Texas. Both players will travel to the Indianapolis bubble after the rest of the team as they complete their quarantine. Kansas enters the tournament with several question marks, but a team coached by Bill Self is always dangerous in March.

Rounding out the top four seeds is another team with COVID-19 complications, as Virginia was forced to withdraw from the ACC Tournament. If the Cavaliers can recover, they are another strong team in the region, led by one of the smartest point guards in the nation, junior Kihei Clark. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser is the leading scorer, averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 44% from three, while senior center Jay Huff averages 13.1 points and seven rebounds. To advance, the Golden Eagles must first be healthy enough to play, then they must find a good enough rhythm to beat a strong Ohio squad who took one-seed Illinois to the brink in November.

The Big East has a representative in this region, as the Creighton Bluejays earned the five seed via a second-place regular-season finish in the conference, as well as reaching the championship game in the conference tournament. Greg McDermott’s men are led by point guard Marcus Zegarowski, who gave Villanova trouble during their first meeting with 25 points in a blowout Bluejay victory. Senior forward Mitch Ballock can shoot the lights out from three, and the rest of the Creighton squad has made 57% of its assisted field goal attempts, one of the best in the country, per Synergy Sports data. However, the Bluejays must first go through a red hot UC Santa Barbara team, who have won 18 of their 19 games in 2021. 

Another team looking to make waves in March is six seed USC, as the Trojans finished in second in the Pac-12 Conference behind the dynamic duo of the Mobley brothers. Older brother Isaiah Mobley is a 6’10” power forward averaging nine points and seven rebounds per game. However, his younger brother Evan is the headlining sibling, as the freshman seven-footer averages 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds and is projected by ESPN to be the second pick in the upcoming draft. USC faces a difficult test against either Drake or Wichita St in the second round, but the talent of the Mobley brothers means that the Trojans could go deep in the tourney.

Apart from Gonzaga seeming a near-lock to make it to at least the second weekend, nothing else is guaranteed in a West Region loaded with good teams, but plagued by question marks. With COVID-19 concerns for Virginia and Kansas, doubt over Creighton’s spirits as controversy swirls over head coach Greg McDermott’s racially insensitive locker room remarks, and worries about the rest of the team beyond star big men for USC and Iowa, the West could prove to be full of upsets and probably all of March Madness. Buckle up everyone, the West will be as wild as ever.