NCAA Tournament: Breaking down the West Region

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If we recall last year’s NCAA Tournament, then we know being a high seed doesn’t guarantee success.

So while No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 2 Arizona look like the best squads in the West Region, either team could just as easily go home in the second round or Sweet 16 as it could emerge as a Final Four participant.

The Tar Heels have a star guard in RJ Davis and a veteran big man in Armando Bacot, both of whom were part of the run to the 2022 national championship game when North Carolina lost to Kansas. Interestingly, Arizona’s top player, Caleb Love, was also on that squad.

Arizona lost two of its last three games, so perhaps it doesn’t seem primed for a deep run. But who can really tell? No. 3 Baylor and No. 4 Alabama are craving their own deep runs.

In the spirit of last year’s craziness, No. 7 Dayton, No. 10 Nevada or No. 11 New Mexico would appear to have the best chances of making that surprise run through the region similar to schools such as San Diego State and Florida Atlantic did last season.

TOP SHOT: North Carolina landed the last of the No. 1 seeds, and there were some nervous moments after the Tar Heels were upset by North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title game. But North Carolina’s resume was slightly better than Tennessee’s and superior to Iowa State and its soft nonconference schedule. The Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed for the 18th time, most in NCAA Tournament history. Love and Bacot will be expected to lead North Carolina through a bracket that might include a Sweet 16 clash with the Crimson Tide.

Arizona is a top-two seed for the sixth time in the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, so the role is familiar for the Wildcats. Love has the scoring ability and maturity to help the Wildcats get back on track. The most interesting thing about first-round opponent Long Beach State is that the school and 17-year coach Dan Monson reached a mutual separation after the Beach dropped their final five regular-season games. Then Long Beach State stunned everyone by winning the Big West tournament, and here they are as a No. 15 seed.

GAMES TO WATCH: 5 Saint Mary’s vs. 12 Grand Canyon This rates as a major contrast in styles, as Saint Mary’s ranks second nationally in scoring defense (58.7 points allowed per game), while the Lopes thrive on a high-octane approach that saw them reach at least 80 points on 12 occasions.

6 Clemson vs. 11 New Mexico The Lobos are suddenly hot after winning four games in four days to win the Mountain West Conference tourney and ensure their spot in the field. Clemson is in a drought with three losses in four games, including losing its first contest in the ACC tourney.

7 Dayton vs. 10 Nevada The Flyers were just 5-4 down the stretch, but they have a star to ride in DaRon Holmes II. Nevada won 10 of 11 before losing to Colorado State in its first Mountain West tourney game, but coach Steve Alford’s squad is loaded with toughness.

GET TO KNOW …

RJ Davis, North Carolina Davis will let it fly at any time and has scored at least 30 points on four occasions this season, including a career-best 42 points against Miami. Davis ranks sixth in Tar Heels history with 2,030 career points with Bacot (second at 2,291) as one of the players ahead of him.

Mark Sears, Alabama The main reason the Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring offense at 90.8 points per game, Sears has 22 20-point outings, one shy of the school record held by Reggie King (1978-79). He’s shooting 50.4 percent from the floor this season and has knocked down 75 3-pointers.

Ja’Kobe Walter, Baylor The Big 12 Freshman of the Year energizes a deep attack in which six players have a scoring average in double digits. His shooting dropped off late in the season, and there is no chance of Baylor making a deep run unless he rediscovers his stroke.

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Grand Canyon (-5) is a good underdog to take a chance on with the only drawback being the possibility that Saint Mary’s takes the air out of the basketball and gets the slow pace it prefers.

No. 8 Mississippi State (-1.5) over No. 9 Michigan State is that showdown none of us have been waiting for — both teams have dropped five of their past seven games. Spartans coach Tom Izzo might have that March Madness reputation, but his team is destined for a short stay.

New Mexico (-2.5) over Clemson is simply riding a hot team over one that’s not. The Tigers will be more rested, though, due to their early ACC tourney exit.

OUT OF THE WEST: Last March, Alabama was the No. 1 overall seed and got sent packing by a tougher San Diego State squad that ended up playing in the national championship game. The Crimson Tide will be trying to outscore everyone, and the biggest challenge will be outgunning North Carolina. But beat the Tar Heels in that Sweet 16 matchup, and Alabama should be set, with Arizona being the toughest foe it might face from the other side of the West bracket.