Gonzaga deserved this draw. It was the best team all year, the lone school to go undefeated. It should have the easiest road to the Final Four, and it sure does. A soft No. 4 seed in Virginia who may not even reach the second weekend. The worst No. 3 in the tournament in Kansas. A second seed in Iowa that would struggle with the Zags’ athleticism and shot-making. No. 8 Oklahoma in the second round could be tricky. The Sooners can beat anybody, as wins over Kansas, Texas Tech, Texas and Alabama illustrate, but they enter the tournament skidding, having lost five of their last six games. Keep an eye on Oregon and Dana Altman. The No. 7 Ducks were under-seeded and are known for coming out of nowhere to make surprising runs.
Final Four pick: Gonzaga
Gonzaga got the test it needed in the WCC Tournament title game against BYU and responded, rallying from a 12-point deficit. It may not trail during its four West Regional games. This version of Oklahoma, the one that has limped to the finish line, won’t have enough to put up a challenge in the second round. Virginia, if it can even get past the Creighton/UC Santa Barbara winner, is dealing with COVID-19 issues and showed earlier in the season it couldn’t match up with the Zags in a 23-point beatdown. Iowa will pose somewhat of a threat early in the Elite Eight by expertly executing at the offensive end, but the Hawkeyes’ defense has shown to be their Achilles’ heel against the best teams in the country, and Gonzaga is the very best.
Player to Watch: Luka Garza, Iowa
The National Player of the Year front-runner and Big Ten Player of the Year does it inside and out. The 6-foot-11 Garza shoots it at a 40.7 percent clip from 3-point range. He grabs 8.8 rebounds, blocks 1.7 and scores 23.7 points per game. He gives Iowa a shot at its first Final Four in 41 years.
Unsung player: JaQuori McLaughlin, UC Santa Barbara
The Gauchos’ leading scorer (16.2 ppg) and distributor (5.2 apg) makes them go. Play up on the senior guard, he goes by you. Give him space, he’ll burn you from deep. The first-round meeting against Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski will be one of the very best player-on-player matchups we see the entire tournament.
Best first-round matchup: No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Ohio
Virginia will have its hands full with Ohio and big guard Jason Preston, who does everything at a high level, be it scoring, rebounding, defending or playmaking. Ohio nearly upset Illinois in November, and its ball-moving offense, ranked 29th in the country in offensive efficiency and sixth in the nation in assists at 17.9 per game, will create problems for the Cavaliers’ renowned pack-line defense.
First-round upset watch: No. 12 UC Santa Barbara over No. 5 Creighton
JaQuori McLaughlin is dangerous, a senior who has waited for this kind of opportunity. UCSB has won 18 of its last 19 games. Creighton, on the other hand, is untrustworthy. It no-showed the Big East Tournament title game, losing by 25 to heavy underdog Georgetown, and ending the regular season by losing two straight on the road.
BracketBuster: No. 7 Oregon
Dana Altman finds a way this time of year, reaching the Sweet 16 three of the last four tournaments, and he has a hungry team that will play desperately. It is the first tournament for transfers LJ Figueroa (St. John’s), Eric Williams Jr. (Duquesne) and Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers). Oregon doesn’t rely on any one player — five Ducks average in double figures — making them difficult to game plan for.