The drama of Selection Sunday was over relatively quickly for USC. The Trojans earned a tournament birth as an at-large bid, and will enter as the 6 seed in the West region. USC will face the winner of Thursday's play-in game between Mid-Major darlings Drake and Wichita State.
After a 22-7 season, most bracketologists expected USC to land a 5 or 6 seed in the big dance. Of the five Pac-12 teams to earn spots in this year's tournament only Colorado drew a higher seed (a 5 seed in the East). At a cursory glance, and avoiding the the 800-pound gorilla that is Gonzaga patrolling the top spot, the West region appears to be amongst the easiest. Gonzaga will be the clear cut favorite to reach the Final Four, as the Zags own regular season victories over Iowa, Kansas and Virginia, who just so happen to be the 2, 3 and 4 seeds in the region.
As for the play-in game, Wichita State will enter as the favorite after finishing first in the AAC, including an impressive win over #7 ranked Houston. In recent years, Wichita State has become a tournament mainstay, making seven NCAA Tournaments in a row from 2012-2018. Former Coach Gregg Marshall even led the Shockers to a Final Four appearance in 2013. During this past offseason, Marshall was forced to resign amid disturbing allegations of physical and verbal abuse against former players. Isaac Brown was promoted from within, and has led the Shockers to a 16-5 record. On the court, the Shockers are led by Tyson Etienne, a 6'2" guard who averages 17 points per game. As a team Wichita State averages 72.4 points, and shoots a shade of 40% from the field. Etienne and his teammates do a good deal of damage from deep, and average over 8 3PM per game. If Etienne and his backcourt mate Alterique Gilbert are able to find their rhythm, opposing teams may be in for a long day. If Wichita State wins this game, the Trojans will have a massive size advantage inside. The Shockers' tallest starter is 6'8", USC runs out 4 players 6'7" or taller, including 7'0" Evan Mobley and 6'10" Isaiah Mobley.
Drake sat firmly on the bubble for the past few weeks, and must be relieved to have slipped into the tournament. The Bulldogs enter March Madness after finishing the regular season 25-4, and finishing 2nd to Loyola Chicago in the Missouri Valley Conference. Drake does not have the pedigree of Wichita State, but rattled off 18 straight wins to start their season, an impressive feat no matter the conference. Drake, which is located in Des Moines, Iowa, features a balanced offensive attack with 5 players averaging double digits for the season. The big question mark for Drake and Head Coach Darian DeVries will be the health of leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill. Hemphill is recovering from a broken foot, and was out for last week's MVC Conference Tournament. If Hemphill is cleared to play, the Bulldogs get their best scorer and rebounder back, although it would be highly unlikely that he will return to full activity after sitting out a month. Aside from Hemphill, Drake relies on scoring from Guards Joseph Yesufu, Roman Penn and DJ Wilkins. Drake will have a size advantage on Wichita State inside with big bodies Darnell Brodie, who stands at 6'10", and Tremell Murphy. If Drake is able to capitalize on this advantage, I like the Bulldogs to advance.
We will have a more in-depth preview once the matchup with the Trojans is set, but we wanted to set the stage for what should be an interesting opening round.
Below is an overview of the West region and a few other interesting notes about the tournament as a whole.
Norfolk State / Appalachian State
Covid and the West:
Kansas and Virginia were both forced to forfeit conference tournament games this past week due to either positive tests, or potential Covid exposures in the program. It is unclear if players from these teams will be available for upcoming games. The Selection Committee did make a ruling that if any team in the field is unable to field the required five players, a group of 4 teams has been selected and will serve as alternates. If USC advances to the second round, a matchup with Kansas is highly likely, so it will be interesting to see if this Covid protocol affects the Trojans tournament outlook.
After losing its final four games, UCLA was not given any favors from the Committee. The Bruins will face a red-hot Michigan State team in a first four play in game Thursday night. If UCLA wins that game they will face BYU, a team that USC dismantled in the early goings of the season. UCLA played its way into the bubble after being considered a lock for the majority of the season. I know that it is beneficial for the conference as a whole to win a few games in this year's tournament, but I simply do not see that happening from the Bruins given their recent performances.
The west region will feature 5 of the final 20 Wooden Award Finalists. In addition to USC Center Evan Mobley, Luka Garza (last year's winner) from Iowa, and a trio of Gonzaga players will highlight the West Region. Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme all share the spotlight for the Zags and lead an extremely potent and efficient offensive machine. The 5 finalists in the most candidates of any region in the bracket.
Rest up Trojan fans, this is going to be an exciting ride!