2021 NCAA Tournament: West Region preview, picks, upsets, more

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Iowa
Iowa and Luke Garza are a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament West Region.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

By Henry Monness

March Madness is back, folks.

With Selection Sunday now behind us, it’s time to dissect anything and everything about this year’s bracket.

Let’s start in the West Region, where the No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga Bulldogs got themselves quite a favorable draw. Not only have they already beaten the No. 2, 3, and 4 seeds in their region, but they did so handily, winning by double figures in all three contests.

First for the Zags will be a matchup with the winner of Norfolk State vs Appalachian State — two feel-good stories — before a Sunday tilt with the victor of the first game we’ll really dig into — No. 8 Oklahoma and No. 9 Missouri.

No. 8 Oklahoma (-2) vs No. 9 Missouri 

Saturday, March 20, 7:25 p.m. ET

Formerly two top-15 teams, both Missouri (16-9) and Oklahoma (15-10) have struggled down the stretch, with Mizzou 3-6 in their last nine, and OU losers of five of their last six.

I don’t see either as a huge threat to Gonzaga in the second round, but I do like the Sooners in this spot.

Although they’ve teetered of late, Oklahoma still boasts a better KenPom and NET ranking than their opponent.

I suspect point guard Austin Reeves will be the best player on the floor this Saturday night, and he’ll be able to take advantage of a struggling Missouri defense that has given up 70+ points in eight of their last nine contests.

The well has just about run dry in Columbia.

The Pick: Oklahoma -2

No. 5 Creighton (-6.5) vs No. 12 UC Santa Barbara

Saturday, March 20, 3:30 p.m. ET

This is a very tantalizing 5/12 matchup, as the Gauchos come into this matchup red-hot. 

Winners of 18 of their last 19 (due in large part to a 14-game win streak that spanned nearly two months), the Big West champions have climbed their way to an impressive 54 NET ranking — ahead of bubble teams like Wichita State and Michigan State.

Jaquori McLaughlin, a transfer from Oregon State, is one of the most underappreciated guards in the country, as he’s torching the twine at a 40% clip from deep.

This matchup will feature two of the best 3-point shooting guards in the country, as Creighton floor general Marcus Zegarowski is shooting north of 40% from deep himself.

Creighton’s recent woes worry me in a one-and-done situation, and after Saturday nights drubbing to Georgetown, I fear their best basketball is behind them.

Ergo, I’ll take the Gauchos to cover the 6.5, and would take a good hard look at their moneyline at +230, in addition to their odds to reach the Sweet 16 in what could be a favorable second-round matchup that we’ll get to next.

The Pick: UCSB +6.5

No. 4 Virginia (-8) vs No. 13 Ohio 

Saturday, March 20, 7:15 p.m. ET

Another trendy upset pick sees the Virginia Cavaliers in a very familiar situation, as the MAC champion Ohio Bobcats — led by guard Jason Preston — have been getting a lot of buzz since the bracket came out last night.

Virginia was unable to play in their ACC semi-final matchup this past Friday due to a positive COVID test, and it appears as though they won’t be able to fly to Indianapolis until this coming Friday.

Although Tony Bennett is a world-class coach, this is still a major concern heading into a one-and-done with a dangerous Bobcat team.

Working at a snail’s pace, keeping this game at a slow tempo will be crucial for the Cavs, as Ohio is a team that likes to get up and down the floor (80+ points in 12 games this season).

I think Virginia could very well fall behind early on, which makes me want to take the underdogs in this spot getting eight.

Don’t be surprised if we get a No. 12 vs No. 13 second-round matchup.

The Pick: Ohio +8

No. 6 USC vs No. 11 Wichita State/Drake

Saturday, March 20, 4:30 p.m. ET

I’m sure both the Shockers and Bulldogs were sweating it out on Selection Sunday, as neither must’ve felt all too confident about hearing their names called after what happened in the Big East and Pac 12 tournaments.

Nevertheless, two well-deserved at-large bids were handed out to two mid-major programs, as Drake and Wichita State showed just enough to get into the field of 68.

Their reward? 

A chance to go up against Evan Mobley and the 22-7 USC Trojans.

While the spread for this projected matchup obviously isn’t out yet, we do know that Wichita will be a slim two-point favorite over Drake on Thursday.

The Bulldogs have been without their two best players for the better part of the last month, as point guard Roman Penn will miss the tournament with a foot injury, while leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill, who’s been out since February 11th, is questionable.

On the flip side, the Shockers were shaky in the AAC tournament this past week, struggling against UCF before losing to Cincinnati. However, I do think they’ll have enough offensively to beat a short-handed Drake team that might just be ‘happy to be there.’

Regardless, I don’t think either pose much of a threat to USC, and I’ll be looking to fade the 11-seed in this region regardless of this Thursday’s outcome.

The Pick: Wichita State -2, USC TBD

No. 3 Kansas (-11) vs No. 14 Eastern Washington

Saturday, March 20, 1:15 p.m. ET

Champions of the Big Sky, Eastern Washington will look to get up and down the court in this matchup with No. 3 Kansas.

While the Eagles can pose some threats for Kansas offensively, I don’t think they’ll have an answer for David McCormack down low, as this is a game I think could get ugly in a hurry.

The athleticism disparity will be very hard to overcome for Eastern Washington, and I think Bill Self has his Jayhawks well-rested, well-prepared, and highly motivated.

I don’t think the mini COVID scare Kansas had to endure this past week will present itself much in this contest, and I look for freshmen forward Jalen Wilson to really put it together over these next couple of weeks, as he could be a huge x-factor for Self’s team moving forward.

The Jayhawks feel like an Elite 8 team to me, as they match up favorably against No. 6 USC and No. 2 Iowa.

The Pick: Kansas -11

No. 7 Oregon (-6) vs No. 10 VCU

Saturday, March 20, 9:57 p.m. ET

The most under-seeded team in this year’s bracket, the Oregon Ducks find themselves as a 7-seed in the West Region —  which might be a blessing in disguise when it’s all said and done.

The Ducks are 11-3 when their point guard, Will Richardson, is in the lineup and would be much closer to a 4-seed if they were at full strength all season.

Regardless, their draw is actually pretty favorable, as they begin their journey as a six-point favorite over VCU.

The Rams boast a very stingy defensive unit, which could cause the Ducks some serious problems offensively. However, outside of Nah’Shon Hyland, who averages 19.4 points per game, VCU can struggle to score at times. They’re 211th in the country from three-point range, and turn the ball over at far too high a rate (263rd in turnover rate).

Although it won’t be easy, I think Richardson and Chris Duarte will be able to handle VCU’s defensive pressure well enough to outscore Hyland and company, in what should be one of the more exciting first-round matchups.

Oregon could give No. 2 Iowa fits, as well, as they’ll be able to take advantage of the slow-footed Luka Garza on the offensive end.

The Ducks could be a dark-horse Final Four team.

The Pick: Oregon -6

No. 2 Iowa (-14.5) vs No. 15 Grand Canyon

Saturday, March 20, 6:25 p.m. ET

Last but not least, we have the 2-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes going up against the No. 15 Grand Canyon Antelopes.

The ‘Lopes were champions of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), and were a sneaky 17-6 on the season.

They feature two 7 foot big-men who could give the aforementioned Garza fits down low, as they wound up being one of the best rebounding teams in the country (top 5 in rebounding margin at +9.7).

Their coach, Bryce Drew, has plenty of big-game experience as well, which is always a bonus come tournament time, as he took Valparaiso and Vanderbilt to the big dance in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

This is a very intriguing matchup for Iowa, and although I expect them to move on, this could be a lot closer than people think.

The Pick: Grand Canyon +14.5