(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs (31–2, 16–0 WCC)
The Zags locked up the West Coast Conference Tournament title with a 65–51 win over Saint Mary’s, capping a perfect season in-conference — albeit a league without much competition to speak of. Coach Mark Few’s team lost only twice this season, handily to Illinois (85–74) in early December and on a crazy floater as the buzzer sounded at Butler (64–63) in late January.
Cinderella’s no more, Gonzaga earned its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are hopeful that this will finally be the Final Four breakthrough season they’ve been waiting for. Five trips to the Sweet 16 — all since 1999 — have resulted in just one Elite Eight (the inaugural 1999 Cinderella run) and zero Final Four appearances. Long-locked big man Kelly Olynyk, versatile wing Elias Harris and a stable of guards, led by Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and John’s son David Stockton, will look to change that.
(2) Ohio State Buckeyes (26–7, 13–5 Big Ten)
One of the most impressive teams in the country coming down the stretch, Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak that includes an upset at Indiana, two wins over Michigan State and a Big Ten Tournament title-clinching victory over Wisconsin. And while the Buckeyes may not jump off the page, they are a steady veteran team with no embarrassing losses — having suffered defeats at Duke, Kansas, Indiana, at Michigan State, at Michigan in overtime, at Wisconsin and at Illinois.
Coach Thad Matta’s team is top heavy, however. Wingman Deshaun Thomas scored 28 percent (627-of-2,237) of the Bucks’ points this season, while point guard Aaron Craft is leaned on for a disproportionate amount of OSU’s ball-handling. Injury or foul trouble for either Thomas or Craft would make it nearly impossible for Ohio State to advance to its 12th Final Four or sixth title game appearance — the most recent coming at the site of this year’s Final Four, with Greg Oden leading a runner-up effort in Atlanta in 2007.
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Sweet 16 Sleeper
(7) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
It’s hard not to notice the Irish when they’re wearing those Digger Phelps’ highlighter jerseys they wore in the Big East Tournament. Wins over Louisville (in 5OT), Marquette, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati (twice), Villanova and Kentucky (with Nerlens Noel) are just as hard to overlook. Unlike Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, those wins are real, as are the Irish’s impressive shooting percentages as a team (46.3 FG, 70.7 FT, 37.3 3PT). Also, Jerian Grant — much like his bespectacled father and uncle Harvey and Horace — is unafraid of the big stage.
(11) Belmont Bruins vs. (6) Arizona Wildcats
Coach Rick Byrd won an NAIA national championship with Belmont in 1989 and is leading the Bruins to their sixth NCAA Tournament berth since 2006. But Belmont has yet to pull off a first-round upset, coming painfully close in a 71–70 loss to Duke in 2008. Could this finally be the year? Senior guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson give the Bruins valuable leadership and surprising athleticism. Arizona can not afford to overlook the team on the other side wearing red, white and blue.
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Kendall Williams, Jr., New Mexico Lobos (3)
The lead Lobo dropped 46 points, on 12-of-16 shooting (including 10-of-13 from downtown), in a statement win at Colorado State in late February. But it is Williams’ all-around game that drives coach Steve Alford’s club. The junior from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., averages 13.5 points, 5.0 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. Originally a UCLA commit, Williams brings size (6’4”, 185), speed and a point guard’s mentality to a dangerous New Mexico team.
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