Best coaching matchup: Vanderbilt vs. Northwestern
The first-round game in Salt Lake City features two teams led by men with coaching in their blood. Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew – the same one who made the famous buzzer-beater for Valparaiso against Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAAs – is the son of former Valpo coach Homer Drew. Northwestern is headed by Chris Collins, son of former NBA coach Doug Collins. He is also a former player and assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. So there’s a chance that this could be a real chess match. While Drew has been to two NCAA Tournaments this is the first for Collins and it’s a biggie. Northwestern was one of five programs that were around at the formation of Division I that had never made an NCAA Tournament.
Best guard/playmaker: Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
A transfer from Washington, Williams-Goss proved transformative for the Bulldogs this season, piloting them to a 32-1 record by averaging 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year and will likely be on everybody’s All-America team. He might have been at his very best in the postseason thus far. In the WCC tourney, he averaged 22.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He runs an offense that seems to be without a weakness with aplomb.
Best big man: Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga
At 7-1 and 300 pounds, Karnowski is more than most interior players can handle. He is a skilled big man, who averaged 12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists while playing just 23 minutes per game. The Polish-born center is only on the team this season because he was granted a medical redshirt after a back injury left him so incapacitated it required surgery and cost him the 2015-16 season, but he worked his way back and now better than the player he was before.
Best bet to spring an upset: Florida Gulf Coast
The Eagles are still “Dunk City” and this year’s team actually surpassed the number of dunks the 2013 version that put Florida Gulf Coast on the map with a Sweet 16 run. FGCU has major threats on the low block in 6-8 Marc-Eddy Norelia and 6-9 Demetris Morant who force defenses to collapse and make it possible for guards Brandon Goodwin, a transfer from Central Florida, and Zach Johnson to get open shots or paths to the basket. Goodwin has been the team’s go-to guy with an 18.2-point average.
Best go-to guy: Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
He is undersized playing in the low post at 6-5 but makes up for it with grit and a keen ability to get shots off over bigger defenders with his quick release. He also is quick enough to take big men off the bounce. The junior is averaging 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds. Though the Fighting Irish did not prevail in the ACC title game against Duke, he was the catalyst every time Notre Dame answered a Duke run and finished with 29 points. Because the Irish surround him with three-point shooters, Colson is often afforded room to ply his array of frontcourt moves.
Best player you’ve never heard of: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
The 6-11 Australian is an old-school style center who was 5-11 as a high school freshman and had goiven up on basketball before a serious growth spurt. He has great footwork and can beat defenders with drop-step moves or by swinging through for a jump hook. He almost always commands a double-team in the Gaels’ highly-organized and methodical offense. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds and was named all-conference unanimously.
Best team: Arizona
This may finally be the year that Arizona breaks through and reaches the Final Four. The Wildcats are rounding into form and just took out UCLA and Oregon on consecutive nights to capture the Pac-12’s conference tournament championship. In center Lauri Markkanen, they have a matchup problem for any team – a big man who is strong on the boards defensively and can take outside shots to lure big defenders away from the basket. It wasn’t clear if Arizona would be this good when freshman Allonzo Trier was out on a performance-enhancing drug suspension, but since his return, he has emerged as the team’s leading scorer and the ’Cats have been firing on all cylinders. Rawle Alkins, a freshman guard from New York, has been a key contributor averaging 11.0 points for the season.
Best potential matchup: Arizona vs. Gonzaga
The West Region might be the weakest after the top two seeds and its final could end up putting Arizona and Gonzaga in a rematch of their Dec. 3 game which was won by the Bulldogs 69-62. The Wildcats were without Allonzo Trier for that game as he was serving a 19-game PED suspension. Trier is now the team’s leading scorer with a 17.3-point average.