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Texas Tech is West's darkhorse team

Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver (23) gets through

Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver (23) gets through the defense of TCU's Alex Robinson, center rear, and Desmond Bane, right rear, in the first half in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 2, 2019. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

Best team: Gonzaga

The Bulldogs plowed through the West Coast Conference before falling to Saint Mary’s in the championship. That loss has led some people to question Gonzaga’s credentials as a championship contender, but that line of thinking is silly. If the Bulldogs lost to Saint Mary’s in the middle of January and won the conference tournament, nobody would point to that game as the reason to forget about Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have a ton of offensive firepower, ranking first in Kenpom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. They also have experienced guard play with Josh Perkins leading the way, an NBA talent in Rui Hachimura, an elite big in Brandon Clarke and several complementary pieces.

Best go-to guy: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

Culver was a freshman on last year’s Elite Eight team, which featured a stud go-to guy in Keenan Evans. Evans graduated and handed the reins to Culver, and the 6-8 forward has excelled while leading a Texas Tech team picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll to a league title. Culver, who has earned his way into the NBA draft lottery discussion, is averaging 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game and shooting 48.5 percent from the field.

The darkhorse: Texas Tech

Any team with a star like Jarrett Culver and a defense as stingy as Texas Tech has a chance to make a run. The Red Raiders allow a nation-best 85.9 points per 100 possessions and turn their opponents over on 23 percent of possessions, good for 11th in the country. Culver, Brandone Francis, Davide Moretti and Norense Odiase are the only returnees to play in last year’s run, and did so in much smaller roles, but factoring in their experience with coach Chris Beard’s tournament resume makes Texas Tech an enticing pick in this region.

Best guard/playmaker: Ja Morant, Murray State

By now, Morant is a household name in basketball, at both the college and pro levels. The nation’s assist leader is a projected top-five pick with several Sportscenter Top 10 dunks already on his resume and is averaging 24.5 points, 10 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He has drawn comparisons to Russell Westbrook for his explosiveness and athleticism as a 6-3 guard. Turnovers and three-point shooting are two weaknesses, but don’t be shocked if Morant leads Murray State on a run in the tournament. In the Racers’ two games against power-conference schools Alabama and Auburn, Morant averaged 31.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and six assists, although he also averaged 7.5 turnovers.

Best player you’ve never heard of: Anthony Lamb, Vermont

Lamb became the first Catamount to average more than 20 points per game since Taylor Coppenrath averaged 25.1 in 2004-05, when No. 13 Vermont upset No. 4 Syracuse. Lamb has a well-rounded game that could lead Vermont to its second NCAA tournament win. The 6-6 forward is averaging 21.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.9 blocks per game and is shooting 52.1 percent from the field, 37 percent from deep and 76.8 percent from the line.

Best potential matchup: Gonzaga vs. Florida State

Following its first Final Four appearance in program history, Gonzaga received what seemed to be a gift that would make a return trip all the more likely: No. 9 Florida State upset No. 1 Xavier in the second round, setting up a favorable Sweet 16 game for the Bulldogs. However, the Seminoles dispatched Gonzaga without much trouble. That sets the table for an intriguing Sweet 16 rematch between these two teams, with Gonzaga once again being the favorite. Florida State would be Gonzaga’s most formidable opponent since December, while the Seminoles have been tested plenty lately in ACC play and their run to the league final.

Best bet to spring an upset: No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette

Marquette has lost five of its last six games, stumbling into the NCAA tournament. Murray State, meanwhile, has won 11 straight. The Golden Eagles rank ninth nationally in three-point shooting at 39.3 percent. If they dominate beyond the arc, they’ll survive. But if they don’t shoot well, they’ll have a tough time keeping up with the Racers.

Best big man: Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga

In his first year after transferring to Gonzaga from San Jose State, Clarke has been one of the country’s best all-around players. The 6-8 forward is averaging 16.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, shooting 69.3 percent from the field. His 3.1 blocks per game rank third nationally. Clarke owns one of the most demoralizing blocks of the season, when he met Tennessee’s Yves Pons at the rim and swatted away his two-handed dunk attempt like a volleyball player spiking a ball at the net.

Most interesting storyline: Ja Morant vs. Markus Howard

Two elite guards going head to head in a first-round game is about as good as it gets. You’ve already read about Morant above, but Howard is a stud in his own right. The 5-11 guard is averaging 25 points per game and shooting 40.8 percent from deep.

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