Bracket Breakdown: Where does Missouri stand in the West Region?

Gonzaga is the heavy favorite to advance, but other teams could make national statements in Indianapolis over the next two weekends.

It’s March o’clock, ladies and gentlemen. That means it's time to over-analyze the group of 68 teams in hopes of finding the elusive perfect bracket.

As No. 9 Missouri men’s basketball prepares to take on No. 8 Oklahoma in first round play on Saturday, here’s what to expect for its region.

List of First-Round Matchups

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Norfolk State/Appalachian State No. 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Missouri No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Ohio No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Wichita State/Drake No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 VCU No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon

Cinderella Contender: UC-Santa Barbara

The chances of an underdog advancing to the Final Four are unlikely with Gonzaga blocking the path to Lucas Oil Stadium. But No. 12 seed UC-Santa Barbara can still make some noise.

The Gauchos won the Big West Conference regular season and conference titles with a unique roster packed with high-major transfers, two of whom were nationally ranked prospects out of high school.

Coach Joe Pasternack’s team has firepower on both sides of the ball with top-25 finishes in field goal percentage and scoring defense. With only 11 turnovers per game and 15.9 fouls per game, the Gauchos don’t make many mistakes.

UC-Santa Barbara faces No. 5 Creighton in opening round play, a game which has upset potential written all over it. The Bluejays dropped the Big East championship game against the conference’s No. 8 seed Georgetown by 25 points and their coach, Greg McDermott, is under fire for racially insensitive comments made after Creighton’s February 27 loss against Xavier.

Saturday afternoon’s showdown will be a technically sound showcase of two teams who make few mistakes, but the Gauchos are a popular pick to make it into the Round of 32, where another popular underdog, No. 13 Ohio, could await them.

Player to Watch: Evan Mobley, F, USC

The second-team AP All-American lived up to his billing as a top-five prospect in the 2020 class by winning every award one could earn in the Pac-12 Conference to bring USC to the tournament as a sneaky No. 6 seed.

While the freshman sensation is a prolific scorer in his own right, the most important piece Mobley brings to the Trojans is his length down low. At seven-feet tall with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan, Mobley wrecked opponents’ offensive gameplans with three blocks and fewer than two fouls per game. His ability to rotate on defense, keep up with quicker guards on the drive and alter shots at all three levels makes his presence essential to a deep USC run.

If USC advances past No. 11 Drake or Wichita State, the Trojans could face high-caliber big men like Kansas junior forward David McCormack, as well as Iowa senior forward and Naismith College Player of the Year favorite Luka Garza. With Mobley spearheading a defense that allows the second-lowest 2-point field goal percentage in the nation, USC can hold its own.

Intriguing First-Weekend Matchups

No. 11 Wichita State vs. No. 11 Drake

Wichita State won the American Athletic Conference regular season title over No. 2 tourney seed Houston thanks to a seven-game win streak to close the season. This tough defensive group goes all out for first-year coach Isaac Brown ranks in the top 30 for opponent field goal percentage and has seven guys who average at least three rebounds.

Drake fell one game short of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and conference tournament titles because of a slightly better Loyola Chicago team. The Bulldogs split a two-game homestand against the Ramblers one week after Drake cracked the AP Top 25.

While it wasn’t enough to get an automatic bid, Drake slipped into Indianapolis as one of the Last Four In and is a Cinderella threat if it makes it past this game. Coach Darian DeVries leads a well-coached unit that stands as a top 50 scoring offense and scoring defense. Seven guys put up at least seven points per game with redshirt sophomore forward ShanQuan Hemphill leading the charge with 14.1 points per contest.

No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Ohio

After a buzzer-beating win over Syracuse in the ACC tournament quarterfinal, No. 4 seed Virginia had to postpone the rest of its ACC Tournament games due to a positive COVID-19 test in the program.

On the other hand, No. 13 Ohio got its usual starting lineup back and healthy just in time for the Mid-American Conference Tournament, where it won the tournament as a No. 5 seed. All five Bobcats starters average double-digit points and junior guard Jason Preston is one of the biggest breakout stars of the season.

Ohio has the No. 18 points-per-game ranking in the nation and will go against Virginia’s vaunted defense that holds opponents to the sixth-lowest scoring average. The contrasting styles and focuses should come down to the wire as the Cavaliers rebound from its quarantine period.

Storylines To Follow

Who will give Gonzaga its biggest test?

Knocking off No. 1 Gonzaga is like pushing an extremely heavy boulder: a running start will be needed, and even then, the inertia might not be enough.

Coach Mark Few’s squad is a juggernaut with the most straightforward path to the Final Four of any No. 1 seed. The undefeated Bulldogs drew a lucky region, because No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Virginia all fell to Gonzaga in the regular season by double-digit margins.

To make the road even easier, Kansas and Virginia both withdrew from their respective conference tournaments due to a positive COVID-19 test, so the Jayhawks and Cavaliers will come into March without much time to prepare.

Perhaps an upset-minded bunch from the bottom half of the bracket like No. 6 USC or No. 7 Oregon could build up steam heading into the Elite Eight and make the regional final worth watching.

Kansas and Virginia restart after COVID-19 pause

The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the West both come to Indianapolis after their conference tournaments were cut short because of positive COVID-19 tests on both teams.

NCAA Senior Vice President Dan Gavitt announced Wednesday that the entire 68-team field is cleared to compete in Indianapolis, but the long pause for the Jayhawks and Cavaliers will be interesting. Both situations could have major impacts on who is available this weekend.

Kansas announced redshirt freshman forward Jalen Wilson will miss the Jayhawks’ first-round matchup against Eastern Washington and arrives in Indianapolis on the day of the second-round matchup. Junior forward David McCormack will only have one day to practice with the team before the first-round matchup, and sophomore guard/forward Tristan Enaruna will not travel this weekend.

Virginia did not have as many updates about certain player availability, even though coach Tony Bennett’s squad withdrew from the ACC tournament on Friday, the same day Kansas withdrew from the Big 12 tourney.

Regardless of who suits up for Kansas and Virginia this weekend, the lack of preparation time with fewer conference tournament games and practice opportunities during the pause could affect each team’s ability to advance to the Sweet 16.

Evan Mobley vs. Luka Garza Sweet 16 matchup?

This would be a big man showdown for the ages in the Midwest Regional Semifinal, as Mobley has the chance to face Garza in the second weekend of the tournament. While the two low-post titans each earned AP All-American honors earlier this week, each player possesses polar opposite skill sets in the low post.

Mobley is a prototypical modern big man with a long reach, speed to cover guards on the perimeter and an unteachable athleticism that makes efforts to guard him in the post futile.

On the other side, Garza relies more on finesse around the rim and is not as much of a vertical as Mobley, and scouts noted that Garza is a bit slower than many of his contemporaries. However, the senior Hawkeye has two things that set him apart from his younger, more athletic contemporary: deep shooting and experience against elite big men.

Garza knocks down threes at a 40.7% clip, making coach Fran McCaffery’s offense more dynamic and not entirely centered around feeding the ball into Garza down low. The experience Garza got against bigs like Gonzaga sophomore Drew Timme, Illinois sophomore Kofi Cockburn and Indiana sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis who helped Iowa’s big man prepare for this potential matchup. Mobley never faced a quality forward in the Pac-12.

Bold Prediction: One of the Pac-12 teams advance to the Elite Eight

The bottom half of the West Region has the top two Pac-12 teams from the regular season in USC and Oregon, and both could surge into an Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga — or whoever can knock them off.

The No. 7 seed Ducks ran with a starting lineup full of six-foot-six dudes who can knock down shots from beyond the arc. While this could pose a problem in the Round of 32 against Iowa and 6-foot-11 Garza in the post on offense, coach Dana Altman’s team can focus on keeping the ball away from Garza on defense and rely on perimeter shooting to take down the No. 2 seed.

Up one spot in seeding is No. 6 USC, who has the opposite problem as Oregon. The Trojans have Mobley down low who can go toe-to-toe with any big man in the nation, but the guard play can be suspect at times. If All-Pac 12 redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy can create on offense and space the floor so Mobley isn’t swarmed, USC has a shot to make a run past Kansas and Iowa.

Predicted Region Winner: Gonzaga

Gonzaga’s record is 26-0 going into this weekend and that record will likely be 30-0 two weeks from now.

Aside from the opponents they faced, Gonzaga proved it was miles ahead of the rest of the field from November to March with three Naismith College Player of the Year contenders in freshman guard Jalen Suggs, sophomore forward Drew Timme and senior forward Corey Kispert.

The nation’s best offense should have little trouble in regional play as it plays to bring the first national title back to Spokane, Washington.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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