Could the West live up to its romantic history and be the wild region? Cinderellas have a real shot at making that so. The original Cinderella, Gonzaga, landed in this region. Fellow West Coast Conference member BYU, which we profiled in our Cinderella Watch series, made it all the way from the bubble to the ten line. New Mexico State and North Dakota State both have legitimate chances to knock off their power conference foes as well.
While this region is chock-full of mid-majors, seven total, they all face off against power conference Goliaths that want nothing to do with these Davids. Top seed Arizona will take on Weber State before possibly facing off with Gonzaga. Creighton, a former mid-major darling that fell prey to major conference temptations ($$$), gets its first chance to stomp out a little guy when it faces the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana.
Only one opening round game does not feature a mid-major team, No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Nebraska. Put another way, this region won't have any mid-major on mid-major violence in the round formerly known as "first". So, with all these David vs. Goliath opportunities, which ones should you keep an eye on?
Top Mid-Major Picks to Pull Upsets:
No. 10 BYU Cougars over No. 7 Oregon Ducks
Why can this happen? Because it almost did earlier this season. The Cougars led the Ducks in Eugene back on December 21st for most of the game, until the final moment of the overtime period. The fast paced Cougars won't just be playing for revenge, but for Kyle Collinsworth as well. The 6' 6" guard tore his ACL in the WCC final. His loss will hurt, no doubt, but the Cougars have been dancing the lineup shuffle all season long and they look good doing so. Matt Carlino (13.7 ppg) will likely reclaim his starting point guard role, which he lost to Collinsworth mid-season. Not a bad replacement.
No. 12 North Dakota State Bison over No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners
At 56.0%, North Dakota State is the nation's fourth best two point shooting team. The Sooners aren't a very big team on the interior. 6' 8" sophomore Ryan Spangler (a transfer from Gonzaga) has blossomed into one of the nation's best post players, pound-for-pound. But, he's as big as Oklahoma gets. A regular shooting night from the Bison could be enough to put them past the Sooners. Senior Marshall Bjorklund, also 6' 8", will likely go against Spangler, and he's got a history of good games against good teams.
No. 13 New Mexico State Aggies over No. 4 San Diego State Aztecs
Last year's four point performance in the Round of 64 wasn't much of a coming-out party for 7' 5" Sim Bhullar. The sophomore has a chance to make up for that when his Aggies take on the Aztecs. He's the big man on campus, but on the court Daniel Mullings is the go-to guy. Their backcourt has been all Mullings since a brawl between New Mexico State and Utah State on February 27th. Starting guard K.C. Ross-Miller sparked that brawl and he hasn't played since.
The Aggies already have a win over one of the Mountain West's two good teams, a 67-61 victory at New Mexico back in December.
No. 8 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State Cowboys
The original darling of the dance couldn't get left off this list. According to KenPom's Fanmatch, this is set to be the most exciting game of the opening round.
Mid-Major Players to Watch:
Tyler Haws, BYU:
West Coast Conference POY, that's a good reason to watch Haws. Sixth in the nation in scoring at 23.4 points per game. That's reason enough. But Haws isn't the kind of guy that scores so much because he's the only guy who scores. The players immediately behind Haws on the Cougars scoring list average 14.0, 13.7 and 11.7 points per game. Haws gets his buckets while others get theirs. Haws gets his buckets by making insane shots look easy. He's especially lethal with his mid-range, pull-up jumper.
Taylor Braun, North Dakota State:
Braun wasn't the Bison I mentioned in the upsets to watch section, but he's the best Bison. He's 6' 7" and plays guard. He earned Summit League POY honors thanks to leading his team in scoring (18.2), rebounding (5.5), assists (3.9) and steals (1.6). Like Bjorklund, he's big time. In the first game of the Summit League Tournament he scored 28 points. In the final, after a slow start, he went off for 15 rapid fire points.
Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State:
Even if you try to avoid watching you'll see him, because he's seven feet five inches tall.
A foot injury sidelined Bhullar for the first six games of WAC play and brought him off the bench for the following five. Back at full strength for over a month, he's going to be a force for the Aggies. Not because he puts up big numbers, but because he's, well, big. When he gets the ball in the post, good luck stopping him. This season 64% of his shots from the field have fallen.