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NCAA Tournament West Region preview, predictions, bracket busters | NCAA Tournament | Sports

NCAA Tournament West Region preview, predictions, bracket busters | NCAA Tournament | Sports

What a roller coaster ride it has been for coach Hubert Davis at North Carolina.

He returned to his alma mater in 2022 and guided the Tar Heels to the national championship game in his first season, setting wild expectations for his tenure.

Then he followed it up with a disappointing season that ended with a declined invitation to the NIT when the Tar Heels became the first preseason No. 1 team to not make the NCAA Tournament since the field was expanded in 1985.

Now his program appears to be back on top. North Carolina earned a No. 1 seed and is a realistic threat to win a national championship.

RJ Davis, the league player of the year, and Armando Bacot have been through all the ups and downs of the past three seasons and return to lead a revamped supporting cast to what they hope will be a successful final tournament run.

A pair of transfers, Harrison Ingram from Stanford and Cormac Ryan from Notre Dame, provide experience and outside shooting for the Tar Heels, who have all the ingredients to accomplish their goals.

Four players to watch

Augustas Marciulionis, Saint Mary’s: The son of former NBA guard and Hall of Famer Sarunas Marciulionis, Augustus has begun to make a name for himself as the West Coast Conference player of the year. His success this season came as a surprise to even some folks in the program, who were stunned by his development between last year and the start of his junior season. He doubled his point production (12.4) and more than tripled his assist (5.2) and steal (1.5) numbers while helping the Gaels control tempo and dominate on the defensive end.

DaRon Holmes, Dayton: A second-team All-American and a Naismith Award semifinalist, Holmes will undoubtedly remind viewers of Obi Toppin, who took home that trophy for Dayton in 2020. He relied mostly on athleticism early in his career, but has seen his NBA stock rise dramatically by improving his 3-point shooting and playmaking ability while also playing tenacious defense. Holmes averages 20.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.

Jaelen House, New Mexico: The senior is a big fan of professional wrestling and seems to integrate the lessons of some of the most notorious heels into his game. He celebrates, he taunts, he flops. He does it all, though he’s a different person off the court. All of that wouldn’t matter if House, the son of former NBA player Eddie House, didn’t have the game to match his boisterous on-court persona.

Tyon Grant-Foster, Grand Canyon: It has been quite a journey for the Antelopes star, who is finally enjoying success at his fourth college stop. He played at Indian Hills Community College before taking on a reserve role at Kansas for a year and then transferring to DePaul. That’s where his career took a scary turn in 2021, when he collapsed in the locker room at halftime of his first game and went into cardiac arrest. He eventually had two heart surgeries before he was cleared to play again last March. Grand Canyon gave him that chance, and he has taken full advantage, utilizing an ability to score at all three levels to pour in 19.8 points per game.

Three potential matchups

North Carolina vs. Arizona, Elite Eight: One of the players who was with North Carolina for the ups and downs of the past two seasons was Caleb Love, who elected to transfer to Arizona this year. Now he could potentially stand in the way of his former program making it back to the Final Four. This would be a fascinating matchup without that backstory. With it, it could be a classic. Of course, Arizona will have to first navigate a path that starts with the tremendous story of Long Beach State, which earned a bid despite having already fired coach Dan Monson.

Alabama vs. Saint Mary’s, second round: If these two favorites advance in the first round, it will set up the ultimate contrast in styles. Alabama is the highest-scoring team in the nation at 90.8 points per game, while Saint Mary’s is second in scoring defense at 58.7.

North Carolina vs. Michigan State, second round: The Tar Heels are vastly superior and should be expected to win comfortably, and there’s a good case to be made that the Spartans shouldn’t even be in the field. But it’s Tom Izzo in March. Against North Carolina. Sign us up.

Two bracket busters

New Mexico: It turned out the No. 11 seed Lobos needed every one of the wins they picked up in the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas to even get an invite to the field, but after winning four games in four days, their confidence should be as high as their talent level. Richard Pitino’s team can play. They have a trio of guards all averaging 15 points per game and a pair of inside players who are enough of a threat to keep defenses honest should they overplay the perimeter.

Charleston: It’s actually tempting to make Alabama the “bracket buster” in this region despite its lofty seed. The Crimson Tide seem to be getting overlooked by many prognosticators, and their ability to score in bunches makes them a threat in every game to blow someone out or get blown out. Instead, we will go with No. 13 Charleston and say the winner of this first-round matchup is going to cause some problems. This actually isn’t a great matchup for the Cougars because they like to run and shoot 3s, and it will be tough to beat Alabama at its own game. Charleston is the better defensive team, however, and will be dangerous and confident as it enters on a 12-game winning streak.

Last team standing: Baylor

Toledo transfer RayJ Dennis is a steadying force in the backcourt to go along with star freshman Ja’Kobe Walter, and coach Scott Drew has surrounded them with several elite outside shooters in addition to a physical presence and rim protector in Yves Missi. Baylor has the right formula, even if it hasn’t all come together all the time this season. There is definitely a path to Phoenix for a team that is flying under the radar a bit.

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