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West Region breakdown: Virginia faces a challenging path
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West Region breakdown: Virginia faces a challenging path

The Virginia men’s basketball team’s COVID-19 issues make for a challenge as the Cavaliers prepare for the NCAA Tournament. Assuming UVa clears health protocols and competes Saturday against Ohio, it will also have to navigate arguably the toughest region in the NCAA Tournament.

A potential rematch with top-seeded Gonzaga looms in the Sweet 16. Iowa, one of the best offensive teams in the nation, is the No. 2 seed. Kansas, which came on strong at the end of the season, earned the No. 3 seed.

As fourth-seeded UVa prepares to embark on its NCAA Tournament journey, significant roadblocks lie ahead.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of the West Region.

The favorite: Gonzaga

Gonzaga enters the NCAA Tournament with a perfect 26-0 record. The Associated Press top 25 poll lists the Bulldogs as the No. 1 team in the country. KenPom considers Mark Few’s bunch the best in basketball. The NCAA Selection Committee gave Gonzaga the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. Even betting markets list the Bulldogs as the favorite to win the national title.

If there’s one team to beat in March, it’s Gonzaga. The Zags are certainly the team to beat in the West Region.

“The one thing that jumps out at our bracket that would be the hardest thing, and I think there’s 15 other teams that can attest to this, is that Gonzaga is in our bracket,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said Sunday. “I don’t think anybody is gonna pick Gonzaga not to be a Final Four team or very few would pick that if they do.”

Gonzaga is led by senior forward Corey Kispert. The sharp-shooter occasionally draws comparisons to former UVa standout Joe Harris, and the comparisons are warranted. Much like Harris, now a key contributor for the Brooklyn Nets, Kispert is efficient from all over the floor.

Kispert shoots 64.6% on his 2-point shot attempts, and he knocks down 44.4% of his 3-pointers. He’s joined in the frontcourt by sophomore center Drew Timme, one of the best big men in college basketball. Timme averages 18.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest. He also shoots 65.6% from the field.

Freshman guard Jalen Suggs figures to be a top-5 pick in the NBA Draft. He does everything well for Gonzaga, contributing 14.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per outing. Junior guards Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard also provide significant lifts for Gonzaga.

Interestingly, the Zags defeated the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seed in their region earlier this season. Those three wins came by an average of 15.3 points per game.

Top contenders: Iowa, Kansas and Virginia

Iowa (21-8, 15-7 Big Ten) earned the No. 2 seed in the West Region. Led by senior forward Luka Garza, Iowa checks in at second in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Gonzaga is the only team with a better offensive efficiency mark.

The Hawkeyes made it to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals over the weekend, falling to Illinois 82-71.

“We had a good game against Illinois, so we have some momentum going forward to this NCAA Tournament knowing what we can accomplish,” Iowa senior guard Jordan Bohannon said Sunday. “We’ve played with the best, we’ve beaten the best, and we’re hoping for the best.”

Iowa scores the sixth-most points in men’s college basketball, averaging 83.8 points per game. Iowa scores at a high level, and the defense improved over the final few months of the season. The Hawkeyes fell to Gonzaga 99-88 on Dec. 19.

Kansas, the No. 3 seed, planned to travel to Indianapolis on Monday after COVID-19 concerns knocked the Jayhawks out of their conference tournament. They’re down three players as of the beginning of the week, but believe some of the players can rejoin the team toward the end of the week.

The Jayhawks finished the season strong, winning eight of their last nine games. The only loss came in overtime on the road against Texas. Kansas wins with defense, checking in as the sixth-most efficient defensive team, per KenPom.

Gonzaga beat Kansas 102-90 to open the season on Nov. 26.

UVa, the No. 4 seed, has a tough path forward. Tony Bennett’s team likely won’t practice until Thursday due to COVID-19 issues, and they’re expected to be without one individual for the first and second-round games.

If the Cavaliers, who won the ACC regular-season title, get through the first two rounds of the tournament, they’ll likely meet Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Gonzaga beat Virginia 98-75 on Dec. 26 at a neutral site in Texas.

Virginia enters the tournament as the reigning national champions, though, and the Cavaliers have a veteran group. UVa shouldn’t be counted out with redshirt seniors Sam Hauser and Jay Huff providing matchup problems in the frontcourt for almost every opponent.

Dark horse: USC

While not a mid-major team or even a double-digit seed, USC is worth keeping an eye on in the West Region. Led by a likely lottery pick in freshman center Evan Mobley, the Trojans are among the best 30 teams in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

USC seems to be flying under the radar entering the tournament, but the team plays quality basketball on both ends. The Trojans often play with three athletes who stand at least 6-foot-8, and they rebound as well as any team in the Pac-12.

USC team faces the winner of Wichita State and Drake in the first round. If USC can get through a dangerous mid-major, it faces a Kansas team dealing with some COVID-19 related player absences.

Head coach Andy Enfield led Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013. Can he take USC to the second weekend this season?

Best first round matchup: Ohio vs. UVa

Jason Preston is one of the most intriguing players in college basketball. The mid-major star was recruited by Ohio after posting a highlight tape on Twitter.

The social media post led to a scholarship offer from the Bobcats. Preston joined the team, and he’s been a standout the last two seasons as a sophomore and junior. Preston averages 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game. UVa junior guard Kihei Clark or freshman guard Reece Beekman will likely be tasked with defending the talented floor general.

UVa’s inability to practice as a team until later this week adds to the challenges of winning an NCAA Tournament game. Virginia played one MAC team this season, beating Kent State 71-64 in overtime in early December.

Ohio, largely due to Preston’s excellence, can test UVa in an intriguing first-round showdown.

Under-the-radar star: Bones Hyland, VCU

The West Region features an abundance of stars. Names like Corey Kispert and Luka Garza have been discussed by the national media all season. USC’s Evan Mobley, much like Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, is viewed as a top-5 prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft.

While those players — as well as guys like UVa’s Sam Hauser and Jay Huff — may dominate the headlines, Bones Hyland is a star. Fans of basketball in the Commonwealth of Virginia know Hyland well. The A-10 Player of the Year averages 19.5 points per game, and he’s reached 30 points twice this season.

“Bones is a great player, Player of the Year in a great league,” St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt said after his team defeated VCU in the A-10 title game Sunday. “He’s got all the respect in the world from me and our team.”

Hyland dealt with foul trouble in the A-10 championship, but still finished with 21 points in 27 minutes.

No. 10 seed VCU opens the tournament against Oregon, a team that plays better offense than it does defense. Look for Hyland to seek his shot. A win sets up a potential matchup with Iowa, which operates at a quick pace offensively. Expect plenty of scoring in that second-round matchup, should VCU advance.

The West Region sets up well for Hyland to captivate national viewers. Ohio’s Jason Preston is another name to watch.

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