NCAA Sweet 16 West Region Preview: Gonzaga to await PAC-12 victor between USC, Oregon

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) high fives guard Andrew Nembhard (3) and guard Joel Ayayi (11) during the second half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Gonzaga Bulldogs won 87-71.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Referred to by CBS’s Jon Rothstein as ‘The Gonzaga Invitational’, the West Region of the 2021 NCAA Tournament has held true to its nickname thus far, as the Zags have coasted to yet another Sweet 16 appearance.

The Bulldogs are spearheaded by a duo of big men — Corey Kispert (19.2 ppg) and Drew Timme (18.8 ppg) — who are surrounded by a trio of playmaking guards in 2nd team All-American Jalen Suggs (14.1 ppg), France native Joel Ayayi (11.9 ppg), and Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard (8.9 ppg).

This starting five has carried the ‘Zags to an undefeated record (28-0), putting them up there with 2014-15 Kentucky as one of the most dominant starting lineups in college basketball history.

Up next for Mark Few’s bunch is No. 5 Creighton, who survived an upset scare in Round 1 before pulling away from No. 13 Ohio in the Round of 32.

Moving on, the bottom of the region will feature a Pac-12 heavyweight showdown between No. 6 USC and No. 7 Oregon, as both used offensive explosions to storm past higher-seeded foes Kansas and Iowa.

An impressive showing from both, the winner will indubitably provide Gonzaga, or perhaps Creighton, with serious issues offensively.

Here’s the tale of the tape.

No. 1 Gonzaga (13.5) vs No. 5 Creighton

Seldom do you ever find a single-digit seed getting 13.5 points in the tournament, let alone a 5-seed in the Sweet 16. However, drastic times call for drastic measures, and this Gonzaga team warrants every point they’re giving.

After covering a daunting 15.5 point spread Monday versus No. 9 Oklahoma, the Zags further solidified their stranglehold on the West Region, as a date with No. 5 Creighton hasn’t frayed Vegas from giving the Bulldogs a baker’s dozen to work with.

Nonetheless, Creighton will certainly pose a unique threat for Gonzaga offensively as point guard Marcus Zegarowski (15.7 ppg) has been torching the twine at an uncanny 42.1% from deep.

He’s a guy who can fill it up from anywhere and drop 30 on your head if you’re not careful — something they’ll certainly need if they’re to stand any chance on Sunday. 

The Zags have been consistently good for 90+ — pacing the nation in total offense at 92.1 ppg.

Although Creighton can score it too (76.3 ppg is good for 61st in the country), I just don’t see them stringing together close to enough stops to slow down this vaunted Bulldog attack, propelling Gonzaga to yet another blowout victory.

The Pick: Gonzaga -13.5

No. 6 USC (-2.5) vs No. 7 Oregon

Opening as a Pick ‘Em, this line quickly scurried in USC’s favor, as public money poured in on the Trojans after their dominant performance versus No. 3 Kansas late Monday evening.

They now stand as slight favorites — giving 2.5 points to a seething Oregon offense that just hung 95 on No. 2 Iowa earlier that day.

Despite the reverse line movement, I’ll make a case for the Ducks here.

USC ousted the Pac-12 regular-season champs back in February, using a 17-1 opening run to put away their northern foes, 72-58.

Now a revenge game of sorts, I don’t suspect Oregon to fall behind in a similar ‘flukey’ manner, as head coach Dana Altman will have his troops well-prepared for battle this time around.

‘Eugene’s finest’ hold a decisive edge in the backcourt — a mandate for any legitimate Final Four contender — as this disparity will loom awfully large on Sunday.

Oregon is a different team with junior Will Richardson in the lineup, as he and third-team All-American Chris Duarte are one of the most underrated backcourts in America.

Duarte, the senior from Montreal, is the best player no one talks about. 

Shooting 53.3% from the field and a ridiculous 42.8% from beyond the 3-point line, his efficiency has been nothing short of outstanding.

Defending Evan Mobley will be no easy task, but if they can shut out the rest of SC’s complementary players, the Ducks can find similar success that they did against Luka Garza and Iowa. 

Despite Garza’s menacing statline (37 points and 9 rebounds), Oregon was content to let the big fella eat inside so long as they defended the 3-point line and limited their fastbreak opportunities. 

Their defense wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done.

Also, the Ducks should have a much easier time against SC’s packline defense this time around, as Altman’s familiarity with the scheme and ability to adjust in-game will be paramount to Oregon’s successes. 

Parlaying the better coach with the better guard play is typically a recipe for success this time of year. 

The Pick: Oregon +2.5, +130 ML

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