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West Region preview: Bill Self returns seeking back-to-back titles

Kansas, recovering coach eye rare NCAA title repeat

Kansas enters the NCAA Tournament as the only one of the four No.1 seeds that has been a top seed in any other tournament over the last 27 years. The Jayhawks are also the defending champion.

But neither of those facts means they are coming in without questions.

Kansas was blown out in the Big 12 title game by Texas, but the team’s focus may have been elsewhere. Coach Bill Self checked himself into the hospital Wednesday night and missed the tournament.

Self was released Sunday and plans to coach the Jayhawks as they try to become just the third back-to-back champions since UCLA’s historic run in the 1960s and ’70s. Only Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) have been able to accomplish the feat in the years since the Bruins reigned supreme.

Self has the talent to do it, though the region is tough and he has only been out of the hospital for a few days.

He might not be excited about being placed in the West, where the regional final will be held at T-Mobile Arena, instead of the Midwest, which will be contested in Kansas City, Missouri.

Four players to watch

Drew Timme, Gonzaga: Yup, he’s still there. Timme became the program’s all-time leading scorer during the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas and will be looking to direct a return trip for the West Region semifinals. His high-percentage looks and the attention he draws from defenses are big reasons the Bulldogs are not only the highest-scoring offense in the nation, but also the most efficient.

Mike Miles Jr., Texas Christian: If it wasn’t already clear how important Miles is to the Horned Frogs’ attack, go back and watch the games he missed with a knee injury midway through conference play. TCU limped to a 1-5 record over a six-game stretch. He’s vital not only to getting everyone else looks, but also because of how well he can convert his own.

Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas: There is a chance Smith will be the first college player selected in the NBA draft, but he’s not a one-man show — teammate Anthony Black could also be a first-round pick. Smith has been limited to 14 games by injury in his freshman season, and the inconsistent game action took a toll on his highly regarded shooting touch. Now he looks like his shot is coming around at the right time.

Ace Baldwin, Virginia Commonwealth: Baldwin runs the show for the Rams on both ends of the floor. He was not only the Atlantic 10’s player of the year, but was also named the league’s best defensive player. Baldwin is top 15 in the nation in assists and steals.

Three potential matchups

UCLA vs. Gonzaga, Sweet 16: Two of the elite college basketball powers on the West Coast appear on a collision course for T-Mobile Arena next week. They met in the same building last season with the Bulldogs getting an easy win, but two of their three previous NCAA Tournament battles have been epic. Jalen Suggs banked in a running 3-pointer in overtime to beat UCLA at the Final Four two years ago to avenge the Bruins’ wild 2006 comeback in a regional semifinal to beat the Bulldogs.

Saint Mary’s vs. Iona, second round: This one is just silly, but there is a realistic chance the tournament could see Randy Bennett against Rick Pitino in the second round. While it’s a fun contrast of personalities, the real narrative would be in the Gaels taking on the Gaels.

Kansas vs. UCLA, Elite Eight: Two of the winningest programs in college basketball history could meet in Las Vegas for a trip to the Final Four. UCLA has 11 national titles, most in the sport. Kansas earned its fourth last season, tied for sixth. Both are in the top seven in terms of total wins. UCLA (18) is second in Final Four appearances, while Kansas (16) is fifth.

Two bracket busters

VCU: The Rams are a solid team with more than enough experience and offensive talent to give any team problems, particularly with Baldwin causing so many issues on both ends of the floor. But their real threat lies in the havoc they cause with their unique style of pressure defense that is so difficult to simulate and prepare for, especially on the second game of a weekend. The way Saint Mary’s looked against the press at the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, the Gaels better be practicing overtime for their first-round matchup.

Boise State: When the Broncos shoot the ball well, they can be very dangerous. Leon Rice’s team has five players averaging double figures in scoring and might have a better overall resume than first-round opponent Northwestern. A victory could set them up against a UCLA team limping into the tournament with several injury concerns.

Last team standing: Gonzaga

This is the first time the Bulldogs have entered the tournament as anything but a No. 1 seed since 2018. That may be just what they need. While they will always have a target on their backs because of all the success the program has experienced over the last two decades, there aren’t a whole lot of experts predicting them to win it all this time around. Timme is experienced and draws so much defensive attention in the post, allowing Las Vegan Julian Strawther to operate on the perimeter and prove why he’s so coveted by NBA scouts. Gonzaga has all the ingredients for postseason success and has been quietly mixing them together the last few weeks.

Adam Hill Las Vegas Review-Journal

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