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Ranking Northwestern’s potential West Region opponents

The wild, wild west.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship - Kansas vs Texas Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern basketball is going to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history, and just like the first time, the bracket is a bloodbath.

The Wildcats are the No. 7 seed in the West Region, which includes the likes of defending champion Kansas, a top-five team in the country in UCLA and a Gonzaga team which went 28-5 in a “down year.”

There’s no doubt that if Northwestern wants to make a run, it's going to have to play near-perfect basketball. But, this is the case for every team in March, as one thing can go wrong and the season will end.

The Wildcats have a tough road to Houston. If they want to pull off a Cinderella story to end a storybook season, here are a few of the opponents they will have to go through.

1. No. 1-seed Kansas Jayhawks (Most difficult)

The West Region is headlined by the Jayhawks, who, after winning the national championship last year, only got better. Headlined by freshman Gradey Dick and junior Jalen Wilson, Kansas has to be the favorite in the West going into the first round of play.

Dick and Wilson are not the only stars on this team. K.J. Adams Jr. and DaJuan Harris are also two of the top players that Bill Self has to offer. While Kansas lost the Big 12 championship to Texas, KU was able to win the regular-season championship in what is widely regarded as the best conference in college basketball.

Right now, Kansas has to be considered the most difficult opponent in the West. It has the experience, the coaching and the talent to win a second straight championship, and if Northwestern gets that far, this would be the toughest matchup.

2. No. 3-seed Gonzaga Bulldogs

What’s the purpose of March Madness without a little storyline behind it?

When every Northwestern fan sees the opportunity to play Gonzaga, they should have revenge on their minds. Everyone remembers what happened the first time the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament: they were going punch-for-punch with the No. 1 overall seed Bulldogs, and then a missed basket interference call all but sealed the Wildcats’ fate, ending the best season in school history.

This is the second time the ‘Cats have made the Tournament, and obviously Gonzaga is a team they would want to play. But, it would not be easy.

Gonzaga finished the season 28-5, winning a share of the regular season WCC title and winning the WCC tournament. Senior Drew Timme still has the best post move in America, Julian Strawther has become the scorer many thought he could be, and Mark Few is one of the best coaches in the nation. Gonzaga also has the No. 1 offense in the country.

It’s crazy to think that even in a down year for Gonzaga, the Bulldogs were able to lose only five games. Though the seeding was not kind, they are still a national championship contender.

3. No. 2-seed UCLA Bruins

UCLA has returned to its blue-blood form, and in the past two NCAA Tournaments, the Bruins were a few bounces away from a different ending.

Everyone recalls what happened in 2021: No. 11 UCLA went from the First Four to the Final Four and took the No. 1 overall Gonzaga Bulldogs to overtime before Jalen Suggs hit a half-court buzzer beater to win it all. The next year, UCLA started the year No. 2 in the nation before Caleb Love went for 30 points in Philadelphia to end its season.

Some can argue UCLA is a better team now than the past two years. Mick Cronin's group features two star players who went on deep March runs in Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., as well as the PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year in Jaylen Clark. On top of that, UCLA has the top freshman in the conference in Amari Bailey, who has been playing his best basketball as of late. UCLA is ranked top 40 in Ken Pom offensive and defensive efficiency, a recipe for a national championship.

If Northwestern is able to get by Boise State in Round One, UCLA will almost definitely be the opponent in Round Two. It would be a tough matchup, but UCLA might be down Clark, who is questionable for the first few rounds. The Wildcats would face an uphill battle against an elite UCLA team.

4. No. 4-seed UConn Huskies

UConn is a good basketball team, and though it faces a tough Iona squad in Round One, the Huskies have Final Four potential.

Jordan Hawkins is a first-round pick and has cemented himself as one of the top guards in the Big East, even though UConn lost to eventual winner Marquette.

What makes the Huskies dangerous? For one, it's Hawkins, who averages 16.1 points per game and is the top offensive threat. Moreover, UConn has Adam Sanogo, who might be the best big in the region besides Drew Timme.

If UConn wins its first two games, the Huskies would play Kansas in the Sweet 16 and have a real chance to beat the Jayhawks.

5 (but at the same time 1). No. 10-seed Boise State Broncos

While Boise State is high on this list, this is the reality: if Northwestern does not win on Thursday, the rest of this does not matter. Boise State needs to be the focus.

A lot of what Boise State offers can be seen in the recent Know Your Opponent, but here’s Boise State in a few words: slow-paced basketball reliant on starters. This first-round matchup will be a rock fight, but at the same time, BSU has five players who average over 10 points a game.

Northwestern has the team to win this game. The 'Cats have the height advantage, better guards and play better defense. But, the Broncos are a team that cannot be taken lightly, and if they give the Wildcats a problem on both sides of the floor, it will not be surprising.

One game at a time, and it starts here.

6. No. 6-seed TCU Horned Frogs

TCU is another team that just went through the gauntlet of the Big 12 conference, has one of the best guards in the country in Mike Miles, and almost knocked off a one seed in Arizona last tournament. Now that they have some experience, TCU can be scary.

Miles is only the start of its talent, and players such as Damien Baugh and Emanuel Miller all will cause problems no matter who they face. The highlight of this matchup would be Boo Buie vs. Miles, though.

Just like Northwestern, TCU has a tough road in the teams are going to meet. The Frogs play a dark horse in Arizona State or Nevada in Round One, and after that would have to play Gonzaga. But, this purple-on-purple matchup would be exciting if the opportunity was there.

7. No. 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks

Though Eric Musselman’s team finished under .500 in SEC play, the Razorbacks are scary.

Nick Smith Jr. is back from injury and is playing his best basketball of the season, Anthony Black is one of the top freshmen in the bracket and Arkansas plays fast-paced basketball that teams struggle to stop.

The Razorbacks are a trendy pick to beat Kansas in the Round of 32 due to the fact that they can score at will, but the problem with them is defenesive consistency and runs from opponents. But, if the Razorbacks play to the best of their abilities, they are one of the most intriguing teams not only in this region, but in the tournament.

There’s a reason they were ranked No. 10 to start the season and made the Elite Eight last year. Don’t let the Razorbacks get hot.

8. No. 9-seed Illinois Fighting Illini

There’s not much to say about Illinois; Northwestern fans know the squad well.

The Illini have talent with Terrance Shannon Jr., Coleman Hawkins and Matthew Mayer, but it really depends on which team shows up. Look at the NU-Illinois game a few weeks ago in Champaign: if the second-half team appears, they can beat anyone, but if the first-half Illini do, Brad Underwood’s team will get blown out of the water.

There’s no doubt that Illinois has the pieces to make a run, but on that road includes Arkansas in the first round and Kansas in the second. But, it would be intriguing to see an Elite Eight matchup between Northwestern and Illinois. A lot of things would have to work right for both sides.

9. No. 12-seed VCU Rams

I’ve always been a fan of the A-10, and VCU not only won the regular season title, but also the championship as well. The Rams are playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. They are a common 5-12 upset pick over St. Mary’s, and VCU, like the other teams listed before it, has the talent to make a run.

Adrian Baldwin Jr. is one of the top players in the A-10, and Michigan transfer Brandon Johns Jr. is playing the best basketball of his college career. VCU is also one of the top defensive teams in the region and would give any team a problem.

10. The winner of Arizona State-Nevada

Both of these teams can play at high-speeds and have scoring threats. For the record, I do not think either would beat TCU, but there is a chance they take down the Horned Frogs and go on a run.

Arizona State would cause more problems for Northwestern due to itz scoring power; the Sun Devils are a typical PAC-12 team with guards that can make you pay. Nevada is similar, with two guards that average over 14 points a game.

The Sun Devils and the Wolfpack can both be a Cinderella team and would give Northwestern difficulties.

11. No. 5-seed St. Mary’s Gaels

The Gaels are one of the top defensive teams in the conference, but at the same time have not been playing good basketball as of late. This is why they are lower on the list.

While Logan Johnson and Aidan Mahaney are a top guard combo and can both score, the Gaels are coming off a low of getting blown out by Gonzaga, which is also in this bracket. St. Mary’s needs more secondary contributors to make a run, but there’s no doubt about the defense.

12. No. 13 Iona Gaels

Iona is the last team that deserves a feature. Rick Pitino knows how to win in March, and this should be his last year at Iona before getting a Big East job. The Gaels finished 17-3 in the MAAC and won the conference tournament; not a single game was close.

They have a trio that scores over 15 per game in Walter Clayton Jr., Daniss Jenkins and Nelly Junior Joseph. Iona should cause UConn problems in Round One and any team after that if it advances.

The Rest: No. 16-seed Howard, No. 15-seed UNC Asheville, No. 14-seed Grand Canyon

If any of these teams advance out of the first round, it would be a crazy story. But, like every low seed, Howard, UNC Asheville and Grand Canyon all face an uphill battle.