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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Kevin Sweeney

West Region Breakdown: North Carolina Earns Last No. 1 Seed But Has Hard Path

March Madness is upon us, and the release of Sunday’s 2024 men’s NCAA tournament field of 68 means it’s time to start analyzing seedings, matchups and potential Cinderellas.

Out West, North Carolina earned the fourth and final No. 1 seed, but will have to go across the country in the second weekend if the Tar Heels want to make a trip to the Final Four. The Arizona Wildcats land on the No. 2 line, but get a more favorable regional path with hopes of eventually playing for a championship in their home state.

Who’s making it out of Los Angeles in the West Region? Here’s our preview and prediction.

[ 2024 March Madness: Latest News & Analysis ] 

State of the No. 1 seed: North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina had won eight straight before Saturday’s ACC title game loss to the bid-stealing NC State Wolfpack, highlighted by a road win at Cameron Indoor Stadium against the Duke Blue Devils on the last Saturday of the regular season that vaulted the Heels onto the No. 1 line. Hubert Davis’s team has bounced back in a big way from missing the Big Dance in 2023 and still features a pair of huge pieces from the ’22 run to the national title game in RJ Davis and Armando Bacot.

Davis is one of the Tar Heels’ returning players from the 2022 NCAA tournament run.

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

The biggest key for the Tar Heels’ turnaround has been on the defensive end of the floor, where UNC is in the top 10 of KenPom’s efficiency metrics. Elite defense plus having one of the best guards in the country in Davis is a good recipe in the Big Dance.

Related: March Madness: Forty Things to Watch in the 2024 NCAA Men’s Tournament

Toughest draw: No. 6 Clemson Tigers

Clemson could have been an intriguing team to make a deep run, with wins over the Alabama Crimson Tide and North Carolina in the regular season as proof the Tigers can win big games. But drawing a New Mexico Lobos team coming in surging off a Mountain West tournament championship in the first round is brutal, and there’s a real chance the Lobos will actually be favored by sportsbooks in the game. Even with a win there, Clemson would have to take down the Baylor Bears just to get out of the first weekend.

Related: Midwest Region Breakdown: Can Purdue Finally Break Through?

Team that could bust your bracket: No. 11 New Mexico Lobos

The Lobos may be best positioned of the six Mountain West teams in the field to make a deep run, both because of their talent level and matchups. New Mexico has high-major size and athleticism, with dynamic guards Donovan Dent and Jaelen House leading the charge. The Lobos have the firepower to score with a team like Baylor in a potential second-round date, and who knows, they could make things interesting in a track meet vs. Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Related: East Region Breakdown: Auburn Could Stand in UConn’s Way

Player to watch: Caleb Love, Arizona Wildcats

Love’s career arc has been most unique in recent college hoops history. He disappointed as a freshman at North Carolina, exploded to help lead the Heels to the national title game as a sophomore, was part of a Tar Heel team that flopped historically as a junior and now is trying to lead his new school to the promised land as a senior. Poetically, a trip to the Final Four for the Wildcats could require Arizona to go through North Carolina.

Related: South Region Breakdown: Top Two Seeds Houston and Marquette Have Strong Cases

Most intriguing matchup: No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 13 Charleston Cougars

If you’re looking for a track meet, this first-round matchup is for you. Both of these teams love to push the pace and have the talent to score plenty of points. Alabama could be vulnerable to an upset after finishing the season poorly and rating as the worst defense among the top four seeds. Plus, the coaching personalities here in Nate Oats and Pat Kelsey are incredibly entertaining.

Regional finalists: North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Baylor Bears

The Tar Heels could get to the doorstep of a second Final Four in three years, but it won’t be easy to get all the way to Phoenix. Baylor beating Arizona in Los Angeles would be an upset, but the Bears have the type of offensive firepower to outscore almost anyone and showed some real grit down the stretch of the season.

Pick to win the region: Baylor

The Bears get great point guard play from RayJ Dennis and have two of the best freshmen in the country in Ja’Kobe Walter and Yves Missi. The youngsters will shine in the Big Dance and bring Baylor to the Final Four. 

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