Rating the region: This is the weakest of the four regions. Of the top 10 seeds, only two (No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Gonzaga) won their conference tournaments and only two (No. 1 Xavier and Gonzaga) won their regular-season conference titles. None of the teams rank in Ken Pomeroy’s top six — highest rated is North Carolina at No. 7. Xavier checks in at No. 14 in the Pomeroy ratings.
Contenders to cut down the nets: North Carolina and Michigan both loom as major contenders on the bottom half of the regional bracket. Gonzaga had its Final Four breakthrough last season and could do it again, but this might also be Xavier’s year to claim a regional title.
Pretenders who’ll be bounced early despite high seeds: Sixth seed Houston is a very good team and has had a great season, but got a tough draw with No. 11 San Diego State — a talented team that didn’t put it together until late. Seventh-seeded Texas A&M has focus issues, misses injured guard Duane Wilson and will be in trouble against No. 10 Providence — unless the Friars lost their legs playing three straight overtime games last week in the Big East tournament.
Cinderellas: She’s hard to find in this region. South Dakota State, the No. 12 seed, probably has the best mid-major player in the nation in 6-foot-9 forward Mike Daum, but No. 5 Ohio State might have the perfect player to match up with him in Keita Bates-Diop. UNC-Greensboro has had an excellent year, winning both the Southern Conference regular-season and conference titles, and will make No. 4 seed Gonzaga work for baskets — but the Zags have won nine straight first-round NCAA tournament games. They’re rarely caught unprepared for the opener.
Team that doesn’t belong: Even with a No. 8 seed, Missouri is on sketchy ground. If you look at the team the Tigers will put on the floor Friday against Florida State, it will be lacking No. 2 scorer Jordan Barnett (suspended after a DWI over the weekend); injured guard Cullen VanLeer; and dismissed guard Terrence Phillips. That leaves nine able-bodied players, including walk-on guard Brett Rau (seven points scored all season) and a guy named Michael Porter Jr., who has played 25 minutes on the season.
Chances of a 1-16 upset: Xavier draws the winner of the play-in game between North Carolina Central and Texas Southern, as the selection committee deftly limits the number of HBCU teams in the main bracket to one. The chances of either of them beating the Musketeers are infinitesimal, but here’s something to consider: Texas Southern is 15-6 after an 0-13 start in which all 13 games were played on the road, and the coach of the Tigers (Mike Davis) has been to one more Final Four than Chris Mack.
Best potential round-of-32 game: Sign me up for Houston-Michigan. The committee moved the Wolverines out of their hoped-for Detroit comfort zone, shipping them to Wichita to face a dangerous No. 6 seed. Kelvin Sampson is an accomplished coach whose Cougars have beaten four teams in the field of 68 (Arkansas, Providence, Wichita State twice and Cincinnati). Michigan had better be ready.
Best potential Sweet 16 game: Provided the Wolverines get past Houston, a potential game against North Carolina in Los Angeles is Final Four-worthy. There may not be two better offensive coaches than John Bielein and Roy Williams, and they both have rosters laden with accomplished college veterans: Michigan seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson have a combined 34 games of Division I postseason experience; North Carolina seniors Joel Berry and Theo Pinson have a combined 52 games postseason experience.
Best potential regional final game: North Carolina-Xavier would pit a program with 20 Final Four appearances and six national championships against a program with zero and zero. It would also pit senior shooters Trevon Blueitt against Berry, senior mix masters J.P. Macura against Pinson, and Chris Mack against Williams in an intriguing sideline matchup.
Best coach: Three other coaches have been to a Final Four (Mark Few, Sampson and Beilein), but Williams’ résumé dwarfs the rest of them. He’s won three national titles, including the last one, and been to nine Final Fours. Williams is seventh in NCAA history in total wins with 841.
Underrated coach: Ed Cooley has had five straight 20-win seasons at Providence, something the school last accomplished in the 1970s. His five straight NCAA tournament appearances has never been accomplished previously at Providence. Neither have five straight winning records in Big East play. All Cooley needs to do now is make hay in the Big Dance, where he’s never been to the Sweet 16.
Best player: Keita Bates-Diop was the Big Ten Player of the Year, averaging 19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game for Ohio State. The 6-7 redshirt junior blew up in his first season under Chris Holtmann, improving his production dramatically. His matchup against South Dakota State’s Mike Daum will be one of the better individual battles of the tournament’s opening round.
Best player you haven’t heard of: From his man bun to his tattoos to his all-around ability to score, Houston’s Rob Gray will get some immediate attention this week. The bouncy, 6-1 Gray leads the Cougars with averages of 18.5 points and 4.5 assists, and he’s upped those averages to 23.6 points and 5.7 assists over the last seven games.
X-Factor: Which fan base buys the tickets in Los Angeles for Sweet 16 and regional final games? The only school within driving distance is San Diego State, and as a No. 11 seed the Aztecs are a long shot to advance that far. Fourth seed Gonzaga is the only other West region school on the West Coast. Will Xavier, North Carolina or Michigan fans show up to provide a home-court advantage of any kind if their teams make it to L.A.? (Honorable mention X-Factor: Gonzaga was given a 10:30 a.m. tipoff time in terms of West Coast body clock against UNC-Greensboro on Thursday.)
Welcome March sight: The Rivals.com No. 1 recruit in the nation from last season will actually play in the NCAA tournament. That’s Michael Porter of Missouri. The previous two No. 1 players, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Ben Simmons of LSU, couldn’t get their teams close to the Big Dance in their only season of college basketball. Porter’s team got here without him — but after four months on the shelf following back surgery, he came back and saw his first full-time action in the SEC tournament last week. That trial run lasted all of one game, but Porter was willing to give it the old college try and will now try to shake off more rust this week.
Best part of this bracket: If Gonzaga and North Carolina both make it to L.A., Mark Few and Roy Williams can try to go find a casino again together like they did in Memphis during the NCAAs a few years back. They can also reminisce about last year’s national championship game, which devolved into a hackfest as both teams refused to allow an uncontested shot.
Pat’s pick: Michigan.
More NCAA tournament on Yahoo Sports:
•Printable bracket: Start making your picks
•Selection Sunday winners and losers: Kentucky, Duke get rough roads
•Five biggest tournament snubs
•Everything you need to know before filling out a bracket
•Non-traditional ways to spice up your bracket pool