Care to dance? Arizona, GCU prepare for first round of NCAA men’s basketball tournament

Arizona freshman guard KJ Lewis is among the Wildcats excited to begin NCAA Tournament play. The team opens play against Long Beach State Thursday in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – It’s that time again. The most anticipated Sunday in college basketball has passed, and roughly two and half weeks of iconic games, breakthrough performances, Cinderella stories and millions of busted brackets lie ahead. The 2024 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is officially here, and Selection Sunday has left us with plenty of storylines to ensure some madness this March.

With the Valley hosting the Final Four on April 6 and the title game April 8, two teams have a shot to represent the Grand Canyon State. The University of Arizona and Grand Canyon University are the only teams from Arizona in this year’s tournament and both find themselves nestled into the West Region of the tournament.

“I feel good,” Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd said Sunday. “ I think we’re well-rested. I know we’re definitely healthier than we were last year. I think we’re ready to be in attack mode.”

Headlining both the Big Dance and the East Region, the reigning champion UConn Huskies breezed through the regular season and Big East Tournament to solidify themselves as the undisputed No. 1 seed. Four of the Huskies’ starters have championship experience, and senior guard Tristen Newton is a triple-double threat on any given day.

Rounding out the No. 1 seeds are a trio of teams led by their respective conference’s player of the year.

The Houston Cougars (30-4) pounce into March Madness atop the South Region with elite two-way guard Jamal Shead leading the way and look to finish off their first season in the Big 12 with a bang.

The Purdue Boilermakers (29-4) sit atop the Midwest Region on the back of their 7-foot-4 monster center senior Zach Edey, who led the nation in scoring at 24.4 points per game. The Boilermakers come into this year’s tournament looking to prove the doubters wrong and follow in the Virginia Cavaliers’ footsteps by winning the nNational cChampionship the year after losing to a No. 16 seed.

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Senior guard RJ Davis and the North Carolina Tar Heels (27-7) head the West Region and seek redemption for their heartbreaking 2022 championship loss to Kansas.

Fellow senior guard Caleb Love is also seeking that same redemption, except he’d be doing it with another team. Love transferred from North Carolina to the University of Arizona for his senior year, and the Pac-12 Player of the Year has the Wildcats (25-8) rocking the West Region’s No. 2 seed. The Wildcats hovered around a potential No. 1 seed the entire year due to the scoring of Love and dominant rebounding of senior center Oumar Ballo, but a Pac-12 tournament loss to Oregon put that to rest. Even though Houston, Purdue and North Carolina suffered the same fate as Arizona in their conference tournaments, their resumes proved to outweigh the Wildcats’.

“We always factor in the entirety of the season,” said Charles McClland, chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. “Houston, UConn and Purdue were always on our board. It came down to six teams vying for a first seed, and Arizona was one of them. Outside of the conference, they had some really strong wins, but overall we felt that Arizona fell to a No. 2 seed when looking at all the metrics.”

Nevertheless, Arizona has a first-round date with No.15 seed Long Beach State on Thursday. This comes just one year after the Wildcats were stunned by a No.15 seed, and Long Beach State is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, winning the Big West Championship a week after coach Dan Monson learned he was being let go at the end of the season.

Barring any upsets, the Wildcats have a chance to be part of one the biggest storylines of the tournament — an Elite Eight matchup versus North Carolina. Fans might say it’s just part of the “script,” but Love facing his former team for a trip to the Final Four is what the tournament is all about. It’s not called March Madness for nothing.

While the top seeds the tournament, the tournament darlings are always the double-digit seeds.

The No. 11 seed Oregon Ducks (23-11) made a huge splash winning the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, and senior center N’Faly Dante is red hot coming off a 12/12 performance in the Pac 12 championship. Fellow No.11 North Carolina State (22-14) is just as hot, running the table in the ACC Tournament while upsetting Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina. The alpha of the Wolfpack is senior guard DJ Horne, who watched his potential No. 11 seed run with Arizona State last year end on a buzzer-beater in the Round of 64 versus TCU.

The No.12 seeds all pose serious threats to their No. 5 opponents. James Madison and McNeese State enter March Madness with 30-plus wins each. The Dukes can put up points at will while the Cowboys are coming off a historic school turnaround under TCU transfer senior guard Shahada Wells and former LSU coach Will Wade, who both have tournament experience.

For Grand Canyon University, the Antelopes enter the Big Dance just below the 30-win mark at 29-4, and the WAC champions are hoping the third time’s the charm for the March Madness appearances. The 12th seed is the highest ever for the Antelopes, but a tough task in St. Mary’s awaits them on Friday.

“They’re a really physical team,” GCU coach Bryce Drew said. “They execute very well and in the second half of the season, they have been playing outstanding basketball. They are one of the hottest teams in the country.”

GCU teammates Gabe McGlothan, left, and Duke Brennan celebrate with the WAC Tournament trophy. The Lopes open NCAA Tournament play Friday in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

GCU teammates Gabe McGlothan, left, and Duke Brennan celebrate with the WAC Tournament trophy. The Lopes open NCAA Tournament play Friday in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

The Antelopes pose an electric offense, scoring nearly 80 points per game, but the Gaels play slow and are stout on defense, allowing only 58.7 points per game, which is second best in the country.

Drew has been at the helm for each of the Antelopes’ three tournament appearances, but it’s the Antelopes’ first time with senior standout guard Tyon Grant-Foster. . During the 2021-22 season, Grant-Foster played a paltry 15 minutes for DePaul before two heart surgeries forced him to miss 16 months of basketball. Now, he’s the main man for GCU averaging 19.8 points per game, and earning WAC Player of the Year honors.

“He’s a warrior,” forward Gabe McGlothan said. “If he has his mind set on something, he’s going to go take it. I’m just so proud of him.”

With the addition of backcourt mate Ray Harrison’s scoring ability and McGlothan‘s superb three-point shooting, the trio poses a massive test for the Gaels’ defense.

“It takes every single one of us,” McGlothan said. “No one is going to go out there and win a game all by himself, so we all got to lock in from this moment until Friday.”

Drew is no stranger to big-time upsets during his playing days, but as coach, he pushed heavy favorites Iowa (2021) and Gonzaga (2023) to the brink. The third time may just be the charm for Drew, and if the slipper fits, a Love and UNC reunion might be replaced by a battle for Arizona in the Elite Eight.

“This team has been really motivated all year,” Drew said. “We’ve had a lot of goals, and there are more goals that this team wants to accomplish. With some of the guys going last year, they have the experience of knowing what to expect and the familiarity of getting in the tournament. I think that experience will help us.”

While we await the fates of both Arizona and GCU, the NCAA Tournament kicks off Tuesday at 3:40 p.m. with a First Four matchup between No. 16 seeds Wagner and Howard.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brett Lapinski expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Lapinski interned at Varsity Sports Show, where he was a digital reporter/social media producer.

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Dominic Contini expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in digital audiences. Contini aspires to be a content creator and has interned for the social media teams of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Fiesta Bowl, Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Arizona State Athletics.