Kim O'Reilly, CBS Sports

The 2024 NCAA Tournament field has been announced, which means college basketball fans near and far will spend the next few days until brackets lock on Thursday putting in as much research as possible for their picks. We're here to help you with regional-by-regional primers, turning our attention here to the West Regional with Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Los Angeles.

After much debate over which team would earn the final No. 1 seed for the West Regional, North Carolina came away with the top seed, meaning the Tar Heels will have to travel to the other side of the country if they make it to the second weekend. The Tar Heels are seeking their fourth Final Four appearance since 2016.

Pac-12 regular-season champion Arizona was one of those teams vying for the final No. 1 seed with UNC. The Wildcats ended their season with a loss to USC and fell to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals less than a week later. Pac-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love started his career with UNC and could see a matchup with his old team in the regional finals. 

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This side of the bracket also features two more teams that have been to the Final Four in the last five years. No. 9 seed Michigan State reached the Final Four in 2019, while No. 3 seed Baylor ran the table in the 2021 NCAA Tournament en route to its first national title in program history.

Here's a complete look at the West Regional ahead of this week's action.

Best first-round game 

(8) Mississippi State vs. (9) Michigan State: The 8-9 game is always the obvious pick as the best first-round matchup, but this game stands out. Josh Hubbard has been Mississippi State's best player this season, averaging 17.1 points per game as a freshman. On the flip side, you have a Michigan State team full of veteran guards with guys like Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins. Michigan State is a different animal in March. Time and time again, no matter how poorly Michigan State plays at the end of the season, coach Tom Izzo always gets his players ready for a tournament run.

Top potential matchup 

(1) North Carolina vs. (2) Arizona: Again, it feels vanilla to suggest the best potential matchup is between the two best teams from the same corner of the bracket, but that is the case here. The storylines for this matchup would be plentiful. Arizona star Caleb Love would have a chance to get revenge against his old team while potentially guiding his new team back to the Final Four for the first time since 2001. And, oh yeah, the Final Four just so happens to be playing in Glendale, Arizona — located less than 130 miles from the Arizona campus in Tucson. If you love drama, root for this outcome.

Cinderella team that will surprise 

(11) New Mexico: Based on the aftermath of Selection Sunday, it's clear New Mexico was going to be on the wrong side of the bubble had it lost to San Diego State in the Mountain West title game. The Lobos had to win four games in four days to secure the automatic bid. New Mexico is more than capable of parlaying that performance in Las Vegas to an NCAA tournament run. Jaelen House, the son of former NBA player Eddie House, is averaging 16.1 points this season. Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Donovan Dent are both key contributors from the backcourt, and JT Toppin is one of the top first-year players in the sport. Don't be surprised if the Lobos make a Sweet 16 run.

Team that will make a far-too-early exit 

(4) Alabama: The Crimson Tide's defense is an issue. Alabama ranks No. 346 in scoring defense at 81.1 points per game allowed. That mark is second-to-last among all teams in the Big Six conferences. Alabama's first-round opponent, Charleston, averages 80.5 points per game, good enough for 34th among all Division l teams. Alabama's offense is good enough to score with anyone in the country, but if it wants to avoid an early exit in the tournament the defense has to play better.

Six players to watch  

  • Caleb Love, Arizona: Love is one of the most fascinating players in this sport. The Pac-12 Player of the Year can score 30 points or shoot 1 of 10 from the floor on a given night. In his most recent outing against Oregon, Love was benched down the stretch while his team attempted a comeback. Love has his faults, but Arizona won't reach its potential without him playing like a star.
  • RJ Davis, North Carolina: No player on the North Carolina roster benefited more from Love's departure than Davis. The UNC star recently won ACC Player of the Year honors after averaging 21.4 points per game, which ranks 11th among all Division l players. Davis is one of the best pure scorers in the country, and his play style complements a veteran-led UNC team nicely.
  • Mark Sears, Alabama: After averaging just under 13 points per game for the No. 1 overall seed last season, Sears saw a drastic increase in his production following the departures of Brandon Miller and Jahvon Quinerly. Sears is averaging 21.1 ppg and is on track to become an All-American. He is shooting an impressive 43.1% on just over five attempts per game. He's the head of the snake on the top-scoring offense in the country.
  • DaRon Holmes ll, Dayton: For the casual fan, this might be your first experience watching Holmes play. The Dayton big man is one of the most underrated stars in the sport. After bypassing the 2023 NBA Draft and returning to school for another season, Holmes increased his scoring average to just over 20 points. Holmes is also averaging 2.3 blocks. He should be a first-round pick when all is said and done.
  • PJ Hall, Clemson: Hall is coming off the best statistical season of his career after averaging 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. At 6-foot-10 and 238 pounds, Hall is a menace down low. He has also shown an ability that can stretch the floor. Hall is Clemson's X-factor if it wants to make a run in the tournament.
  • Ja'Kobe Walter, Baylor: Walter is perhaps the best NBA Draft prospect in this region. The Baylor star freshman is one of the best 3-point shooters (34% on 6.2 attempts per game) in his class and forms a dynamic one-two punch with fellow freshman big man Yves Missi. Walter is a projected lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, and a strong showing at the tournament could do wonders for his stock.

West Regional winner

(2) Arizona: Who doesn't love a good storyline in college basketball? It would be quite a story if Arizona ran the table and reached the program's first Final Four in 23 years in its home state. Purdue's first-round exit in 2023 has been a big talking point for the last 12 months, but the Wildcats are also seeking redemption after losing to No. 15 seed Princeton a year ago. Arizona has the talent and depth to take down anyone on this side of the bracket, and it's hard to see them laying another egg in March.

March Madness regional previews: EastMidwest | South

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