North Carolina earns the top seed in the West Region after missing NCAA Tournament last year

North Carolina is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament West Region a year after being left out of the bracket

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

North Carolina is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament West Region a year after being left out of the bracket.

The fourth-ranked Tar Heels will open March Madness just down the road in Charlotte on Thursday against the First Four winner between Howard and Wagner.

"To be given an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is a big deal,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. "I know the importance of being able to play close to home, so playing in Charlotte for potentially the first two rounds and being closer to our fans is a big deal for us, but it’s just fun coming into the tournament.”

The West also includes Arizona, Alabama, Baylor and Michigan State on the road to Los Angeles for the regional final.

North Carolina found itself in a rare position in Davis' second season a year ago, going from preseason No. 1 to watching the NCAA Tournament from home.

Behind RJ Davis and Armando Bacot, the Tar Heels opened this season at No. 19 in the AP Top 25 and steadily climbed the polls, reaching No. 3 for a three-week stretch.

North Carolina went 27-7 overall and 17-3 to win its first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title in seven years before losing to North Carolina State 84-76 in the ACC tournament championship game.

Davis was stellar in his senior season, leading the ACC with 21.4 points per game. Bacot continued to dominate in the paint, averaging 14.1 points and 10.2 rebounds. Both played in the 2022 national championship game.

The Tar Heels also got a big lift from Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram and sharpshooter Cormac Ryan to sweep rival Duke.

No. 2 Wildcats

Arizona is a No. 2 seed for the second straight season. The sixth-ranked Wildcats are hoping for a better outcome than last year, when they were bounced by No. 15 seed Princeton in the first round.

Arizona (25-8) is certainly built to make a much deeper run.

The Wildcats have size, depth and are the nation’s third-highest scoring team at 87.9 points per game. They also have Caleb Love.

The North Carolina transfer was stellar during his lone season in the desert, earning Pac-12 player of the year honors while leading the Wildcats with 18.1 points per game.

Arizona opens the 2024 bracket against Long Beach State on Thursday in Salt Lake City. The Beach won the Big West tournament less than a week after the school announced it was parting ways with coach Dan Monson after 17 seasons.

High-scoring Tide

Arizona isn't the only high-scoring team in the West.

No. 4 seed Alabama is in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season under coach Nate Oats, including a trip to the Sweet 16 a year ago.

The 19th-ranked Crimson Tide score a nation's best 90.8 points per game and have four players who average double figures, led by Mark Sears' 21.1 points.

Alabama opens the NCAA Tournament against No. 13 Charleston (27-7) on Friday in Spokane, Washington.

Battling Bears

Baylor got bounced from the Big 12 tournament with a poor-shooting 76-62 loss to Iowa State, but did enough during the regular season to earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Led by Ja'Kobe Walter and RayJ Dennis, the Bears (23-10) had wins against No. 7 Iowa State, No. 12 Auburn, No. 16 Kansas and No. 20 BYU during the regular season.

Baylor won the 2021 national championship and is looking to make a deep run after being knocked out in the second round the past two seasons. The Bears open the 2024 bracket on Friday against No. 14 Colgate (25-9) in Memphis.

Sparty Time

Michigan State had to sweat out its 26th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Spartans had an up-and-down season and found themselves on the NCAA bubble by losing four of their final five regular-season games, then to No. 3 Purdue in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Michigan State (19-14) did enough to make the bracket as a No. 9 seed and will face No. 8 Mississippi State (21-13) on Thursday in Charlotte.

The Rest

Saint Mary's proved to be the best team in the West Coast Conference, ending No. 17 Gonzaga's four-year run as tournament champion. The 21st-ranked Gaels (26-7) are the West's No. 5 seed and will face WAC champion and No. 12 Grand Canyon (29-4) on Friday in Spokane.

Behind high-scoring big man DaRon Holmes II, Dayton (24-7) is back in the bracket for the first time since 2018 as the West's No. 7 seed. The Flyers will face No. 10 Nevada (26-7) on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

NCAA selection committee Chairman Charles McClelland said New Mexico “stole” a bid by beating San Diego State in the MWC title game. The thievery earned the Lobos a No. 11 seed and a game against No. 6 Clemson (21-11) on Friday in Memphis.

___

AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this story.

___

AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP