Who wins, who’s overrated and what’s the best game? We have an answer for each region. I had freelance writer Ray Glier pinch hit for the East breakdown, but the capsules are all me. Enjoy.
Everyone looks and sees a young, freshman-laden team and says no way it can win a game past the Sweet 16. But UK committed just six turnovers against a veteran Florida team on Sunday in the SEC Championship game and it makes shots and plays defense. On the road, the freshmen were not very good (4-7), but on a neutral floor they were 6-1. The NCAA Tournament is a decidedly neutral floor for most schools, but UK always brings truckloads of fans to help them out.
The Wildcats take care of the ball and double-down hard in the post. They don’t have a lot of depth, but they have long-armed guards who want to play defense. Darius Miller, a junior, is on a roll finally in his career with a string of double-figure scoring games.
Kentucky will stay with Ohio State for most of a Sweet 16 matchup. Just watch Kentucky and envision this team next season with four starters back, if they all come back.
Overrated: Syracuse, as usual.
Since their title in 2003 the Orange have six NCAA Tournament wins. They load up with home games and pile up wins. Big deal. Syracuse is 8-7 over its last 15 games. Indiana State won’t beat the Orange, but Xavier has a good chance. XU has eight tournament wins the last four years, which is a pretty neat trick for an A-10 school.
Most likely first-round upset
No. 7 Washington is too furious and tough to lose to No. 10 Georgia, which can be bothered by aggressive defense and plays soft. No. 13 Princeton won’t be able to guard the UK dribblers and shooters. Carolina will lose, but it won’t be until the regional final.
You have to say Clemson. The Tigers will get warmed up with a win over UAB in a play-in game and then take out fifth-seed West Virginia. The Tigers are well-coached and West Virginia doesn’t get enough offensive rebounds to make up for poor shooting.
Demontez Stitt, a 6-2 senior guard, had a career-high 25 against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Brad Brownell, the Clemson coach, is good enough to match tactics with West Virginia’s Bob Huggins.
Best matchup: Kentucky vs. Ohio State
Ohio State will have more experience and the best big man on the floor, Jared Sullinger, but John Calipari is a better coach than Thad Matta and the Wildcats have better scoring guards. The Buckeyes will win, but it will be a thrilling game for 37-38 minutes.
Aaron Craft is a tough defender for the Buckeyes and it will be a treat to see him try and stay in front of UK guards Brandon Knight and Dorn Lamb. The Wildcats have a 6-7 forward, Darius Miller, who can be a matchup problem because he is shooting outside, but also getting loose inside for baskets.
Xavier has lost twice since Jan. 9 and one of the reasons is 6-foot junior guard Tu Holloway. He averages 38 minutes a game and stuffs the stat sheet with 5.5 assists per game and 5.1 rebounds, not to mention 20 points.
The obvious impact player is Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger, who has scored in single-digits just once this season and that was in a 21-point rout of Indiana.
Who wins regional
Ohio State will beat North Carolina. You hate picking chalk in the NCAA Tournament, you want a thunderclap or two, but Ohio State has too much talent for the top part of the bracket. The lower part of this region’s bracket has a lot of teams that can’t compete on the boards with North Carolina. The Tar Heels will sail into the final once Xavier takes out Syracuse.
No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes
Location: Columbus, Ohio.
Conference: Big Ten
Coach: Thad Matta
Pre-tournament record: 32-2, 16-2
Best wins: Florida, Purdue, Wisconsin
Surprising losses: None
Key players: Freshman center Jared Sullinger, senior wing Jon Diebler, senior guard David Lighty, freshman guard Aaron Craft .
Strengths: Shooting, defensive rebounding, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: On-ball defense, depth.
Outlook: The favorites. Ohio State plays just seven guys – five play 70 percent of the minutes – but it’s a system that’s worked exceedingly well. That’s what happens when you have a supremely talented low-post scorer and smart passer like Sullinger and guys who hit 3-pointers.
It’s simple– if Sullinger doesn’t score, a Buckeye hoists a 3 or gets open for an easy bucket. Diebler’s the biggest threat outside – he hit 10 of 12 vs. Wisconsin in the season finale – but Lighty and junior William Buford also knock down shots. The question about OSU relates to two things: Depth and of Craft. The Buckeyes rarely get into foul trouble, but one could worry about tired legs and if teams try to run the 280-pound Sullinger too much. But more interesting is Craft. He doesn’t start, but still plays more than 30 minutes a game. He and Lighty usually draw the key defensive roles. Can Craft handle the tournament pressure? Matta can’t afford that. Not with his bench. Also, their draw isn’t too friendly.
No. 2 North Carolina Tar Heels
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Coach: Roy Williams
Pre-tournament record: 26-7, 14-2
Best wins: Duke, Kentucky
Surprising loss: Georgia Tech, Minnesota
Key players: Freshman wing Harrison Barnes, freshman guard Kendall Marshall, sophomore forward John Henson, junior center Tyler Zeller.
Strengths: Challenging shots, ball-handling, rebounding.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting.
Outlook: The Heels have found their form. Following a mid-January loss to Georgia Tech, UNC switched point guards, replacing junior Larry Drew II with Marshall. And that has made all the difference. The Heels’ offense, while not as crisp as it was during back-to-back Final Four years in ’08 and ’09, is playing fast and playing efficiently, which rarely happened under Drew. A better offense means more shots and more opportunities for a young team to build confidence, which is showing most in the play of Barnes, the nation’s top recruit. His shooting is still inconsistent, but he’s made clutch shots and is aggressive in attacking the basket. Just as crucial has been the impressive defense, led by Henson and Zeller. Foes rarely have chances to score down low and when they miss, Henson and Zeller are grabbing the rebound. It’s not a thing of beauty like in other years under Roy Williams, but it’s working.
No. 3 Syracuse Orange
Location: Syracuse, N.Y.
Conference: Big East
Coach: Jim Boeheim
Pre-tournament record: 26-7, 12-6
Best wins: Notre Dame, UConn
Surprising losses: Seton Hall
Key players: Junior guard Scoop Jardine, senior forward Rick Jackson, junior forward Kris Joseph.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, interior scoring, challenging shots.
Weaknesses: Defensive rebounding, getting to the free-throw line.
Outlook: Remember Syracuse’s four-game losing streak in January? It’s a thing of the past. The Orange excel at scoring inside the arc in part because their top scorers (Jardine and Joseph) look for mid-range jumpers or try to get to the basket. If they miss, Jackson’s there to grab the rebound and get the putback. It works regardless of foe. When it doesn’t, it’s usually because the Orange aren’t executing. Same with the defense. The Orange’s famed 2-3 zone forces opponents to work for shots, though open looks usually aren’t easy to come by, inside or outside the arc. Syracuse might have been more talented and experienced last season, but they’re no less dangerous this year. Expect another Sweet 16 spot.
No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats
Location: Lexington, Ky.
Coach: John Calipari
Pre-tournament record: 25-8, 10-6
Best wins: Notre Dame, Washington, Louisville, Florida (twice)
Surprising losses: Ole Miss, Arkansas
Key players: Freshman guard Brandon Knight, freshman forward Terrence Jones, freshman guard Doron Lamb, junior wing Darius Miller.
Strengths: Interior defense, ball-handling, 3-point shooting.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter defense.
Outlook: Kentucky’s really good. Again. The Wildcats may have had some issues winning SEC road games (they were 2-6), but thrived in the conference tournament and have impressive non-conference wins over Notre Dame and Kentucky. They might not have the flair of last year’s squad that won 35 games, but they’re no less efficient, and they do it with fewer players. Kentucky also has an added bonus it didn’t have last year: It can hit 3-pointers. Lamb, Knight and Miller all make at least 40 percent of their attempts beyond the arc, which will be crucial come crunch time and against teams who want to zone the ‘Cats. Another run to the Elite Eight is possible. A Final Four’s not out of reach, either.
No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers
Location: Morgantown, W.Va.
Conference: Big East
Coach: Bob Huggins
Pre-tournament record: 20-11, 11-7
Best wins: Purdue, Notre Dame, Louisville
Surprising losses: Miami (Fla.), Marshall
Key players: Senior wing Casey Mitchell, junior guard Truck Bryant, junior forward Kevin Jones.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, perimeter defense.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter shooting.
Outlook: The Mountaineers are awfully similar to last year’s Final Four team, with a few crucial exceptions. They’re slightly worse from beyond the arc, don’t force as many turnovers and are worse at corralling defensive rebounds. That’s about it. West Virginia still crushes the offensive glass, hits a high percentage of its attempts inside the arc and does a fair job holding onto the ball. Maybe it’s as simple as the lack of a clutch shooter like De’Sean Butler and a versatile defender like Devin Ebanks. Whatever the reason, they still have one thing going for them: They won’t be an easy out.
No. 6 Xavier Musketeers
Conference: Atlantic 10
Coach: Chris Mack
Pre-tournament record: 24-7, 15-1
Best wins: Butler, Temple
Surprising losses: Miami (Ohio), Charlotte
Key players: Junior guard Tu Holloway, junior center Kenny Frease, senior forward Jamel McLean.
Strengths: Defensive rebounding, 2-point shooting, challenging shots.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, 3-point shooting, depth.
Outlook: Bad luck before the season forced Mack to adjust to a short bench, and it took the Musketeers most of their non-conference schedule to adjust. The solution? The more of Holloway, the better. He’s on the court all the time, touches the ball more than anyone else, scores the most, is the assists leader and can be a defensive stopper when needed. Frease and McLean fill their roles nicely, while senior Dante Jackson and sophomore guard Mark Lyons provide some stability. But if Xavier hopes to return to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year, it’ll need two things: Two favorable matchups and a healthy Holloway who can’t miss. Might be one of the few years the Musketeers are home before the second week.
No. 7 Washington Huskies
Coach: Lorenzo Romar
Pre-tournament record: 23-10, 11-7
Best wins: Arizona (twice), UCLA (twice)
Surprising losses: Oregon State, Stanford
Key players: Junior guard Isaiah Thomas, senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, senior wing Justin Holiday
Strengths: Shooting, ball-handling, offensive rebounding.
Weaknesses: Defending rebounding, free-throw shooting.
Outlook: It’s déjà vu all over again. The Huskies underperformed last season, then got it together late, won the Pac-10 tournament and eventually reached the Sweet 16. This season, despite a record that belies their productivity, Washington could reach the second week once again. Romar’s team has all the ingredients for a run: A playmaking point guard capable of dominating a game with his tempo and shot-making skills (Thomas), fantastic outside shooters (C.J. Wilcox, Terrence Ross and Scott Suggs), a do-it-all wing (Holiday) and an athletic big man who blocks shots, rebound and scores (Bryan-Amaning). The problem is the Huskies don’t have much depth, their best defender (Venoy Overton) isn’t playing like it and Thomas can get into a me-first zone sometimes. If the Huskies aren’t slacking on defense and hitting even 35 percent of their 3-pointers, they’re a good bet to make the second week.
No. 8 George Mason Patriots
Location: Fairfax, Va.
Conference: Colonial Athletic
Coach: Jim Larranaga
Pre-tournament record: 26-6, 16-2
Best wins: ODU, Duquesne
Surprising loss: Hofstra
Key players: Senior guard Cam Long, junior forward Ryan Pearson, sophomore guard Luke Hancock.
Strengths: Shooting, ball-handling, perimeter defense.
Weaknesses: Offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers.
Outlook: Until the Patriots lost to VCU in the CAA tourney semifinals, they’d been touted as a potential Final Four darkhorse. The potential is still there, but perhaps less hype will be a good thing for Jim Larranaga’s team. They’re a balanced, deep, talented squad that does everything well and is excellent at 3-point shooting and taking care of the ball, two things crucial to NCAA tournament success. If they only hit the offensive glass a little more, they’d be an even better version of Butler from 2010. Still, George Mason’s sure to provide a stiff challenge to Ohio State in the second round. An upset would be worthy of anything the 2006 team pulled off.
No. 9 Villanova Wildcats
Conference: Big East
Coach: Jay Wright
Pre-tournament record: 21-11, 9-9
Best wins: Louisville, Syracuse
Surprising losses: South Florida, Providence
Key players: Senior guard Corey Fisher, sophomore guard Maalik Wayns, sophomore forward Mouphtaou Yarou, senior wing Corey Stokes.
Strengths: Guard play, perimeter defense.
Weaknesses: Guard play, forcing turnovers.
Outlook: It’s all about the guards. When Fisher and Wayns are on, the Wildcats are as good as anyone. When they’re not, well, you close the season with five straight losses. Part of that’s the competition – ‘Nova closed with Syracuse, St. John’s, Notre Dame and Pitt – but that’s not the entire problem. They failed to close out games, hit shots and have dealt with injuries, too. Yarou and Stokes missed parts or all of the final five games, which robbed ‘Nova of two of their most reliable scorers. Fisher and Wayns could find their niche in time for an NCAA tournament win, but don’t count on it.
No. 10 Georgia Bulldogs
Location: Athens, Ga.
Coach: Mark Fox
Pre-tournament record: 21-11, 9-7
Best wins: Kentucky, Tennessee, UAB
Surprising losses: None
Key players: Junior forward Trey Thompkins, junior guard Travis Leslie, junior guard Gerald Robinson.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, interior defense.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, 3-point shooting.
Outlook: Thompkins and Robinson take more than half of Georgia’s shots, which isn’t good for the Dawgs’ offensive performance. Neither are efficient scorers, which means Georgia usually relies on its defense to win games – and that’s a dicey proposition given that it’s a bend-don’t-break defense that frustrates opponents. It doesn’t create easy scoring chances for Georgia. The bright side in all of this? Leslie is a fantastic player. The high-flying guard is capable of jaw-dropping plays off dunks or in the lane. Too bad he can’t hit a 3-pointer. The Dawgs should be happy to be in.
No. 11 Marquette Golden Eagles
Conference: Big East
Coach: Buzz Williams
Pre-tournament record: 20-14, 9-9
Best wins: Notre Dame, Syracuse
Surprising losses: Seton Hall
Key players: Senior forward Jimmy Butler, junior guard Darius Johnson-Odum, junior forward Jae Crawford.
Strengths: Shooting, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: Defensive rebounding, perimeter defense.
Outlook: Marquette is perpetually underrated, probably because it is perpetually undersized and lacks a dominant player. The Eagles’ schedule is filled with solid wins, close losses – their 13 losses are by an average of six points – and results you’d expect. Consider them a team that’s good, but often not good enough. That track record might serve as an indicator of their NCAA tournament success, especially if they play a physical team with some size inside. And whattya know? Xavier has a 7-footer in Kenny Frease and a solid forward in Jamel McLean. Should be a great game.
No. 12 Clemson Tigers
Location: Clemson, S.C.
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Coach: Brad Brownell
Pre-tournament record: 21-11, 9-7
Best wins: Virginia Tech, Florida State
Surprising loss: South Carolina, N.C. State
Key players: Senior guard Demontex Stitt, senior foreard Jerai Grant, junior guard Andre Young.
Strengths: Forcing turnovers, challenging shots.
Weaknesses: Shooting, ball-handling.
Outlook: The Tigers haven’t missed a beat making the transition from Oliver Purnell’s up-tempo pressure defense to Brownell’s more deliberate, half-court style. Defense is still how Clemson wins. Guards like Stitt and Grant either harass ball-handlers or get into the passing lanes, while mobile big men Grant and Devin Booker do their best to thwart things down low. When Clemson’s offense catches up, they may even win a tournament game or two. Until then, it’s first round and out.
No. 12 Alabama-Birmingham Blazers
Conference: Conference USA
Coach: Mike Davis
Pre-tournament record: 22-8, 12-4
Best wins: UTEP, Southern Miss
Surprising losses: East Carolina, Arizona State
Key players: Senior guard Jamar Sanders, senior guard Aaron Johnson, junior forward Cameron Moore.
Strengths: Perimeter defense, interior scoring.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, 3-point shooting, shot-blocking.
Outlook: UAB was lucky to get in. A C-USA tournament loss to East Carolina didn’t dissuade the NCAA tournament committee, but the Blazers’ subpar season should concern you. They don’t do much of anything well. They defend 3-pointers OK, but opponents don’t shoot a lot of 3s against them because it’s just as easy to score inside. And defense is UAB’s strong suit. If there’s a plus, it’s that the Blazers get to play Clemson in the First Four. West Virgina won’t be as easy.
No. 13 Princeton Tigers
Location: Princeton, N.J.
Conference: Ivy League
Coach: Sydney Johnson
Pre-tournament record: 25-6, 12-2
Best wins: Rutgers, Tulsa, Harvard (twice)
Surprising losses: Brown, Presbyterian
Key players: Sophomore forward Ian Hummer, senior guard Dan Mavaraides, senior forward Kareem Maddox.
Strengths: Defensive rebounding, shooting.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, offensive rebounding.
Outlook: Maddox, Hummer, Mavaraides and junior guard Douglas Davis (the hero of the tiebreaker win vs. Harvard) rarely leave the court, which is a good thing for the Tigers. All four are relatively experienced and efficient players, meaning they won’t be overwhelmed by their opponent, no matter what conference they’re from. Hummer and Maddox will be a little undersized, but that’s about it. Besides, when you shoot like this Princeton team – 37.4 from beyond the arc, 50.5 inside it – good things happen. That’s why the Tigers are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2004 and for the 24th time overall. But getting a tournament win vs. Kentucky? That might be asking a bit much.
No. 14 Indiana State Sycamores
Location: Terre Haute, Ind.
Conference: Missouri Valley
Coach: Greg Lansing
Pre-tournament record: 20-13, 12-6
Best win: Missouri State (twice)
Key players:Junior guard Dwayne Lathan, junior guard Carl Richard, senior swingman Aaron Carter.
Strengths:Interior defense, 3-point shooting.
Weaknesses: Offensive rebounding, turnovers.
Outlook: Looking for a team that doesn’t rely on any one player and needs major contributions from at least four guys to win a tournament game? The Sycamores are it. Lathan and Richard are their leading scorers, but Carter and freshman guard Jake Odum were the difference in the Missouri Valley championship game. Throw in guys like senior Jake Kelly and junior forward Myles Walker, and Indiana State’s a team that found the right mix of players and rode it to a tourney berth. Don’t expect it to last. The Sycamores get crushed on the boards and don’t have the overall defense to force Syracuse into a poor shooting night.
No. 15 Long Island Blackbirds
Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Coach: Jim Ferry
Pre-tournament record: 27-5, 18-2
Best wins: Robert Morris (twice)
Surprising losses: St. Francis (Penn.)
Key players: Sophomore forward Jamal Olasewere, junior guard C.J. Garner, sophomore forward Julian Boyd, senior guard David Hicks.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, perimeter defense, getting to the free-throw line.
Weaknesses: Defensive rebounding, turnovers.
Outlook: The Blackbirds were 6-4 back in mid-December. They’ve been on a bit of a roll since. LIU features athletic forwards, two guards who can hit from outside and a nice mix of depth and experience. Thing is, they haven’t beaten anyone notable, or even played a notable team. Usually when a team sweeps their conference’s regular-season and tournament titles, it’s a sign of good things to come in March. But this might not apply here. LIU lost to MAAC champ St. Peter’s back in November, which is a fair indication of the Blackbirds’ NCAA tournament hopes. They won’t be around long unless they’re hitting everything from outside. And even that’s not guarantee.
No. 16 Alabama State Hornets
Location: Montgomery, Ala.
Conference: Southwestern Athletic
Coach: Lewis Jackson
Pre-tournament record: 17-17, 7-7
Best wins:Texas Southern (twice)
Surprising losses: Prairie View A&M, Grambling
Key players: Junior guard Tramaine Butler, junior Kenderek Washington, senior Robert Sanders
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers.
Weaknesses: Shooting, ball-handling, defensive rebounding.
Outlook: At the start of February, the Hornets were just 6-16. Now they’re going dancing. Credit the aggressive that excels at forcing turnovers and making things tough for opponents in the lane. As a result, the Hornets play a lot of guys to stay fresh and avoid tired legs. If they manage to win their “First Four” game, they’ll need that defense to be better than ever to even stay close vs. Ohio State. Don’t expect much more than a good first half.
No. 16 Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners
Location: San Antonio
Coach: Brooks Thompson
Pre-tournament record: 19-13, 9-7
Best wins: San Jose State, Sam Houston State
Surprising losses: Samford, Texas State
Key players: Senior guard Devin Gibson, freshman forward Jeromie Hill, sophomore wing Melvin Johnson.
Strengths: 3-point shooting, ball-handling.
Outlook: The Roadrunners were the surprise winner of the Southland Conference tournament, beating the league’s best team (Sam Houston State) and its top seed (McNeese State), mostly thanks to the superior play of Gibson. Everything runs through him on offense, and with good reason. He’s the Southland’s most explosive player and a dynamite scorer. Texas-San Antonio faces long odds to maintain their fun run, though. They could win their First Four game, but would get drilled by Ohio State.
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