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
These guys have some brutal losses: by 22 to BYU in December, by 22 to UCLA in February. But just watch them for a stretch here and there and they can score (47 percent field goal percentage) and they have a terrific player in Derrick Williams. They lost by just eight at Kansas. They pass that eye test and give you a reason to pause and consider ‘What if…”.
Arizona won 14 games in the Pac-10, which isn’t a deep league, but 14 wins is 14 wins.
Can a No. 5 seed be underrated? Sure it can because everyone else is thinking UConn and Texas are better. Arizona can play with both of those teams in this tournament because the Cats score and score.
They have the best player in the country, Kemba Walker, but the Huskies are going to get erased. Their legs have to be wobbly after five games in five days. Serves the Big East right for its money-grubbing, team-hoarding ways.
UConn could run up against Missouri in the second round and the Tigers furious defense is going to take care of what’s left of UConn’s legs.
Most likely first-round upset
It is not going to be Oakland over Texas. Don’t even think about it.
Missouri is an 11th seed and Cincinnati is a sixth seed. Pick that one. It is a question of style with Mizzou’s frantic pressure giving UC something different than what it sees in the Big East. The Tigers get 10 steals a game with their rushing around the floor.
The upset won’t happen if the Tigers do not score in transition. When they get into halfcourt and start firing up 3s they can look like a dreadful team. But this is where upsets happen, 11 vs. 6.
Best matchup: Texas vs. Duke
For most of the season, Texas was lauded as the heir apparent to Duke. The Longhorns were nasty on defense and beat people up by covering the floor with defenders. They were being tabbed in January as the team that would sweep into the Final Four in their home state and close down on Ohio State’s shooters.
The Longhorns were seeded fourth, which is low for this team. You could call them the most underrated team in the region, but everyone knows the committee just blew this one. UT will show itself as a national title contender with a win over Duke in Anaheim: a match of defense vs. offense.
Plenty of people are going to get anxious to see UConn vs. San Diego State, but Duke is the defending champion playing across the country and Texas has been talked up all season. That’s the game to see, especially if Duke’s Kyrie Irving makes his return.
Well, you would have to say Kemba Walker of UConn or Nolan Smith of Duke, but that’s too easy. Jordan Hamilton is a good one to look at. He has taken almost 20 shots a game the last eight games for Texas. That’s a lot of impact for one team. When he shot poorly against Nebraska (3 of 16), the Horns were upset.
Now, if Kyrie Irving of Duke suddenly reappears, that’s a different story. Might he play? He told reporters Sunday in Greensboro he has a shot.
Champion: San Diego State
It is a veteran team that can score and has a coach who has been there, done that. UConn has to be wasted after its Big East gantlet, so it will not survive. Duke is going to beat Arizona in a sensational game, but Texas is going to rub out the Blue Devils.
That leaves Texas vs. SDSU in the title game of the toughest region.
No. 1 Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, N.C.
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski
Pre-tournament record: 30-4, 13-3
Best wins: North Carolina, Temple, Marquette
Surprising loss: Florida State, Virginia Tech
Key players: Senior guard Nolan Smith, senior forward Kyle Singler, sophomore forward Mason Plumlee, sophomore guard Seth Curry .
Strengths: Shooting, ball-handling, challenging shots.
Weaknesses: Defensive rebounding, forcing turnovers.
Outlook: The defending NCAA champions don’t hit the glass as hard as last year and are slightly worse beyond the arc, but that’s about it. The Devils remain one of the favorites to win it all thanks to their shooting – 38 percent from deep and 52 percent inside the arc – and ability to take care of the ball. If you want to beat Duke, you have to earn it. That means keeping track of their shooters (Curry and sophomore Andre Dawkins), limiting Smith’s dribble penetration and not allowing Singler to get into an offensive rhythm. Of all the Devils’ offensive stars, Singler’s the key. Smith has been a consistent scorer, while Singler has struggled with his shot and been ineffective off the dribble. If he regains his form from last year, Duke has a potent 1-2 punch to pair with a deep bench filled with shooters. That’s a tough team to beat.
No. 2 San Diego State Aztecs
Location: San Diego
Conference: Mountain West
Coach: Steve Fisher
Pre-tournament record: 32-2, 14-2
Best wins: UNLV (twice), Gonzaga
Surprising losses: None
Key players: Sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, senior guard D.J. Gay, senior forward Malcolm Thomas, senior forward Billy Thomas.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, ball-handling, their frontcourt.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, 3-point shooting.
Outlook: This is a senior-laden squad with an exceedingly efficient defense, a fantastic frontcourt and usually works for a high-percentage shot on offense. All three usually mean success in March. Throw in an NBA talent like Leonard – he can guard anyone and thrives in a half-court offense – and the Aztecs are a strong Final Four contender. Their biggest problem? Lack of a consistent outside shooter. Gay and sophomore Chase Tapley should be those guys, but have trouble creating their own shot. SDSU also doesn’t get many points at the free-throw line. They’re right at the D-I average for percentage (69.9), but rarely get to the line. That speaks to their lack of a go-to guy who can create his own shot or open things for others. (Leonard’s close, but isn’t ideal in that role.) It’s a really good team, but can be held back by its offense.
No. 3 Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, Conn.
Conference: Big East
Coach: Jim Calhoun
Pre-tournament record: 26-9, 9-9
Best wins: Kentucky, Texas
Key players: Junior guard Kemba Walker, sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, freshman guard Jeremy Lamb.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, ball-handling, interior defense.
Weaknesses: Inconsistent shooting, forcing turnovers.
Outlook: Don’t let the 10 losses fool you. UConn’s as good as any team in the field. (Did you see the Big East tournament?) It’s just not as reliable as the likes of Pitt or Kansas because the Huskies are so dependent on how Walker plays. When the lightning quick guard is on, they’ll beat anyone. And have. But when his shot isn’t falling, UConn relies on guys like Lamb or freshman guard Shabazz Napier to carry the scoring load, which they’re not ready for yet. The wild card is Oriakhi. When he’s grabbing rebounds and getting putback scores, everything’s easier for Walker and the Huskies. UConn will be playing during the second weekend if Walker’s legs aren’t completely exhausted after five games in five days.
No. 4 Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, Texas.
Conference: Big 12
Coach: Rick Barnes
Pre-tournament record: 27-7, 13-3
Best wins: Kansas, North Carolina
Surprising losses: Nebraska, Colorado
Key players: Sophomore wing Jordan Hamilton, freshman Tristan Thompson, freshman guard Cory Joseph, senior forward Gary Johnson.
Strengths: Challenging shots, offensive rebounding, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, 3-point shooting, free-throw shooting.
Outlook: Texas’ tumble at the end of the season – losers of three of the last five games – seemingly ended in the Big 12 tournament. The reason? Hamilton started hitting shots again. The 6-7 wing broke out of a prolonged shooting slump against Oklahoma, a promising sign for a team that desperately needs his scoring touch. Given that the Longhorns’ once ferocious defense turned meek at season’s end, Hamilton’s scoring is needed even more. Unlike last season, when Texas dealt with myriad injuries and chemistry issues, this year’s team is healthy and happy. If Hamilton’s on and Thompson, a gifted shot blocker and rebounder, stays out of foul trouble, this is a Final Four team. At worst, it’s bound for the Sweet 16.
No. 5 Arizona Wildcats
Location: Tucson, Ariz.
Coach: Sean Miller
Pre-tournament record: 27-7, 13-4
Best wins: Washington, UCLA
Surprising loss: Oregon State
Key players: Sophomore forward Derrick Williams, sophomore guard Momo Jones, sophomore forward Solomon Hill .
Strengths: Shooting, 3-point defense, defensive rebounding.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, interior defense.
Outlook: It all starts with Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year. The 6-7 forward is a future NBA lottery pick for his offensive
efficiency, rebounding skills and underrated defense. He’s the type of player a team can ride to the Final Four – if it has enough players to play supporting roles. That’s the biggest question surrounding the Wildcats, who are back in the Big Dance after missing it last season for the first time in 25 years. Can guys like Hill, junior guard Kyle Fogg and sophomore wing Kevin Parrom hit enough outside shots to prevent teams from focusing on Williams? And is point guard Momo Jones steady enough to avoid last-minute mistakes? Then there’s the defense, which is average. Teams feast on Arizona’s post players because Williams is their biggest guy, but has to stay out of foul trouble. Who slows down opposing forwards?
No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats
Conference: Big East
Coach: Mick Cronin
Pre-tournament record: 25-8, 11-7
Best wins: Louisville, Georgetown (twice)
Surprising losses: None
Key players: Junior center Yancy Gates, sophomore guard Cashmere Wright, freshman guard Sean KIlpatrick.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers, perimeter defense.
Outlook: The Bearcats ended a six-year tournament drought thanks to what they were known for in the ‘90s and early 2000s – defense. Led by the powerful Gates and solid guards, Cincinnati excels at forcing turnovers and making opponents work for tough shots. It also thrives at crashing the offensive glass and doesn’t turn the ball over. That’s a recipe for success, but doesn’t give the Bearcats much room for error against good teams, and especially ones that can hit 3s. That could be bad news against Missouri in the first round.
No. 7 Temple Owls
Conference: Atlantic 10
Coach: Fran Dunphy
Pre-tournament record: 25-7, 14-2
Best wins: Georgetown, Richmond, Maryland
Surprising losses: Cal, Duquesne
Key players: Junior guard Ramone Moore, junior wing Scootie Randall, senior forward Lavoy Allen.
Strengths: Defensive rebounding, interior defense, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: Perimeter defense, forcing turnovers.
Outlook: The Owls sport a record almost as impressive as last season when they were a 5 seed. They’ve even won 13 of their last 15 games. But don’t be fooled. This team isn’t as good as last year – and that Temple squad was crushed in the first round by Cornell. Temple has similar issues as other slow-paced, possession-prizing teams – when the shots aren’t falling, things turn south. Temple tries using its outside shooters – Juan Fernandez, Moore and Randall – to take some of the pressure off Allen inside, but it doesn’t always work. Allen’s a force inside, especially on the glass and blocking shots. Yet he’s not an accomplished offensive player, occasionally leaving Temple as a one-dimensional offensive team. The defense isn’t good enough to make up for those deficiencies against an athletic team, either. A win against Penn State? Maybe. But against North Carolina? No way.
No. 8 Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Conference: Big Ten
Coach: John Beilein
Pre-tournament record: 20-13, 9-9
Best wins: Clemson, Illinois, Oakland
Surprising losses: UTEP, Northwestern
Key players: Sophomore guard Darius Morris, freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr., freshman center Jordan Morgan.
Strengths: Ball-handling, shooting.
Weaknesses: Offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers, interior defense.
Outlook: The Wolverines got hot at the right time, winning nine of their last 13 games. However, none were against elite teams as Michigan came up short against both Ohio State and Wisconsin late in the year. That’s this team’s M.O – they hang with most everyone, but can’t close out for wins. That’s partly because the Wolverines are young. Morris, Hardaway and Morgan spent the season adjusting to the rigors of Big Ten play and did well most of the time. Consider this team lucky to be in the NCAA tournament, and even luckier if they get a win. The future, however, looks very bright.
No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers
Location: Knoxville, Tenn.
Coach: Bruce Pearl
Pre-tournament record: 19-14, 8-8
Best wins: Pittsburgh, Villanova, Vanderbilt (twice), Belmont (twice)
Surprising losses: Charlotte, Arkansas, Miss State, Oakland
Key players: Junior guard Scotty Hopson, freshman forward Tobias Harris, junior wing Cameron Tatum, senior center Brian Williams.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, shot blocking.
Weaknesses: Shooting, ball-handling, fouls.
Outlook: The Vols are vying for the crown of team with the oddest season. And in a field like this, that’s saying something. Tennessee handed Pitt its first loss of the year, then turned around and lost to Charlotte and Oakland. It dealt with the eight-game suspension of Pearl, the maddeningly inconsistent play of Hopson and a defense that showed flashes of greatness. At times. Could Tennessee sneak under the radar and get to the Elite Eight again? No. Could they sneak into the Sweet 16? Well, that depends on the matchup. And Hopson. Don’t bank on either.
No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions
Location: College Station, Penn.
Conference: Big Ten
Coach: Ed DeChellis
Pre-tournament record: 19-14, 9-9
Best wins: Wisconsin (twice)
Surprising losses: Maine, Ole Miss
Key players: Senior guard Talor Battle, senior forward Jeff Brooks, senior forward David Jackson.
Strengths: Ball-handling, defensive rebounding.
Weaknesses: Everything else on defense.
Outlook: Penn State’s lucky to be here. Two wins against Wisconsin and a .500 Big Ten record was enough to overlook an otherwise unimpressive season. The Lions play slow, ugly and not very well on defense. (Their biggest defensive virtue? Keeping foes off the free-throw line.) Battle’s a guard who lives up to his name, fighting through bigger defenders for baskets, but he’s one of the few shining lights. Brooks is a nice player, but not much else. Penn State won’t be around long, no matter how much they ugly up a game.
No. 11 Missouri Tigers
Location: Columbia, Mo.
Conference: Big 12
Coach: Mike Anderson
Pre-tournament record: 23-10, 8-8
Best wins: Vanderbilt, Kansas State
Surprising losses: Oklahoma State, Colorado
Key players: Junior guard Marcus Denmon, junior wing Kim English, sophomore guard Michael Dixon, junior forward Ricardo Ratliffe.
Strengths: Forcing turnovers, ball-handling, shooting.
Weaknesses: Rebounding, fouling.
Outlook: Missouri is fun to watch. Their pressure defense usually creates a fast-paced game full of turnovers, exciting sequences and high scores. But lately it has backfired. Teams with mobile big men feast on Missouri’s lackluster frontcourt, while capable guards can handle the press when needed. You’ll hear a lot about the Tigers’ road issues, and with good reason. They’ve won two games away from home since Dec. 22. Missouri can frustrate teams who aren’t prepared for the press or don’t pay enough attention to shooters like Denmon or Dixon. Anderson is 5-1 in first-round games, but think carefully when studying their matchup. Will Cincy’s Yancy Gates dominate the Tigers’ frontline? Can Mizzou force enough turnovers on the Bearcats’ guards?
No. 12 Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, Tenn.
Conference: Conference USA
Coach: Josh Pastner
Pre-tournament record: 25-9, 10-6
Best wins: Gonzaga, UAB (twice)
Surprising losses: SMU, East Carolina
Key players: Freshman guard Will Barton, freshman guard Joe Jackson, freshman forward Tarik Black, freshman guard Antonio Barton.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, raw talent.
Weaknesses: Ball-handling, 3-point shooting, defensive rebounding.
Outlook: The Tigers are lucky. They have the potential to be good, but it’s been a lot of luck. They’re 15-1 in games decided by five points or less. Maybe it’s because they’re relying on talented freshmen and don’t run much on offense, which usually creates close games that allows guys like Jackson and Will Barton to make winning plays late. It’s not a rip (well, it’s kind of a rip), just a statement about Memphis’ season. It oozes talent. But that talent lacks cohesiveness on the court. They could go one of two ways in the NCAA tournament – the talent rises to the top and Memphis makes the Sweet 16, or it flames out early because it can’t hit shots and has too many defensive lapses. Lean toward the latter.
No. 13 Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Location: Oakland, Mich.
Conference: Summit League
Coach: Greg Kampe
Pre-tournament record: 25-9, 17-1
Best win: Tennessee
Surprising loss: IUPUI
Key players: Senior forward Keith Benson, junior guard Reggie Hamilton, senior forward Will Hudson.
Strengths: Shooting, offensive rebounding, shot-blocking.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter defense.
Outlook: Oakland played seemingly every major-conference team during its non-conference schedule, losing to the likes of Ohio State, Purdue, West Virginia, Michigan State and Illinois. By the time the Grizz beat the Vols, people had seen enough of them to know they could play. It was no surprise to see Kampe’s team roll through the Summit League. They were tested and have better players, starting with Benson, who’s bound for the NBA. He and Hamilton are the two playmakers on an offense that runs, shoots and scores as well as anyone around. That doesn’t leave much for defense, but that’s by design. Oakland’s topped 100 points six times this season. That might be enough for an NCAA tournament win, even against Texas’ stellar defense.
No. 14 Bucknell Bison
Location: Lewisburg, Pa.
Conference: Patriot League
Coach: Dave Paulson
Pre-tournament record: 25-8, 13-1
Best win: Richmond
Surprising losses: Wagner, Army
Key players: Sophomore forward Mike Muscala, senior guard Darryl Shazier, sophomore guard Bryson Johnson.
Strengths: Ball-handling, 3-point shooting, defensive rebounding.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, offensive rebounding.
Outlook: The Bison have won of their past 20 games. The last time they were that hot was 2006 when they knocked off Arkansas in the NCAA tournament as 9 seed. This year’s squad might have some of that magic in ‘em. Bucknell lost by 11 at Marquette and by four at Boston College. Pulling off an NCAA tournament win will mean amplifying a couple of things at which they thrive: Shooting more 3-pointers and hitting the defensive glass. The Bison make 40 percent of their 3s (D-I average is 34.4), but those 3s only account for 29 percent of their total points. If they boost that to 40 percent of their points and limit UConn’s second-chance opportunities, they’ll have a shot.
No. 15 Northern Colorado Bears
Location: Greeley, Colo.
Conference: Big Sky
Coach: B.J. Hill
Pre-tournament record: 21-10, 14-3
Best wins: Montana (twice)
Surprising losses: Louisiana Monroe, Denver
Key players: Senior guard Drew Beitzel, senior forward Chris Kaba, senior forward Neal Kingman.
Strengths: 3-point shooting, rebounding.
Weaknesses: Turnovers, perimeter defense.
Outlook: The Bears are one of the tournament’s best stories. The school made the transition from Division II a few years ago and has only been eligible for postseason play since 2007. Now, a team with four seniors is off to its first NCAA tournament. Those seniors, led by Big Sky player of the year Devon Beitzel, can be fun to watch, too. Northern Colorado plays faster than most, doesn’t hesitate on 3-pointers and has pulled out its share of close games. That’s not promising for their tournament hopes, though. The berth is as good as it’ll get for the Bears.
No. 16 Hampton Pirates
Location: Hampton, Va.
Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic
Coach: Edward Joyner, Jr.
Pre-tournament record: 24-8, 11-5
Best wins: Colorado State, Boston
Surprising losses: Florida A&M (twice)
Key players: Junior forward Darrion Pellum, junior guard Kwame Morgan, senior forward Charles Funches.
Strengths: Defensive pressure, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: Shooting, rebounding.
Outlook: Hampton pulled off one of the biggest first-round upsets ever in 2001 when it beat No. 2 seed Iowa State. The odds of that type of upset happening again? Mighty slim. The Pirates struggle to score. They’re among the nation’s worst shooting and rebounding teams. That’s not their focus – defense is – but those are severe obstacles. Unless they can harass Duke like they did during MEAC play, they’re going to lose. And lose big.
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