Is it possible the Zags are a better team without Josh Heytvelt, who was suspended after his arrest for drug possession? Without Heytvelt, Mark Few has been forced to give more playing time to glue-guy David Pendergraft as well as Micah Downs, the former McDonald's All-American who transferred in from Kansas and was hurt at the beginning of the year. The Zags lost a slew of games in late December, but that was the result of a brutal non-conference schedule. In Derek Raivio and Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga has a dynamic backcourt, and I really believe it will relish the role of being an overlooked underdog again.
We all know the 12-5 game is the classic upset matchup, but I hope you're not tempted to pick Illinois to beat Virginia Tech. The Illini were horrid on the offensive end this year, and though they didn't lose any bad games, they didn't win any really good ones, either. I'm always suspicious of teams that didn't play well on the road. And remember, as much difficulty as the Illini had scoring this season, they also lost their best outside shooter, Jamar Smith, when he was involved in a late February car accident.
Bracket Buster: Villanova
I already gave you Gonzaga. Plus, the later rounds on my own bracket in this region is all chalk. But the Wildcats are the one team that can really stir things up. Obviously they've had some trouble replacing the great three guards they lost from last year's team, but Curtis Sumpter has very quietly been a dominant scorer and rebounder. Meanwhile, freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds has very un-quietly developed into an explosive offensive player. If 'Nova and Kansas meet in a second-round game, there are going to be a lot of points put up on that scoreboard.
Home cooking: UCLA
Kansas has to be thinking, I thought we were the No. 1 seed? Yet, the Bruins get to start off in Sacramento and play the regional in San Jose. I will say this, though -- I was at that scintillating Kansas-Florida game in Las Vegas in November, and KU fans out-numbered Gators fans 3 to 1. Those folks really travel.
Best player you've never heard of: Eric Maynor, VCU
The sophomore point guard sets the tone for the Rams -- on offense, on defense, and in the locker room. His two late steals and baskets singlehandedly won the CAA final over George Mason. VCU does not have a lot of size, so it really depends on its guards to shoot well from the outside. When Maynor and his perimeter mates are hitting, they are awfully tough to beat.
Best matchup: UCLA-Pitt
This game's intriguing because of the Ben Howland-Jamie Dixon connection, but I think the game all of us really want to see is Kansas-UCLA for the right to go to the Final Four. UCLA can be vulnerable against teams that have good post play, but Kansas doesn't have a true center manning the paint. Both squads are athletic, can score a ton of points and they may also be the two best perimeter defensive teams in the country.
The pick: Kansas
Yes, I know the Jayhawks have lost in the first round the past two years. But wasn't it this time last year people were wondering why Billy Donovan was having such a tough time getting past the early rounds? I think Kansas is vastly matured over last season, and I love the addition of the two freshmen, Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins. The difference between this KU team and the last two is that they know how to win when they're not playing well. I'm feeling these Jayhawks, not just to take this regional but to win the whole shebang.