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Posted: Monday March 15, 2010 11:42AM; Updated: Monday March 15, 2010 2:57PM
Luke Winn
Luke Winn>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

West Regional Primer: With 'Cuse hobbled, K-State will be the one

Story Highlights

The quad injury to Syracuse forward Arinze Onuaku leaves Orange vulnerable

K-State is dangerous because it plays up-tempo and crashes offensive glass

Vandy's a suspect team as a No. 4 seed; BYU's Jimmer Fredette is one to watch

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Arinze.Onuaku.jpg
The health of Syracuse's Arinze Onuaku could be the difference between the Orange getting to the Final Four and going home early.
AP

STATE OF THE NO. 1: Syracuse

Two weeks ago, the Orange were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, and widely viewed as a lock to make the Final Four. They had a phenomenal regular season, winning the Big East title outright and finishing 11-1 on road and neutral courts. Junior swingman Wes Johnson was named the Big East's Player of the Year after averaging 16.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. But two season-ending losses (at Louisville and to Georgetown in the league tournament) and one big injury (to power forward Arinze Onuaku's right quadriceps) have given Syracuse an air of vulnerability heading into the dance. One could interpret the Orange's first-round pairing with No. 16 Vermont -- the team that stunned them as a 13 seed in 2005 -- as an ominous sign, too: No one expects them to lose to the Catamounts, but the mere matchup conjures up images of the 'Cuse's dreams being dashed.

The Orange should be praying to the Quad Gods, because they won't be able to win a national title if the 6-foot-9, 261-pound Onuaku isn't healthy. Last Friday, the school issued a statement saying that Onuaku's status was "day-to-day," but that seemed like a bit of subterfuge aimed at the tournament selection committee -- especially since I'd seen Onuaku leave Madison Square Garden on crutches the previous day. By late Sunday, after the brackets were released with the Orange as a No. 1 seed, the word from coach Jim Boeheim was that Onuaku is "unlikely to play this weekend."

Can he make it back in time for the Elite Eight, where the Orange might meet a Kansas State team that's formidable on the interior? The 'Cuse's defense isn't the same without Onuaku clogging up the paint, and it wouldn't have been the nation's best two-point field-goal percentage team without him shooting 66.8 percent (153-of-229) from close range. Losing Johnson or Andy Rautins might be a more crippling blow, but Onuaku is a vital part of Syracuse's attack.

BRACKETBUSTER: UTEP

Harsh move by the selection committee to pair the bracket's hottest mid-major, Butler, against the scariest mid-major sleeper, UTEP. The Bulldogs come into the dance on a 20-game winning streak, but the Miners pose a huge matchup problem with 6-9 Derrick Caracter and 6-11 Arnett Moultrie up front; they're exactly the kind of post players who can get Butler star Matt Howard into foul trouble, and the Bulldogs don't have much frontcourt depth behind him. UTEP is a much better defensive team than fourth-seeded Vanderbilt, whom it might meet in the second round; the Commodores ranked 64th nationally in defensive efficiency, while the Miners were 14th. I wouldn't be shocked if they're the lone double-digit seed to make the Sweet 16.

SUSPECT TEAM: Vanderbilt

None of the West's top four seeds are fraudulent, but I'm curious as to why No. 4 Vandy doesn't control the defensive glass more effectively despite having 6-11 A.J. Ogilvy, 6-11 Festus Ezeli, 6-9 Steve Tchiengang, and 6-7 Jeffery Taylor available up front. The 'Dores rank 249th nationally in percentage of offensive boards allowed, at 34.4. That's the ninth-worst percentage among NCAA tournament teams, and part of the reason why they don't have an elite defense. Teams with big front lines such as Kentucky, Mississippi State and Georgia have given Vandy trouble, and UTEP might do the same.

JUICIEST MATCHUP: Gonzaga vs. Florida State

Boeheim wasn't pleased to have this as his 8-9 game; as he said on Sunday, "I have [Gonzaga] 15 in my poll this week. I don't see how they're not a 5 or 6 seed." He's right on the Zags being underseeded; they're more dangerous than your average No. 8, and are only in that position because they sleepwalked though a West Coast Conference title game loss to St. Mary's. The team they're paired with, Florida State, is no slouch, either: The 'Noles rank No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency, using 7-1 center Solomon Alabi to shut down all action in the paint. The game will hinge on whether Zags guards Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray (and to a lesser degree, small forward Elias Harris) can knock down threes.

GAME BREAKER: Jimmer Fredette, BYU

Who else in the country is averaging 37.5 points over his past two games? Fredette is coming into the dance hot after dropping 45 on TCU and 30 on UNLV in the Mountain West tournament. He has a lethal long-range game (44.8 percent on threes) and a highly accurate stroke from the charity stripe (89.6 percent on free throws), and is looking to cap off an All-America-caliber season by getting the Cougars to the regional in Salt Lake. They'd have a huge -- and probably unfair -- home-crowd advantage there over Syracuse.

BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF: Keith Benson, Oakland

The 6-11 junior is the best double-double machine you've never heard of -- he had 18 this season, and is considered a fringe NBA draft prospect for 2011. Pitt big man Gary McGhee should have his hands full with Benson, who's coming off back-to-back 17-rebound outings in the Summit League tournament, and was named the league's Player of the Year after averaging 17.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game.

THE PRESSURE'S ON: Frank Martin, Kansas State

Martin's main storyline, early on in this season, was that of a coach who was underappreciated nationally and underpaid locally. But his national profile rose as the Wildcats climbed into the top five of the polls, and on March 6, K-State awarded him a new five-year contract that will essentially double his salary to $1.55 million per year. Now he has a second-seeded team with a relatively clear path to the Elite Eight, and a real shot at the school's first Final Four since 1964. Will he capitalize on the opportunity?

NUMBER TO PONDER: 6

There are only six teams in NCAA tournament field that rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (on kenpom.com): The four No. 1 seeds, Wisconsin ... and Kansas State. The Wildcats haven't been able to knock off Kansas in three tries, but they still have the statistical profile of a Final Four team. The gap between them and Syracuse isn't very big.

THE PICK: Kansas State

Forgive my hedging, but a lot of this hinges on Onuaku's quad. If he makes a miraculous recovery and is back to 100 percent by the Elite Eight, then it's going to be tough to keep the Orange out of Indianapolis. If he's not up to full strength -- and that's the situation at the outset of the tournament -- I see the Wildcats winning a tight Elite Eight game on the strength of their offensive rebounding. They've grabbed 40.6 percent of available offensive boards this season, more than all but two teams in the bracket (Old Dominion and West Virginia). It takes multiple big bodies to keep the Octagon of Doom's denizens from dominating the glass.

RELATED CONTENT:

GLOCKNER: Overall No. 1 Kansas will be tested in Midwest
MANDEL: Kentucky will continue dream season in East
STAPLES: Can Duke capitalize on favorable South draw?

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