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Posted: Tuesday March 23, 2010 11:56AM; Updated: Tuesday March 23, 2010 5:01PM
Luke Winn
Luke Winn>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

West Region Reset: With Johnson at full health, Syracuse will prevail

Story Highlights

Onuaku isn't likely to play for 'Cuse, but Johnson and Rautins can carry the load

Could K-State's Jacob Pullen stretch Syracuse's 2-3 zone into submission?

Xavier's Crawford has emerged as one of the most lethal scorers in the tourney

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Andy Rautins and Wes Johnson
Wes Johnson (right) and Andy Rautins combined for 55 points in Syracuse's 87-65 rout of Gonzaga.
Al Tielemans/SI

THE STORY

The West is the least upset-ravaged region heading into the second week of the tournament; there isn't a Cinderella in Salt Lake City, and four of its top six seeds (No. 1 Syracuse, No. 2 Kansas State, No. 5 Butler and No. 6 Xavier) remain alive. The first two rounds were, in large part, about getting a feel for Syracuse, specifically as to whether or not it can be a title contender without the services of starting center Arinze Onuaku. He injured his right quadriceps during the Big East tournament and has yet to practice with the team since. The quad has been such a big story that it's the only NCAA tournament muscle with its own Twitter account (Bio: "Hi. I'm Arinze Onuaku's right quadriceps. I am currently in pain."), and it would be a surprise if he were available for the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

The good news for the Orange is that Wes Johnson (31 points, 14 rebounds against Gonzaga) and Andy Rautins (24 points, four assists) looked like they could carry this team to Indianapolis on their own. Rautins continues to quietly be one of the nation's best players, even though he's been overlooked for All-America honors, while Johnson's breakout -- the 31 points is a season-high, and he hadn't even broken 20 in a game since Jan. 23 -- came at the perfect time. The 'Cuse's lone sure-fire NBA player had been struggling with a hand injury he suffered against Providence on Feb. 2. It hurt him to even tuck in his jersey during games, and coach Jim Boeheim said that Johnson is "just getting back."

Now that Johnson is back, he might just be ready to take over this region.

THE UNDERDOG: Butler

The Bulldogs needed a wild defensive scramble on the final possession to knock off 13-seeded Murray State in the second round, and they'll likely have to go through a No. 1 (Syracuse) and No. 2 (Kansas State) to reach their hometown Final Four. Butler is capable of beating those teams, but only with Horizon League MVP Gordon Hayward playing like his old self; in the four games since sitting out with a back injury on Feb. 26, he's averaged only 10.8 points while shooting 1-for-13 from long-range.

BURNING QUESTION: Could K-State's Jacob Pullen, and not Johnson, turn out to be the star of Salt Lake City?

The Wildcats appear to be on a collision course with the Orange in the regional final, where Pullen would have a chance to outplay another first-team All-America candidate. In the second round, he outscored BYU's Jimmer Fredette 34-21 and connected on 7-of-12 three-point attempts, proving that opponents should indeed Fear the Beard. If Pullen can stretch out the 'Cuse's zone, there will be scoring opportunities for the Wildcats' big men in a (likely) Onuaku-free lane. On Sunday against the Orange, Gonzaga managed to score 41 points in the paint, which is a cause for concern.

GAMEBREAKER: Jordan Crawford, Xavier

The kid still can't get past the dunked-on-LeBron thing -- every story being written about him during the tournament mentions it, and a lot of them lead with it -- but he's emerged as one of the most lethal scorers in the tournament, scoring 28 against Minnesota and 27 against Pittsburgh. The question is whether the sophomore can put up 20-plus points against Kansas State. The Wildcats held him to just 16 points (on 5-of-13 shooting) when they beat the Musketeers in December. Only one Atlantic 10 team held Crawford to fewer points all season (he had 11 against Fordham on March 3).

HOME COOKING: None

The closest of the four campuses to Salt Lake City is Manhattan, Kan. -- and it's 1,010 miles away. Only long-haul truckers are comfortable with a drive like that. The Wildcats are responsible for making this the most neutral regional: They kept BYU from advancing and playing in the city where the bulk of its alumni lives after graduation.

NUMBER TO PONDER: 40.0

That's the percentage of Butler's field-goal attempts that came from beyond the three-point arc this season, which is the highest of any team left in the tournament field. (The next-highest is Cornell, at 39.7.) The Bulldogs will probably take even more treys than average against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, given that their lone post presence is Matt Howard, who's just 6-8. Sophomore combo guard Shelvin Mack will need to remain hot if this upset is going to happen: He went 9-for-12 on threes in the first two rounds.

THE PICK: Syracuse

Onuaku's injury clearly wasn't devastating. Boeheim said the Orange played as well in the second round as they have all season. I picked K-State in last week's breakdown, but have come back around on the 'Cuse -- perhaps the nation's best road and neutral-court team this season -- after seeing Johnson play at full health. He and Rautins will rain just enough threes down on the Wildcats to win a tight regional final, and move on to Indy, where Onuaku might finally make an appearance.

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STAPLES: Duke has talent, tools to take South
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MANDEL: Kentucky's simply better than East opponents

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