West Region Primer: Duke headed to Houston, with or without Irving
Missouri's frenetic, smothering pace makes it highly dangerous as an 11 seed
Fresh off a brilliant Big East run, Kemba Walker enters the region with much hype
Amid NCAA troubles, Bruce Pearl could be coaching his last tourney at Tennessee
State Of The No. 1: Duke
The owner of America's most famous big toe made the West Region a little more interesting Sunday. Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving already had generated a buzz by warming up before an ACC tournament game Friday against Maryland, but Irving waited until after the Blue Devils' win against North Carolina two days later to drop a bigger bomb.
Irving, who hasn't played since suffering ligament and bone damage in his right big toe against Butler on Dec. 4, told reporters he might come back during the NCAA tournament. "I can't really put a percentage on it," Irving told The Charlotte Observer. "It all depends on how I feel, and if the medical staff feels good about it."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils are "far away" from making a decision on Irving, but the idea of a return certainly adds intrigue. Irving was considered one of the nation's top point guards before he ever played a college game. In the eight games he played, Irving more than lived up to his advance hype. If he could come back, a very good Duke team would get even better. Leading scorer Nolan Smith (21.3 ppg, 5.1 apg) could slide to shooting guard and become an even more potent weapon with Irving creating opportunities for him.
The Blue Devils will prepare as if Irving will continue his water rehabilitation schedule instead of returning to the court. "If we were a water polo team," Krzyzewski cracked Sunday, "he would have been playing today."
For now, let's assume Smith, Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers and the rest of the Blue Devils will have to navigate the West Region without Irving. But just in case anything changes, Twitter users should follow Irving himself and Save Kyrie's Toe for up-toe-the-minute updates.
The frenetic, smothering Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball can overwhelm an opponent that isn't accustomed to it, which makes the Tigers quite dangerous as a No. 11 seed. Of course, Missouri coach Mike Anderson learned the style while working for 17 seasons at Arkansas under Nolan Richardson, so the entirety of Missouri's tenure in the tournament will be filled with speculation about Anderson and the Arkansas job, which opened Sunday when John Pelphrey was fired.
Suspect Team: Texas
It's difficult to believe that less than two months ago, we were talking about Texas as a potential No. 1 overall seed. But after winning their first 11 Big 12 games -- including a blowout of Kansas in Lawrence -- Texas went 4-4 down the stretch. If star forward Jordan Hamilton isn't hitting shots, the Longhorns are in trouble. In those four losses, Hamilton made only 24 of 79 shots -- that's 14 percentage points below his season average.
Still, Texas could be quite dangerous in a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Duke. "We'll be a team that nobody wants to play," Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said after Texas lost to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament final. "Because we're capable, on any given night, to beat anybody." The problem for Texas is that it seems the inverse also is true.
Juiciest Matchup: No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 12 Memphis
During the NCAA's mock selection exercise last month, I learned committee members aren't kidding when they say they give no thought to potential storylines when placing teams into the bracket. The action is just too hectic to consider outside factors.
That said, the committee still managed to serve up a fat storyline in Tulsa, where Memphis' Josh Pastner will work his first tournament game as a head coach against his alma mater. Pastner scored all of 40 points in his Arizona career -- which included a national title in 1997 -- but all that time on the bench taught him quite a bit about the game. Pastner, who earned his bachelor's degree faster than any Arizona athlete before him, served for six years as an Arizona assistant before moving to Memphis to work for (and eventually succeed) John Calipari.
Gamebreaker: Kemba Walker, UConn
This was a tough call between Walker and Duke's Smith, but Walker's brilliant run through the Big East tournament suggests he is the player in this region who will enter the tournament with the best chance to absolutely take over a game. A word to the wise for Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen: Never, ever allow your team to fall into a predicament in which a big man switches to guard Walker. The poor post-dweller may never live it down.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Keith Benson, Oakland
Hardcore NBA draftniks probably know the 6-foot-11, 230-pound Benson, because his name will be called in June. Virtually no one knew him when he played at Detroit Country Day. Benson was 6-2 as a high school sophomore and endured an awkward phase as he grew six inches over the next two years. Benson has since figured out how to use his frame. This season, he averaged 18 points and 10.1 rebounds. The center won't be afraid of Texas, either. This season, Benson went for 16 and 14 in a loss to Purdue and 26 and 10 in a win over Tennessee.
The Pressure's On: Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl
At some point this offseason, Pearl's coaching fate will be in the hands of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. The NCAA has Pearl dead-to-rights for lying to investigators. There is a very good chance the COI will go above and beyond the suspension of eight conference games meted out by the SEC. (Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel didn't do Pearl any favors by making Pearl the 2011 version of Cleveland State in the old Jerry Tarkanian quip.) So this might be Pearl's final NCAA tournament at Tennessee. If it is, he can make it a memorable one by beating Michigan on Friday and shocking Duke on Sunday.
Number To Ponder: 1
In 11 trips to the NCAA tournament, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has only had one year in which his team received a better seed than his second-seeded Aztecs. That was 1993, when Fisher coached Michigan's Fab Five to the championship game against North Carolina.
The Pick: Duke
With or without Irving, the Blue Devils have a tourney-tested roster capable of getting to Houston.
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