Southeast Region Primer: Rested Pitt should finally reach Final Four
Pitt isn't the hottest No. 1 seed, but the Panthers were gifted the easiest region
Even if BYU goes down early, watching Jimmer will be highly entertaining
If Belmont handles Wisconsin in its opener, it can make it to the Sweet 16
State Of The No. 1: Pittsburgh
The Panthers are at least well-rested. They ran into the unstoppable force that was Kemba Walker at the Big East tournament, so they only played 40 minutes of basketball before returning home and waiting for their No. 1 seed. If there was something positive to take away from that loss, it was that Pitt's scoring star, Ashton Gibbs, is in fine shape himself -- he scored 27 points and has now hit 12 of his past 18 three-point attempts. To get past Butler or Old Dominion in the third round, the Panthers are going to need Gibbs' perimeter firepower.
While Pitt did lose three of its final six Big East games, its overall body of work in the nation's deepest conference is impressive: It had the highest efficiency margin in both home games (+0.170 points per possession) and road games (+0.127 PPP), as the chart to the right indicates. The Panthers depend on huge chunks of their offense being generated through put-backs and second-chance opportunities, as they rank second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (at 42.7 percent). Leading this effort is senior center Gary McGhee, one of the country's preeminent frontcourt beasts. While on the floor, he grabs 13.6 percent of available offensive boards and 24.7 percent of defensive boards.
If the Panthers are going to make a run to Houston, they'll be led there by senior guard Brad Wanamaker, who may not be listed as their point guard (that's Gibbs) but is their primary creator from the wing, averaging 12.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists (with a 2.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio). He's a rugged playmaker who carves up defenses and creates great looks for Gibbs and Gilbert Brown.
If the selection committee seeded by efficiency, the 30-4 Bruins would be a five-seed; they rank 18th overall on kenpom.com, but are stuck in a 4/13 matchup with Wisconsin in Tucson. The two teams' styles couldn't be any more different: The Badgers don't gamble at all on defense and rank 343rd in steal percentage at 6.0; the Bruins press and gamble all the time on defense, ranking second nationally in steal percentage at 13.9. UW point guard Jordan Taylor never turns the ball over, ranking No. 1 nationally among point guards in turnover rate (8.2 percent); all Bruins sophomore Kerron Johnson does is turn people over, ranking No. 1 nationally in steal percentage (at 6.3 percent). If Belmont can win that battle of wills over the Badgers, it can make it all the way to the Sweet 16.
Suspect Team: St. John's
The Johnnies have had a magical season already, beating the likes of Notre Dame, Duke, UConn and Pitt -- all top-three seeds -- at Madison Square Garden. But the magic may have run out when starter D.J. Kennedy went down with a torn right ACL in the Big East tourney quarterfinals. Dwight Hardy may have been the Red Storm's All-America candidate, but Kennedy was their senior leader and defensive stopper -- essentially, the heart of the team. It's hard to envision them recovering to beat Gonzaga, much less BYU, this week in Denver.
Juiciest Matchup: Aside from Wisconsin-Belmont? Kansas State-Utah State
Jacob Pullen established himself as a big-time tournament player with his heroics in last season's Sweet 16 epic against Xavier, and he rescued K-State from the brink of NIT-dom at the midpoint of this season. But in Tucson, he'll be running into the best defensive mid-major team in the country. The Aggies, who went 30-3 overall and 15-1 in the WAC, rank sixth nationally in defensive efficiency. They've yet to yield a point per possession in March.
Gamebreaker: The Jimmer
The nation's leading scorer (at 28.5 points per game) needs no introduction, although it's worth pointing out that ever since BYU lost forward Brandon Davies to an Honor Code violation, the Jimmer has been taking ungodly amounts of shots: 51.4 percent of the team's attempts against New Mexico the first time, 39.4 percent against Wyoming, 42.2 percent against TCU, 54.4 percent (in that 52-point game) against New Mexico the second time and 42.3 percent against San Diego State. Even if the Cougars go down before the second weekend, it's going to be highly entertaining.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Tai Wesley, Utah State
Wesley, a 6-foot-7 senior who averages 14.7 points and 8.0 rebounds, is the interior force that powers the Aggies. He scored 19 (and grabbed nine boards) in their WAC tournament final against Boise State and is still looking for his first NCAA tournament win, having suffered first-round losses (to Marquette and Texas A&M) each of the past two seasons. At the ripe old age of 24 -- after redshirting and going on a two-year LDS mission -- he's waited a long time to get it.
The Pressure's On: Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
Taylor's junior season as the Badgers' point guard was nothing short of brilliant, as he finished with a 4.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and an offensive rating of 131.1 while scoring 18.1 points per game. But he struggled in Wisconsin's final two games -- ugly losses to Ohio State and Penn State -- and it's now his job to ensure that the Badgers don't underachieve in the NCAAs. They've been saddled with a highly difficult first-round matchup against a Belmont team that's hell-bent on forcing turnovers, and Taylor's the one who'll need to step up and keep calm.
Number To Ponder: 45.2
That's Old Dominion's offensive rebounding percentage, which ranks No. 1 nationally and has the potential to be the top percentage posted by any team over the past eight years. The Monarchs, led by the burly Frank Hassell, dominate the offensive glass like no other -- and they could very well meet their big-conference equivalent, Pitt, in a second-round festival of bricks and putbacks. The Panthers are second nationally in OR% at 42.7.
The Pick: Pittsburgh
The Panthers may not be the hottest No. 1 seed heading into the dance, but they were gifted with the easiest region: BYU is a weakened three-seed without Davies and Florida is the weakest No. 2 in the field. They should cruise into the Sweet 16, where they'll narrowly avoid an upset by Cinderella Belmont, and then use a long-armed Gilbert Brown to lock down The Jimmer in the regional finals. Pitt is due to reach a Final Four, and this year, it finally has the right combination of veteran backcourt (Gibbs, Brown and Wanamaker) and rugged interior (McGhee, Nasir Robinson and Dante Taylor) to make it happen.
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