A complete, in-depth look at the tournament field region by region
Ohio State is extremely talented, but Kansas is my pick to win the title
Duke had some struggles, but the experienced Devils are poised for a deep run
Florida is inconsistent, but the Gators have talent, matchups to do some damage
Many people who will watch the NCAA tournament this week are just tuning in to college hoops for the first time this season. Real hoopheads like us, however, have been locked in since the start of practice in October. Nothing we see over the next three weeks is going to surprise us. We've trained ourselves to expect the unexpected.
That has been the theme throughout the 2010-11 season. Parity. Upsets. Mass mediocrity. Even in a bracket where we have two No. 1 seeds who have lost just two games, it's not hard to spy some potentially fatal flaws. What about Ohio State's lack of depth? Can the Buckeyes win a fast game? Does Kansas have the discipline to maximize its talent, or is there someone out there who is poised to be this year's Ali Farokhmanesh?
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I know I am asking the right questions. It's not whether we'll see any upsets but where those upsets will come from. As you look at my thoughts through each region and fill out your bracket in time for tonight's 6:30 p.m. opening round game, I encourage you to take a few chances. Because if you don't do it this year, you never will.
Everyone immediately bought into the theme that this is the toughest region, but I think that's a reaction to the names on the front of the jerseys rather than the players who fill them. Regular visitors to this space know that I am a big believer in experience during the NCAA tournament, and three of the "name schools" in this region are also three of the youngest teams in the tournament. According to Kenpom.com, Syracuse is ranked 275th in the country in experience, Kentucky is 314th and North Carolina is 323rd. I have two of those three in my Sweet 16, but if you're looking for highly seeded teams from this region to knock out in the early rounds, you should look at those three.
North Carolina fans should be concerned about the way their team played in the ACC tournament. Getting blown out wire-to-wire by Duke was bad enough, but the Heels also spotted Miami and Clemson big leads before rallying. That to me is the sign of a team that does not yet know how to play March basketball. Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall have made great strides the last two months, but they have never experienced the pressure of playing a game where a loss can end their season.
I've been singing Xavier's praises for the last couple of months, and I think it drew a favorable matchups in Marquette and potentially Syracuse. The Musketeers have a fabulous perimeter trio of Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Dante Jackson, which means they will be comfortable running around with Marquette's guards. I also think Xavier will be comfortable playing against that Syracuse zone, and it's not because the Musketeers are a good jump-shooting team (the zone is designed to clamp down on threes). Rather, I like Xavier because it takes good care of the basketball (11.9 turnovers pre game). If the Orange aren't getting steals for transition layups, their offense can be stagnant. I also like teams that have a high-scoring guard who can break down defenses at the end of the shot clock, and Holloway, who averages 20.2 points and 5.5 assists per game, fits that mold to a T. He's not as good as Stephen Curry, but he'll evoke comparisons as he leads the Musketeers on a "surprise" run to the Elite Eight.
Ohio State was my pick to win the national championship all the way up until Sunday morning. I had my epiphany while watching highlights of Kansas' win over Texas while I was working out on an elliptical machine. The Buckeyes are obviously an excellent team but I just don't believe they can get to that top shelf in the closet the way Kansas can. That said, the biggest reason to pick Ohio State to win the title is that they are the least likely of the main contenders to lose a game they shouldn't. They are talented, disciplined, experienced and smart. That's why they're my choice to win the East.
What has two thumbs and is crazy enough to pick Oakland over Texas in the first round? This guy! If my assessments of Texas have been all over the place --like many others, I voted the Longhorns No. 1 on my AP ballot just four weeks ago -- it's because the Longhorns themselves have been all over the place. The only thing this team lacks is -- you guessed it -- experience. The four most important players are two freshmen and two sophomores. The Golden Grizzlies, on the other hand, have an NBA-caliber senior center in 6-foot-11 Keith Benson (though he's more of a finesse player than I'd like him to be for this matchup). Their second-leading scorer is redshirt junior guard Reggie Hamilton, and their glue guy is 6-9 senior Will Hudson. All upperclassmen. Plus they played a great schedule, winning at Tennessee and losing by a point to Michigan State on a neutral court. The Grizzlies lost just once in the Summit League, so they're used to winning, and they played in the last two NCAA tournaments so they won't be fazed.
Count me as one of those silly folks who think that UConn is going to have a hard time regenerating after its epic five-games-in-five-days march to the Big East championship. The issue isn't physical as much as it is intellectual and emotional. And this is yet another young team. (They're 332nd in Pomeroy's experience ranking.) Why, then, did I pick UConn to go to the Elite Eight? Because I like the matchups. Bucknell is not a formidable first-round opponent, and in the second round the Huskies would face either a Missouri team that has had trouble winning away from home or a Cincinnati team they have already beaten on the road. And I am also not a huge believer in San Diego State, even with its potential advantage in Anaheim. If BYU did not lose Brandon Davies, it probably would have beaten SDSU in the Mountain West tournament, and the Aztecs would not be a two seed in the West.
I've been critical of Duke over the last few weeks. The Blue Devils had fallen into the habit of hoisting too many three-pointers, and it was costing them in tough road games where rebounding, defense and foul shooting is paramount. This was especially true with Kyle Singler, who has been spending too much time this season acting like a two guard instead of what he really is -- a power forward. Last year, Singler also struggled with his shooting in the regular season, but he stepped up his game and played man's basketball in March. I could see the same happening during the ACC tournament, where Singler attempted 12 three-pointers to 14 free throws in the three games. Best of all, the Plumlee brothers seemed to be doing their best Brian Zoubek-Lance Thomas imitations. They did a good job crashing the offensive glass, but once they got a carom their first look was to pass to the perimeter rather than look to score. The one team in this region that Duke wants to avoid is Texas, but even if the Blue Devils faced the Longhorns, I think their maturity would prevail.
This is the only region where I have the top four seeds advancing to the Sweet 16, but there are a few potential "surprise" teams here as well. The main one is Richmond. The Spiders finished the season on a high note by winning the Atlantic 10 tournament, but what I really like about them is that they play that funky Princeton offense. Other teams in the conference understand how to play against that system, but once you take it outside the conference it becomes unfamiliar. I picked Richmond to beat Vanderbilt but I don't have a ton of confidence in that pick because the Commodores have excellent perimeter talent of their own as well as a lights-out shooter in John Jenkins.
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