East Region Primer: Young Kentucky will knock off Ohio State
Ohio State has all the tools for a deep run; one concern is its seven-man rotation
Cam Long leads best George Mason team since '06 squad that made Final Four
No. 4 seed Kentucky, led by Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, will win region
State Of The No. 1: Ohio State
What more can you ask for? The Buckeyes dominated the regular season, their only two losses coming on the road to a pair of Top 15 teams (Wisconsin and Purdue) that didn't lose a home game all season. Freshman forward Jared Sullinger (17.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) is the Buckeyes' star, who, along with the wing trio of William Buford (14.4 ppg, 43.1 percent from three-point range), Jon Diebler (12.5, 50 percent), and David Lighty (11.8, 39 percent), form a deadly inside-outside combination. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft (4.5 apg) provides a spark off the bench.
The biggest concern for the Buckeyes is their thin seven-man rotation -- not because of any concern over fatigue (if it hasn't kicked in over 34 games, it's not going to now) but because of what could happen if they get in foul trouble. Ohio State is generally exceptional at defending without fouling, but in the tournament, they'll run into unfamiliar foes and officiating crews.
After winning the Pac-10 Tournament on star Isaiah Thomas' buzzer-beating jump shot, the Huskies are a dangerous No. 7 seed. Washington has been inconsistent, losing to the likes of Oregon and Stanford, yet it ranks 15th nationally in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, just one spot behind the region's No. 2 seed (North Carolina), four behind its No. 3 seed (Syracuse). When the Huskies get their transition offense going they're tough to stop.
Suspect Team: West Virginia
The fifth-seeded Mountaineers aren't nearly the same caliber team as last year's Final Four squad, relying on their defense to compensate for a lack of reliable scorers. They did catch one break, though: Their opening opponent in Tampa, Clemson or UAB, will have played a game in Dayton roughly 36 hours earlier.
Juicest Matchup: Xavier vs. Marquette
Now is the time to get acquainted with Tu Holloway (20.2 points, 5.5 assists), an All-America caliber point guard who helped the Musketeers to a 15-1 regular-season record in the Atlantic 10. He'll be looking to lift his team to its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance, but first they face a duel with coach Buzz Williams' pesky Warriors, which like to control the tempo and work for open looks from three-point range. It's a very even matchup.
Gamebreaker: Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Mind you, there are a bunch of them in this region, including the aforementioned Sullinger, Holloway and Thomas, but Barnes, who struggled to get acclimated the first half of his freshman season, has demonstrated his ability to take over games. Most recently, he exploded for a season-high 40 points in the Tar Heels' ACC semifinal win over Clemson.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Cam Long, George Mason
Long, a first team CAA selection, is the top scorer (15.3 points per game) and three-point shooter (42.6 percent) for the Patriots' best squad since their 2006 Final Four team. Like that season, Mason is fairly balanced, but Long, a senior, has a 30-point game and six 20-plus point nights to his credit.
The Pressure's On: Brandon Triche, Syracuse
The Orange are unquestionably at their best when Triche, their often reluctant sophomore shooting guard, gets in on the action. He was at his best in their Big East quarterfinal win over St. John's, scoring 22 points on 4-of-10 three-pointers, but missed all four tries and scored just four points in a loss to UConn the next night.
Number to Ponder: 85
That's the combined number of NCAA tournament appearance for the head coaches of the region's top five seeds, Ohio State's Thad Matta (eight), North Carolina's Roy Williams (20), Syracuse's Jim Boeheim (27), Kentucky's John Calipari (12) and West Virginia's Bob Huggins (18). That includes 14 Final Four appearances.
The Pick: Kentucky
Yep -- a surprise. In any other region, Ohio State would be my Final Four pick, but the Buckeyes will have the misfortune of running into a No. 4 seed that happens to be more talented, albeit young. The Wildcats' Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight are both possible lottery picks this spring, and Doron Lamb could be a first-rounder next year. It took most of the season for Calipari's team to gel, but now they're playing like a team poised for a Carmelo Anthony/Gerry McNamara-like run to Houston.
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