Breaking down the 2012 NCAA tournament, region by region
Kentucky will benefit from its loss to Vandy during the conference tournament
Memphis could be the biggest sleeper in the tourney, but was hurt with seeding
Despite its unique, intricate offense, Michigan will likely struggle against Temple
Is your brain scrambled from trying to decipher all those names and all those seeds and all those brackets? Fear not. Your resident Hoop Thinker has arrived in the nick of time. Let's take a spin through the four regions and see what comes to mind.
If you read my Selection Sunday primer last weekend, you saw me note the very strong possibility that Duke and Kentucky would end up as the top two seeds in the South -- 20 years after their epic meeting. Of course, just because they're in the same region doesn't mean they're going to play each other. I believe there's a good chance that Duke junior forward Ryan Kelly could be out for the entire NCAA tournament. If that's the case, Duke's margin for error will be smaller should it face Baylor or UNLV in the Sweet Sixteen. That's assuming the Blue Devils get by Notre Dame -- which I am.
Interesting how everyone claims this is the toughest region because Kentucky could face defending champion UConn in the third round. I imagine Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is using this as motivation for his guys. I have UConn winning the game, but I will say this -- the Cyclones are going to have the best player on the floor in Royce White, and they'v been more cohesive and consistent the last six weeks. That game is no cakewalk for the Huskies.
I'm not big on correlating performance in the conference tournament with the NCAA tournament. Teams have won a title after getting knocked out early in their conference tournament, and they've used a conference title to springboard to a championship. (UConn was the classic case last year.) Having said that, I truly believe Kentucky will benefit greatly from having lost to Vanderbilt. The Wildcats have been playing less carefree the last few weeks, as if the burden of history were starting to weigh on them. They also might have been starting to get complacent, or at least a little too comfortable. A loss like that can refocus the players and reset the season. I'll bet they come into this thing refreshed and ready to win.
That goes double for Wichita State, which lost a genuinely disappointing game in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to Illinois State. I spoke with Shockers coach Gregg Marshall shortly after that loss, and he was, in his words, "still red-ass about it." And he wasn't just talking about the refs. Combine that with Wichita State's ability to shoot the three, its experience, and its big senior center Garrett Stutz, and then sprinkle in the torn ACL suffered by Indiana guard Verdell Jones III. Now you see why I picked the Shockers to get to the Sweet Sixteen.
I had people ask me on Twitter if I really believed what I said when I picked South Dakota State to beat Baylor on the CBS Selection Show, or if I was just trying to stir the pot by taking a chance. The answer is yes to both. Don't get me wrong, the Jackrabbits are legit. They have one of the nation's most unheralded scoring guards in Nate Wolters, who torched Washington during South Dakota State's rout of the Huskies in Seattle. And I also believe Baylor has shown a lack of toughness over the course of the season, despite the Bears' upset of Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. I understand if they played this game 10 times Baylor would win nine of them, but they're not playing 10 times. They're only playing once, and I believe South Dakota State will have an underdog's psychological advantage. Besides, unless you think Baylor is going to the Final Four (which you don't), then why not try to score some extra points in your office pool by picking against them early? You won't get hurt too badly if Baylor only wins one or two more games.
If there's one team that had a legitimate gripe about where it was seeded, it's Memphis. There's a HUGE difference between being an 8 or a 7, because if you're an 8 that means you have to play a No. 1 in your second game. Even though I picked Michigan State to beat Memphis in the third round, the Tigers could be the biggest sleeper in this whole tournament. They're exactly the kind of team that would give Michigan State trouble because they play tenacious perimeter defense, and the Spartans tend to turn the ball over too much. They also have an All-American-caliber forward in Will Barton. Plus, remember Michigan State is without freshman forward Branden Dawson, a starter who tore his ACL in the regular season finale against Ohio State -- although without Dawson, Tom Izzo has been forced to play senior forward Austin Thornton more, which has given a jolt to an offense that had stagnated. Still, if you want to take a chance that no one else is taking, you could do a lot worse than pick Memphis to beat the Spartans.
I'm a little suspicious that Long Beach State coach Dan Monson still refuses to say whether senior guard Larry Anderson, who is the best defensive player in the conference, is healthy enough to play against New Mexico. Anderson did not play in the Big West tournament (shows you how good the 49ers are to win without him), so why would he all of a sudden be ready to go now? Either way I think The Beach will have a tough time with New Mexico because the Lobos play terrific defense. (And they better if they have to go against Casper Ware.) But this is an interesting little cat-and-mouse game Monson is playing, and we probably won't know until close to tiopoff whether Anderson is going to play.
If you like quick, tough, exciting, veteran guards, then the bottom half of this region is for you. If we look at this by the old floor-and-ceiling metaphor, here's how I could rank the floors, from low to high: Florida, Missouri, Marquette, Murray State. In other words, if all of them play their worst, I think Murray State is the best of the four. But here's how I'd rank their ceilings from low to high: Murray State, Florida, Marquette, Missouri. So if they play their best, Missouri will beat Marquette in the Sweet Sixteen. So what will happen? How am I supposed to know? I'm guessing just like you. But I'd rather err on the side of the high ceiling.