SOUTHEAST REGION PREVIEW
The Southeast Region features two of the Big East's strongest teams in top-seeded Pittsburg and sixth-seeded St. John's. The Panthers are the Big East regular season champions led by three senior starters. Last year's national runner-up Butler is in this region, facing an Old Dominion squad that is one of the nation's best rebounding teams. The theme of this region has to be defensive efficiency as Butler, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Utah State lead their conferences in that category. Butler and Michigan State faced each other in the Final Four last year but have had underachieving seasons.
Best First-Round Matchup: No. 8 Butler vs. No. 9 Old Dominion
Butler is back in the big dance after coming within three points of winning the national championship last year. Led by junior guard Shelvin Mack and senior forward Matt Howard, the Bulldogs won at first-place Milwaukee to receive the automatic bid in the Horizon League. They rely on their proficient three-point shooting with Howard knocking down 44 percent of his shots and Shawn Van Zant hitting 43 percent from behind the arc, and their dominating inside game of Howard and sophomore forward Andrew Smith. Although he only averages 8.9 points per game, Smith shoots a team-high 63 percent from the field. Like Butler, Old Dominion is riding a nine-game winning streak led by senior forward Frank Hassell and junior forward Ken Bazemore. The Monarchs strength is crashing the boards as they led the nation in rebounding margin. The key in this matchup with the 6-foot, 280, Hassell vs. Howard will be the foul game. If Howard gets in early foul trouble, the Monarchs will have the advantage against a Butler squad that goes eight deep. The stingy Monarchs defense ranks fourth in the nation in points against, giving up 58.3 points per game, facing a Butler team that averages 72.8 points per game.
Best Potential Second-Round Matchup: No. 6 St. John's vs. No. 3 BYU
BYU was bumped down to a No. 3 seed as it lost in the Mountain West tournament championship to San Diego State and lost its second-leading scorer in Brandon Davies due to violating the team's honor code. National Player of the Year candidate Jimmer Fredette has carried the Cougars to a co-conference regular-season championship, but he would be facing a St. John's defense that ranked third in the Big East in steals per game (8) and an offense that shot 45 percent from the field, led by Justin Burrell at 50 percent. This is a St. John's team that put up 93 points against then-No. 1 Duke. The Red Storm have nine seniors who have achieved success in the nation's best conference this year, defeating six ranked teams.
First-Round Upset: No. 12 Utah State over No. 5 Kansas State
The 12th-seeded Aggies are one of the few teams to win 30 games this year and only went down to defeat three times. In winning the WAC title over No. 2 seed Boise State, they were led by Brockeith Pane and the 6-foot-7, 240, Tai Wesley with 19 points each. Defensively they rank in the top 15 in defending opponents from the perimeter and in the paint, and they are the nation's sixth-best team by defensive efficiency. Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly will have to find open looks against this suffocating defense or it could be long night for the Wildcats. Utah State's only non-conference losses this year were to tournament teams Georgetown and BYU.
Cinderella: No. 9 Old Dominion
The battle tested and experienced Monarchs have the ability to upset Butler and play with the big boys from the Big East in Pittsburgh. This is a team that knocked off Notre Dame in the tournament last year as a No. 12 seed. The Monarchs will not be intimidated if they face the top-seeded Panthers in the second round. Pitt has struggled as a high seed in the tournament in recent years. Old Dominion is one of three Colonial Athletic teams in the tournament with VCU and George Mason, making it the nation's strongest mid-major conference.
Bust: No. 4 Wisconsin
Despite the Badgers strong Big Ten season and undefeated home season, the third-place Big Ten team comes limping into the tournament, losing its last two games by a combined 31 points. Top-seed Ohio State blew out the Badgers by 28, and Penn State held them to a season-low 33 points in an horrid shooting performance in the conference tournament. A 30-4 experienced Belmont team is a tough draw for the Badgers. Don't forget they almost lost to Wofford in the first round last year. If Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer don't elevate their games, the Badgers could be out of it by this weekend.
Team to Knock off the No. 1 Seed: No. 2 Florida
Although the Gators lost the SEC Tournament championship to Kentucky, they have been the hottest team in the SEC, going 13-3 in conference. They have a great inside-outside game with guards Ervin Walker and Kenny Boynton feeding the ball to big men Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. The Gators are 9-3 against the RPI top 50 this year. Four of five starters average double figures in scoring, and they led the SEC in rebounding, paced by Chandler Parson's 7.8 rebounds per game.
Who's Hot: No. 12 Utah State
The Aggies have won eight games in a row and are led by three senior starters. Their 30-3 record and the fact they won both the WAC regular season and tournament titles suggests they should be an 8 or 9 seed. What's more, the Aggies have won 49 consecutive games when leading at the half.
Who's Not: No. 4 Wisconsin
The Badgers did not impress the selection committee with a 36-33 loss to Penn State in their opening-round game of the Big Ten tournament and enter the NCAA Tournament losing their last two games.
Road Warriors: No. 1 Pittsburgh
The top-seeded Panthers went 7-2 on the road in the best conference in America this year, including wins over tournament teams West Virginia, Georgetown and Villanova.
Road Weary: No. 14 Wofford
The Terriers scheduled top-tier opponents Clemson, Minnesota, Georgetown, Xavier, South Carolina and Virginia Commonwealth on the road but didn't win any of those games. They also have bad road losses to The Citadel and Cornell.
Toughest Road to the Final Four: No. 3 BYU
The Cougars should be able to make it out of their opening-round game against Wofford, but they could face St. John's or Gonzaga in the second round and potentially Florida and Pittsburgh to make it to Houston. They also lost depth when second-leading scorer Brandon Davies was dismissed from the team two games before the conference tournament. If they play Florida in the Sweet 16 it would be in SEC country at New Orleans.
Player to Watch: Jimmer Fredette, BYU
The Jimmmer Show continues Thursday night against Wofford. Fredette will have to carry more of the offensive load now that Davies has been lost for the season. He scored a season-high 52 in the semifinals of the conference tournament. In leading the nation with a 28.5 scoring average, he averaged 29 points in two tournament games last year, including 37 in BYU's double overtime win against Florida. He has scored 20 or more points in 19 games for the Cougars this year.
Sweet 16 Teams:
Pittsburgh -- The top-seeded Panthers have too much balance and versatility to lose on the first weekend, but expect Old Dominion or Butler to play them close.
Utah State -- The Aggies are hot and poised to make a run in the tournament this year. They are much better than their seeding indicates.
St. John's -- The rugged schedule of the Big East will have the Red Storm prepared for tournament action. They have the speed and size to knock off Jimmer and the Cougars.
Florida -- The Gators get to play in their own backyard in Tampa for the first two games and have a deep team that has Final Four potential.
Final Four Pick: Florida
Florida stays hot and makes it to the Final Four for the fourth time in the Billy Donovan era. The Gators have been lighting it up from behind the arc, and senior forward Chandler Parsons was namd SEC Player of the Year by the coaches, averaging 11.5 points per game and ranking third in the SEC in rebounding (7.8 rebounds per game). Sophomore Kenny Boynton is nine for his last 22 from three-point range. The Gators can play 10 deep and wear out opponents in the second half. It should be a classic Elite Eight matchup if they face Pitt.