WEST REGION PREVIEW
This region features the lowest No. 1 seed in Duke, the highest No. 2 seed in San Diego State and a team that was ranked No. 1 earlier in the season in Texas. The coaches include three national champions (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun and Steve Fisher). There are plenty of star players with three National Player of the Year candidates (Nolan Smith, Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams), two future NBA lottery picks (Tristan Thompson and Kawhi Leonard), the Summit League Player of the Year (Keith Benson) and plenty of up-and-coming freshmen (Tim Hardaway Jr., Cory Joseph and almost the entire Memphis team). It's a region that chalk is likely to dominate, and any of the top-seeded teams have a chance to make it to Houston.
Best First-Round Matchup: No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Tennessee
Which Tennessee team will show up? Will it be the team that beat Belmont (twice), Villanova at a neutral site (back when Nova was good), Pitt on the road and Vanderbilt? Or will it be the team that lost to Charlotte, Arkansas, Mississippi State and went 4-7 to end the season? On the other side there's Michigan, who went 9-4 to finish the season with wins over Michigan State (twice), Penn State and Illinois. This matchup sounds like it should favor Michigan, but Bruce Pearl is potentially coaching for his job, and Tennessee is at maybe its best when shoved into a corner. Add the fact that this is a very young Wolverines team with very little experience and you start to see how Tennessee might have the upper hand here as it went to the Elite 8 last season. But again, which Volunteers team shows up?
Best Potential Second-Round Matchup: No. 4 Texas vs. No. 5 Arizona
If Texas gets past a potential stumbling block with Oakland and Arizona navigates around the whole Josh Pastner vs his alma-mater storyline, we could get a great matchup between Texas vs. Arizona in the second round. The Longhorns have two talented freshmen in Cory Joesph and Tristan Thompson with emerging star Jordan Hamilton. For the Wildcats, everything starts with stud Derrick Williams, who was the Pac-10 Player of the Year with 18.8 points per game. Stylistically, the Wildcats like to spread the ball around and use Williams to create open shots for his teammates. They want teams to run with them and get into a high-scoring affair, something that should be fun to watch against that great Texas defense, which leads the nation efficiency. This game could come down to free throws, an area where Texas struggles, ranking 301st in shots from the charity stripe.
First-Round Upset: No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Missouri
Missouri struggled on the road (see below) and down the stretch, losing four of their last five games, but the Tigers play a unique style of pressure defense (sometimes referred to as "40 minutes of hell") that can trip up any team, should they not be prepared. Offensively, they're ninth in the nation in points per game (81.4), and should Cincinnati take the bait and try to run with the Tigers, it might find itself out of gas and searching for answers in the second half. Keeping Yancy Gates involved in the offense and taking advantage of his size down low will be key to Cincinnati's success. On the other side, watching Mick Cronin's team play man-to-man defense against Missouri's motion offense should be interesting as the Bearcats pride themselves on making defense their top priority. Cincinnati is 254th in free-throw percentage, a fact that could rear it's ugly head near game's end. Look for Missouri's bench, in particular Kim English, to potentially be what puts the Tigers over the top.
How tired is UConn after its Big East tournament run of five games in five days? We could find out the answer to that question very quickly if it plays Missouri in the second round. As mentioned, the Tigers like to employ a full-court press defense that forces turnovers and starts their transition offense. If Kemba Walker doesn't have his legs under him, this game could get away from UConn in the second half. Jeremy Lamb, who stepped up in overtime against Syracuse in the conference tournament, will have to continue to produce should Walker have a down game. Matter of fact, everyone will have to step up should Walker have a down game as he's their first option every time down the court. This Tigers team has a lot of warts on their resume, but when Kim English is shooting well and they're forcing turnovers, they can be tough to match up against, especially if a team comes in tired.
It's tough to call Texas a bust when it has the nation's most efficient defense, but Rick Barnes annually underachieves. His NCAA tournament record is 19-18, and Texas has been knocked out of the tournament in the first or second round in seven of his 12 trips to the tournament. This season Texas started hot before stumbling down the stretch with losses to Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas State. Factor in that two of the team's three best players are freshmen (Tristan Thompson and Cory Joesph), Dogus Balbay is an offensive liability, J'Covan Brown is the only bench player of note, and you can kind of start to see how things can go wrong for the Longhorns. Oh, and they also struggle at the line, ranking 301st in free-throw percentage (64.5 percent) in the nation.
Team to Knock Off the No. 1 Seed: Tennessee
The Volunteers are giant killers, just ask Pitt, which they beat on the road this season. Of course, this Tennessee team could also come out and get railroaded in its first game by a Michigan team that's been hot lately. In only five seasons at Rocky Top, Bruce Pearl has taken the program to two Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight (last season), so he clearly knows what's he's doing on the court. Duke has been known to fall in love with the three-ball, and if it has an off-shooting night it could be the end of the line for Blue Devils (see the Virginia Tech game in which they were 4-20 from behind the arc or the St. John's game when they were 5-of-26). It's highly unlikely that Duke bows out this early, but by just saying that, it almost increases the odds that this bi-polar Tennessee team pulls off the upset.
Who's Hot: Oakland
The Golden Grizzles have won 18 of their last 19; how's that for hot? And 11 of those wins came either on the road or at a neutral site. They finished the season by cruising through the Summit League conference tournament with a winning margin of 16.7 points per game.
Who's Not: Tennessee
The Volunteers went 4-7 down the stretch and haven't won back-to-back games since Feb. 3 when they knocked off Ole Miss and Auburn. In the SEC tournament they beat lowly Arkansas and then lost to Florida by 11 points. Maybe most disheartening about their finish is how they lost games. In the last month, Tennessee lost five games by six points or less. Closers, they are not.
Road Warriors: San Diego State
SDSU only lost one game this season on the road and that was against the Flying Jimmers at BYU. The Aztecs have road wins over Gonzaga, Cal, New Mexico and UNLV (twice). In non-conference games at a neutral location they went 4-0.
Road Weary: Missouri
Few teams that make the field of 68 were as bad on the road as the Tigers this season. They went 2-7 on the road with wins over Oregon and Iowa State. In neutral non-conference games they went 3-0 with wins over Wyoming, La Salle and Illinois. In the Big 12 tournament they beat Texas Tech by four and then were hammered by Texas A&M by 15 points.
Toughest Road to the Final Four: Duke
The Blue Devils could get the Charlie Sheen-level bi-polar Tennessee Vols in the second round; Texas, who was mis-seeded as a No. 4 and can really defend the three-point line, in the Sweet 16; and then San Diego State in Anaheim for what would essentially be a road game in the Elite Eight. This is the price they pay for being the lowest seeded No. 1, an honor that perhaps should have gone to Notre Dame or even San Diego State. The team that could really give them fits is Arizona in a potential Sweet 16 matchup. The Wildcats defend the three-point line better than almost every team in America, and when Duke's not making threes, it's generally not winning games this season.
Player to Watch: Kemba Walker, UConn
Did you see the Big East tournament? The kid can hit every shot, no matter the circumstance, and he has a motor that never quits. How much gas does he have left in the tank after that run of five games in 5 days? Well, that's yet to be determined. For now, he's the Energizer Bunny that keeps on making shots. Just ask Pitt's Gary McGhee, whom Walker put on the floor for a game-winner in the third round of the Big East tournament. Or ask Syracuse. Or Louisville. Or Texas. Or ...
Sweet 16 Teams:
Duke -- Coach K doesn't (usually) go out in the first weekend of the tournament, especially not to Michigan or Tennessee.
Arizona -- Derrick Williams is a star, and Texas' youth will help show that.
UConn -- It's tough to bet against Kemba Walker, especially the way he's playing.
San Diego State -- Kawhi Leonard and company have shown their only kryptonite is a man named Jimmer, and last I checked neither Temple nor Penn State have a player of that caliber.
Final Four Pick: Duke
As tough as the road back to the Final Four is for the Blue Devils, they are the defending champs. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler offer one of the best one-two punches in the nation, and Seth Curry can knock down an open shot. If they somehow get Kyrie Irving, who has started to warm up and run drills with the team, back on the floor, then they suddenly become a completely different team, but that is a huge "if." Still, this team has experience, a fantastic coach, a player of the year candidate, great defense, and if they get hot from behind the arc, it's lights out for opponents.