EAST REGION PREVIEW
Home to the overall No. 1 seed in the Tournament in the Ohio State Buckeyes, the East region is littered with immensely talented squads and conventional powerhouses in North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky. Four of the Big East's 11 tournament squads can be found in this region, as well as the Pac-10 Tournament champion Washington Huskies. With such a top-heavy bracket, upsets and possible Cinderellas may be few and far between in this region, though certainly George Mason and much-maligned UAB may have something to say about that. Still, should the top seeds win out, the possible matchups of Ohio State vs. Kentucky and Syracuse vs. North Carolina should have the avid college basketball fan's mouth watering. Let's dig in and dissect the East region.
Best First-Round Matchup: No. 8 George Mason vs. No. 9 Villanova
This contest will be fueled by the guards and could end up as an extremely fast-paced, up-and-down contest. George Mason comes with All-CAA first-team member Cam Long, along with Ryan Pearson and Luke Hancock, all no taller than 6-foot-6. The Wildcats counter with Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes. The key to this game could be which team rebounds better. Villanova has been outrebounded in each of its last five contests, and in most of those games quite handily.
Best Potential Second-Round Matchup: No. 7 Washington vs. No. 2 North Carolina
Point guard Isaiah Thomas willed his Huskies to the Pac-10 tourney crown, canning the game-winning shot against Arizona at the buzzer. Meanwhile, UNC played from behind in each game of the ACC tournament, finally faltering in the Final and succumbing to Duke. This matchup pits an immense front line in 7-0 Tyler Zeller and 6-11 John Henson, against a guard-driven UW squad. The Huskies overcame an impressive effort from Pac-10 POY and big man Derrick Williams in the Pac-10 championship, showing the ability to triumph despite lacking size. On the flip side, it will be interesting to see how freshman Kendall Marshall, the spark plug for the Heels, will handle the penetration of the dynamic, diminutive Thomas.
First-Round Upset: No. 11 Marquette vs. No. 6 Xavier
With a record-breaking 11 teams getting into the tourney from the Big East, it's no surprise that Marquette doesn't get much national publicity. However, the Golden Eagles went 9-9 in the best conference ever assembled and lost to non-conference Tournament squads Duke, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Gonzaga by an average of 3.5 points. They also beat Syracuse, UConn, Notre Dame and West Virginia (twice). The point being driven home here is that Marquette made the tourney for a reason, and the Golden Eagles might actually be favored in their first-round tilt with Xavier. The Musketeers went 15-1 in the A-10, a conference with just three tournament teams. Xavier also lost to Gonzaga and suffered a 20-point loss to Big East member Cincinnati. As a comparison, the Bearcats tied for sixth in the Big East. Furthermore, the Golden Eagles are guard-heavy with Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom and Dwight Buycks; Xavier's best player is point guard Tu Holloway. As a result, this game could be a rude awakening for the Musketeers, and a glimpse into what it's like to play in a true power conference.
Cinderella: No. 8 George Mason
George Mason has certainly embraced this role before, shocking the college basketball world in 2006 when the Patriots crashed the Final Four as a No. 10 seed. Princeton and Indiana State will have an incredibly difficult time defeating Kentucky and Syracuse, respectively, and the rest of the region's lower seeds largely consist of schools from power conferences (Clemson, Georgia, Marquette, Villanova). That leaves GMU, winners of 16 of its last 17, to carry the torch of Cinderella once again. Should the Patriots get past Villanova in the first round, they will draw the top team in the land, hailing from The Ohio State University. Although they'll have a tough time with Jared Sullinger down low, the Patriots have the guard play to give the Buckeyes a run for their money.
Bust: West Virginia
The Mountaineers are a tough, gutsy team that mirrors their coach, Bob Huggins. However, they don't really have any true impact players capable of dominant performances. Kevin Jones is probably their best player, but he has not adequately replaced the departed Da'Sean Butler. Casey Mitchell can shoot, and John Flowers can board, but WVA's overall lack of star power might be what dooms the Mountaineers. Combine that with the looming 12-5 trap game against Clemson or UAB, along with a possible second-round matchup with SEC tournament champion Kentucky, and West Virginia's days in the dance appear to be numbered from the beginning.
Team to Knock off the No. 1 Seed: Kentucky
While George Mason might get the first crack at upsetting OSU, Kentucky has the athleticism to possibly topple the mighty Buckeyes. Coach John Calipari has the quick, versatile Wildcats buying into his defensive philosophy, which will allow them to hound Ohio State's three-point shooters while also pounding Jared Sullinger down low with Josh Harrelson and Terrence Jones. Kentucky battered what was viewed as a veteran, unflappable squad in the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship, forcing 14 turnovers and holding UF to just 38.6 percent from the field. The 6-9 Jones has been an exceptional freshman in his own right, averaging 16.5 points and 9.0 rebounds en route to the SEC Freshman of the Year award. Winners of their last six games, the Wildcats appear to be peaking at the right time and could make for an intriguing Sweet 16 affair with the top-seeded Buckeyes.
Who's Hot: Indiana State
Larry Bird's alma mater gets its first NCAA entry since 2001, as the Sycamores won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to get into the Big Dance. ISU reeled off five consecutive wins to end the season, including taking down No. 2 seed Wichita State and No. 1 seed Missouri State in successive contests. The reward for the Sycamores? The No. 14 seed and a date with one of the most celebrated coaches of all-time, Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange.
Who's Not: Villanova
The Wildcats' late-season demise has been well-documented, as'Nova lost five consecutive games down the stretch, including a crushing loss in the Big East Tournament to 10-23 South Florida. Their last win against an above .500 squad came against West Virginia on Feb. 5. As mentioned, the Wildcats have been trampled on the boards lately, with disappointing efforts from big men Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou. Meanwhile, captain and leading scorer Corey Fisher has shot just 29.0 percent from the floor over those last five games.
Road Warriors: Long Island
The Blackbirds lost just three games on the road all season en route to a stellar 13-3 record away from home. With apologies to the aforementioned Sycamores, Long Island might be the hottest team in this region heading into the Big Dance. The Blackbirds have won 21 of their last 22, including 13 in a row to capture their first NCAA appearance since 1997.
Road Weary: Alabama State
The SWAC champion Hornets finished the 2010-2011 campaign 4-13 on the road, including a nine-game losing streak at one point this season. On the bright side, Alabama State did win 11 of its last 12 contests overall to punch a ticket to March Madness, including three of four away from home against such notable squads as Southern University, Jackson State and Alcorn State.
Toughest Road to the Final Four: North Carolina
If the youthful Tar Heels are to make it to the Final Four, they'll likely have to beat Pac-10 tournament winner Washington, Big East behemoth Syracuse and then the overall No. 1 seed in the country, Ohio State. Although UNC has size with John Henson and Tyler Zeller, and a sizzling freshman phenom in Harrison Barnes, it might be too much for the Heels to overcome, particularly with their penchant lately for coming out of the gates slowly.
Player to Watch: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
The selection might seem obvious and unimaginative, but there are few players in the country like Sullinger. A first-team all Big Ten member and conference Rookie of the Year, Sullinger possesses a wide body that makes him a terror on the interior. He is a polished scorer with a bevy of post moves and a soft touch around the rim, but he can also simply overpower opponents with his raw strength at 6-9, 280. He's a 71.3 percent free-throw shooter to boot, making the "Hack-A-Sully" maneuver a poor choice by opposing coaches. Sullinger averaged a double-double this year for the Buckeyes, is a surefire lottery pick should he choose to go pro and will look to make his stamp on the NCAA Tournament much like Greg Oden did for OSU just a few seasons ago.
Sweet 16 Teams:
Ohio State -- George Mason will give it a fight, but Goliath is simply too versatile to be slain by David this time around.
Kentucky -- Coach Calipari will not allow the Wildcats to overlook Ivy League champion Princeton, and UK is too athletic to fall to the winner of the 12-5 trap game.
Marquette -- The last team in from the Big East, the Golden Eagles beat Syracuse, their likely second-round opponent, 76-70, on Jan. 29 in their only meeting of the season.
North Carolina -- LIU does not have the talent to keep pace with UNC, and the Heels have a major size advantage over likely second-round foe Washington. Likewise, their games will take place in Charlotte, N.C., in close proximity to the Chapel Hill campus.
Final Four Pick: Ohio State
The Buckeyes remain one of the most complete teams in recent memory, with the ability to beat teams on the interior with Sullinger, off the dribble with William Buford and David Lighty, or from beyond the three-point arc with John Diebler and Aaron Craft. The balanced attack of the Buckeye offense yields an impeccably high shooting percentage from the floor, making them virtually unguardable at times. They're no slouch on the defensive end either, allowing more than 70 points in a game just three times this season. Their only two losses this year came against Wisconsin and Purdue, on the road in two incredibly hostile environments. On a neutral floor, it is going to take a near-perfect performance to defeat the Buckeyes. O-H-I-O should march on to Houston for the Final Four.