EAST REGION PREVIEW
Headlined by a pair of teams familiar to the No. 1 seed, the East Region will be defined by either a run of dominance by one of college basketball's most consistent winners or the stunning absence of Syracuse or Ohio State in the Final Four. The region is daunting for a number of reasons, not the least of which comes with the presence of some elite coaches. Teams coached by Jim Boeheim, Thad Matta and Bo Ryan are widely revered as being among the most well-disciplined units in the game. With the wealth of experience of the top-four seeds, it would appear difficult for any Cinderella to make an impact on this region.
No. 1 Syracuse - Facing automatic qualifier UNC-Asheville is about the only break in scheduling the Orange will receive in what promises to be one of the more difficult roads traveled by a No. 1 seed. Beginning with a potential matchup against Frank Martin's scrappy Kansas State team, the Orange will face a string of at least three opponents within the region capable of ousting Boeheim's bunch before it reaches the Final Four. To make it to a juicy regional final matchup with either Ohio State or Florida State, Syracuse must befuddle opposing teams with its intricate zone defense. Beyond its most obvious advantage on the defensive side, the Orange will rely on its tremendous depth to wear down opponents. One of the deepest teams in the country, Syracuse boasts a formidable frontcourt led by sophomore Fab Melo. Despite its size, experience and depth, the team does exhibit weakness in its lack of a singular go-to scorer at the end of games. If one such end-game option emerges, this team is capable of winning it all.
No. 2 Ohio State - Much like Syracuse, the Buckeyes rely heavily upon a tenacious defense to intimidate opponents. Unlike the Orange, however, Ohio State averages more than 75 points per game as a team and comes into the tournament as the highest-scoring team in the region. Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, William Buford and Lenzelle Smith make up what could be the nation's most talented starting five. Coming off the bench, however, there is precious little available to add to Matta's notoriously thin rotation. The Buckeyes must avoid foul trouble and injury to remain competitive with an eight- or 10-man core in the case of Florida State or Syracuse, respectively.
No. 3 Florida State - The Seminoles may provide the most unique challenge of any team in the field of 68. An NBA-sized front line, complemented by a collection of outside shooters and lockdown defenders on the perimeter, makes Leonard Hamilton's team a dark horse to reach the Final Four. Bernard James, Xavier Gibson, Okaro White and Jon Kreft make up a frontcourt that boasts a trio of men no shorter than 6-foot-10 and White, who at 6-8 can hardly be considered diminutive. Junior Michael Snaer was a former top-10 recruit out of high school and has developed into the ACC Defensive Player of the Year this season. He is joined by three guards ranging from 6-3 to 6-5 to complete a backcourt whose length nearly matches that of the frontcourt. A top-10 defense annually, the nation's seventh-leading shot-blocking team in the country is criticized by many for its perceived inability to form an offensive identity. Perhaps the Seminoles discovered their rhythm Sunday, however, as they were impressive in outscoring North Carolina, 85-82, in the ACC championship. Florida State must knock down open three-pointers as it did against the Tar Heels to knock off either of the top seeds in its region.
No. 4 Wisconsin - The Badgers will continue to seek to make games ugly and hope to score enough to win. Unfortunately for Bo Ryan's team, it happens to be placed in a segment of the bracket with similar ugly playing teams. Contests with any of the first three seeds likely will result in defensive struggles and force senior floor leader Jordan Taylor to create enough offense for his team to survive and advance toward its goal of reaching the Final Four. The Badgers do not boast elite shooters, indivdual stars or a fluid offense. Ryan's squad, though, has not lost a tournament opener since 2006.
No. 11 Texas - The Longhorns bring to the tournament one of the few players in college basketball who could become this year's version of Kemba Walker. Junior point guard J'Covan Brown averages 20.1 points per game, placing his team on his back and carrying it to victory on more than one occasion this season. With much stronger defensive teams in the East, the Longhorns will simply have to catch fire from beyond the arc to string together wins in the Tournament.
No. 12 Harvard- Coach Tommy Amaker has the Crimson in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. For his team to have a successful run, it must follow the blueprint laid by fellow Ivy League member Cornell two years ago. The Big Red were seeded No. 12 when it knocked off Temple and Wisconsin in back-to-back games before getting throttled by Kentucky. It's recipe for success consisted of a disciplined defense and patient offense that utilized clock to slow the pace of the game and hit clutch three-point field goals to dispatch higher-seeded opponents. Harvard shares similar strengths with its predecessor and proved capable of defeating what is considered to be a superior opponent in a scrum when it beat Florida State, 46-41, in late November. The Crimson must stay out of foul trouble and ensure the pace favors Amaker's style to preserve energy, as it is without depth beyond the starters, who all average at least 25 minutes per game.
No. 5 Vanderbilt - Kevin Stallings has guided four of his last five Vanderbilt teams to the NCAA Tournament. None made its way past the first matchup in March and all of defeats came at the hands of double-digit seeds. As Harvard looks to earn its first tournament victory in the program's history, the Commodores will attempt to avoid making it a fifth year that Vanderbilt has bowed out of the tournament early. Given the experience and pro potential of a starting five that includes four seniors and a junior, as well as one of the 10 most prolific three-point shooting teams in the country, there is reason to believe this group could avoid the upset bug.
No. 12. Harvard vs. No. 5 Vanderbilt - If this matchup becomes a low-scoring affair, consider the Crimson's chances to be slightly better than other No. 12 seeds to pull off the upset. The balanced scoring, excellent field-goal percentage and pace at which the team plays makes Harvard a tough out for a team without a postseason win since 2006. A lapse of focus on defense that has plagued Vanderbilt throughout Stallings' tenure has reered its ugly head several times throughout the season, though not as frequently as in previous years. If the well-oiled offensive machine of the Commodores - which made the fifth-most three-pointers in the country this season - depends too heavily on the outside shot, Harvard could settle in, take the air out of the ball and defeat Vanderbilt.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Jared Sullinger, Forward, Ohio State - It is no secret. The Buckeyes will go as far as their All-American takes them. Sullinger, who averages 17.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, has displayed a penchant for dominance and disappearance this season. When matched up against post presences who are comparable in size, Sullinger has often disappointed in deferring to other teammates or forcing shots. For Ohio State to advance, Sullinger must force and pass out of double-teams effectively while also garnering points efficiently. A possible Sweet 16 matchup against Florida State's rotation of bigs could threaten to corral Sullinger and spell trouble for a preseason favorite to win it all.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Syracuse - The Orange could find trouble dealing with Rodney McGruder and the Kansas State Wildcats, but the team's depth and Boeheim's zone should subdue their shooters and allow Syracuse to coast into the Sweet 16.
No. 2 Ohio State - Sullinger faces a potentially difficult matchup with Gonzaga center Robert Sacre, but the Bulldogs' 7-footer has failed to live up to expectations defensively and is not an elite rebounder. The Buckeyes also appear to have a substantial advantage in the backcourt and should be able to handle each of their first two opponents with ease.
No. 3 Florida State - In a region packed with defensive juggernauts, this might be the most smothering "D" of the bunch. Between the length on the perimeter and the bulk down low, the Seminoles are solidly put together as a tournament-ready team that enters the postseason red hot.
No. 4 Wisconsin - The Badgers could find a contrast of styles in the third round if Vanderbilt advances, in which case their defense should be able to slow down the three-point shooting barrage of the Commodores. If faced with the Crimson, Wisconsin will take on a poor man's version of itself. With superior athletes, the pace should favor the Badgers, and they should be able to set up a showdown with Syracuse.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 3 Florida State - Coming off its first ACC tournament title in school history, this group of seniors has been nothing short of special throughout the season. As healthy as any contender in the country, Hamilton's team boasts an incredible balance of perimeter and post players and is peaking at just the right time. Snaer is as locked-in as any player in the country and his teammates feed off his energy on both ends of the floor. Luke Loucks and Deividas Dulkys have recently found their shooting touch from outside and continue to excel as on-the-ball defenders. James, White, Kreft and Gibson form perhaps the nation's deepest frontcourt, which will present matchup nightmares with Ohio State and appears capable of matching firepower with Syracuse. If the three-pointers are falling for Florida State, the Seminoles could be bound for New Orleans.