WEST REGION PREVIEW
The West Region plays host to some of the nation's most talented programs, headlined by Big Ten champion Michigan State, Big 12 champion Missouri, Big East powerhouse Louisville and a surprise contender out of the Mountain West in New Mexico. There is little falloff in the middle of the bracket with teams like Florida, Marquette, Memphis and Virginia and plenty of potential Cinderella stories in Davidson, Long Beach State, Murray State and Iona, which might be the most controversial program included in this year's tournament. (Pac-12 regular-season champ Washington isn't going dancing? Inconceivable!) Michigan State and Missouri, if they can handle the likes of Memphis' Will Barton, Florida's Bradley Beal and Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom, are the best bets, but don't be surprised if a 30-1 Murray State out of the Ohio Valley Conference or a resurgent St. Louis Billikens stir things up along the way.
No. 1 Michigan State - There's a certain irony that Michigan State, which started its 2012 season with a 67-55 loss to North Carolina on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, is the top-seeded team in the West Region. Written off midseason after losses to Northwestern and Michigan and a 41-point debacle against Illinois, Tom Izzo refocused his team at just the right time and had an impressive run when it mattered most - at the Big Ten tournament, where the Spartans took down a tough Wisconsin squad in addition to top-ranked Ohio State for the right to wear the conference crown. Michigan State is fantastic on the boards - third in the country in rebound percentage and 18th in defensive rebound percentage - and thrives on second- and third-chance points. The Spartans are weak from beyond the arc, however, earning just 22.2 percent of their points (296th in the nation) from three-point range. Senior Austin Thorton and freshman Brandan Kearney at guard are key to the Spartans' success and will have to play well given the loss of 6-foot-5 freshman Branden Dawson in the regular-season finale to a torn ACL. Never count out a Tom Izzo-led program.
No. 2 Missouri - Missouri has made no excuse about the fact it has lived and died by the play of its guards this season, relishing how the execution by players such as Flip Pressey, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Matt Pressey has the Tigers ranked third in the nation in field-goal percentage (49.9). Equally as impressive is Missouri's free-throw percentage, seventh in the country at 76.7. Yet, Missouri, for all its fun-and-gun offensive prowess, has some glaring weaknesses, including a woeful interior presence, where English and Ricardo Ratliffe do their best to hold court, while. On the outside, the Tigers can be considered inconsistent at best - against Oklahoma State, Missouri went just 4-of-19 from three-point range. The Tigers nevertheless seem impervious to such shortcomings, riding a recent five-game winning streak that included impressive victories over Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor in the Big 12 championship. Such momentum should translate well to early round matchups against Norfolk State and the winner of an interesting Florida-Virginia matchup, but it could prove problematic down the road against Murray State or Marquette.
No. 3 Marquette - Few seem to be paying much attention to the No. 3 seed in the West, the Marquette Golden Eagles, and that could be a mistake. Yes, Marquette was knocked out of the Big East tournament after just one game - an 84-71 loss to Louisville, who, to the surprise of many is actually seeded lower than the Golden Eagles at No. 4 - but it still managed marquee regular-season wins not only over Louisville (74-63 on Jan. 16) but also stronger-than-expected South Florida and West Virginia. Led by the outstanding play of Darius Johnson-Odom (18.3 ppg) and an undersized Jae Crowder (17.4) points, the Golden Eagles excel in transition. Johnson-Odom and Crowder account for almost half of the team's scoring. The Golden Eagles should get by the Iona/BYU winner, and if they fend off what could be a matchup against Murray State in the next round, they could go deep in 2012.
No. 4 Louisville - Many decried No. 4-seeding of Louisville, the winner of this year's Big East tournament, but Rick Pitino heads a team that isn't as well-equipped to run his signature high-octane offense as previous squads. The Cardinals, for instance, don't shoot well from beyond the arc - 31 percent - and are short on size when it comes to dominating inside the paint. Still, the play of Peyton Siva, Chris Smith, Russ Smith and leading scorer Kyle Kuric (13.1 ppg) is solid, with Lousville pressuring and interrupting the flow of opposing offenses with great success. That said, when playing inspired basketball, the Cardinals are hard to beat - just ask Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati, all of whom fell by sizeable margins to Louisville in last week's conference tournament. If Pitinio gets his team to play with discipline and grittiness, there's little doubt the Cardinals can be a major contender when the field of 68 narrows down to 32 and then 16.
No. 6 Murray State - Murray State is an obvious selection for best Cinderella story out of the West, with junior point guard Isaiah Canaan a monster in scoring (19.2 ppg) and three-pointing shooting (47.3). The Racers have lost just one game this season - a 72-69 setback to Tennessee State on Feb. 9. Although lacking overall size - only one player is taller than 6-7 - and a strong rebounding presence - Murray State ranked middle of the pack in the Ohio Valley Conference this year - the Racers are battle-tested and as tough an opponent as exists in this particular region. Murray State plays loose and with confidence. Colorado State provides an interesting matchup, but the real test should come shortly thereafter, where the program likely will collide with an underrated Marquette squad.
No. 12 Long Beach State - Long Beach State might be a more deserving Cinderella candidate than Murray State, especially after beating Pittsburgh, Xavier and Auburn and losing to Kansas and North Carolina by single digits. Headed by point guard Casper Ware, who averages 16.9 points per game, LBSU is an experienced, speedy, productive unit in which all five starters average double figures. Excellent in transition, Long Beach State can score and score fast when moving the ball down the court and enters the NCAA Tournament 33rd in the nation in field-goal shooting. The 49ers dominated a relatively weak Big West Conference (15-1), but proved its mettle with a tough non-conference slate and should be regarded as a contender in the race to the Sweet 16.
No. 5 New Mexico - An early season surprise, New Mexico plays a defensive brand of basketball best described as "suffocating," shoots as well from three-point range as any team in the West Region and ranks ninth in the country in assists. Senior forward Drew Gordon averages a double-double per contest and is a major challenge to guard, while freshman Hugh Greenwood seemed to blossom late, scoring 37 points in the Lobos' last two regular season contests against Air Force and Boise State. A Mountain West Conference title certainly seems to have New Mexico riding high, but it was not so long ago that the Lobos inexplicably posted back-to-back losses against inferior MWC competition in Colorado State and TCU. New Mexico rebounded nicely following those defeats, winning five straight since. Still, Gordon at times struggles with his game, and, when he does, so too does the rest of his teammates. The Lobos will have to figure out a way to get production out of some of its other players, but may not do so quickly enough to avoid an early tournament exit at the hands of Long Beach State.
No. 12 Long Beach State vs. No. 5 New Mexico - As mentioned, New Mexico doesn't come off as strong as its No. 5 seeding would indicate. Long Beach State appears in perfect position to make a strong statement in its first game of the tournament, and a win over Lobos would do just that. The 49ers have the speed and talent to push New Mexico over the edge, fielding a well-balanced offense that is not the one-trick pony New Mexico is with Gordon.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Jae Crowder, Forward, Marquette - The Big East Player of the Year, Crowder is the key to Marquette's success. The senior forward averages 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds and looks to help Marquette advance to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. If that's to happen, Crowder must stay out of foul trouble. When he gets into foul trouble, as he did in the Big East tournament loss to Louisville, the Golden Eagles struggle.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Michigan State - Tom Izzo's team has had its ups and downs this season, but if there was ever a coach who could inspire a possible run at a national championship for an underachieving team, then it's Izzo.
No. 2 Missouri - Missouri ran over some pretty stiff competition in the Big 12 tournament, including No. 3 seed in the South, Baylor. The Tigers will have to outrun every tournament opponent but has the firepower to do it.
No. 6 Murray State - A potential tough battle against Marquette looms, but Murray State should be able to show why it is such a favorite Cinderella story out of the West with a close win.
No. 12 Long Beach State - It's not a popular selection on a road that includes No. 5-seed New Mexico and No. 4-seed Louisville, but LBSU seems to have what it takes to take down two solid programs with glaring weaknesses.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 2 Missouri - It's hard to argue that there's a hotter program at the moment than Missouri - even if the Tigers are winning unconventionally by typically fielding a four-guard set. Norfolk State shouldn't provide much of a challenge in the Tigers' first game of the tournament, but Missouri has to be silently hoping that Virginia somehow beats Florida and Bradley Beal to make it to the next round. Regardless of the winner of the latter contest, however, Missouri appears well prepared to make a deep run in this year's field of 68. A likely matchup against Michigan State in the Elite Eight makes for a heck of a fight, but the Tigers have Big 12 supporters - and themselves - believing they're the real deal in 2012. Michigan State will push Missouri to the wire, but don't be surprised when the dust settles to find the Tigers looking at a its first Final Four appearance.