Monday March 17th, 2008

Underrated: Mississippi State. Forget what happened in the SEC tournament; by the end of the regular season it was clear the Bulldogs were the second-best team in the SEC behind Tennessee. Jarvis Varnado is a shot-blocking menace (see below), and the inside-outside combination of explosive guard Jamont Gordon and imposing forward Charles Rhodes means Rick Stansbury's team can beat you in different ways. Gordon in particular could be primed for scoring heroics in the tournament.

Overrated: Oregon. I'm not quite sure how the Ducks grabbed a No. 9 seed when they seemed on the fence for even getting a bid. Don't get me wrong: Ernie Kent's bunch can rev up its offense, but the Ducks' defense has been abysmal for most of the season. I view the 8-9 first-round game between Mississippi State and Oregon as more like a 6-11 game.

Bracket buster: Oral Roberts. Scott Sutton's 13th-seeded Golden Eagles are playing in their third-consecutive NCAA tournament, and they're blessed with more size than any other low- to mid-major, going 6-8, 6-9 and 6-10 on their starting front line. They will be taller up front than first-round foe Pittsburgh, which is riding high after its Big East tourney title, but for this game in Denver I'm predicting a repeat of what happened the last time Pitt went out west for the NCAAs and got knocked off in the first round (by Pacific in Boise in 2005). But ORU won't stop there; I think the Eagles match up well with Michigan State, their likely second-round foe, which has a tendency to play down (or up) to its competition.

Home cooking: Texas. Boy, did the two heavyweights from Tennessee (Memphis and Tennessee) get jobbed by the NCAA tournament committee. While UT, which should have been a No. 1 seed, instead got a No. 2 (in the same region as North Carolina, the top overall seed!), one-seed Memphis drew a possible regional-final matchup against No. 2-seeded Texas ... in Houston! Memphis is capable of beating Texas there, of course, but it shouldn't have to be such an uphill battle.

Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Jarvis Varnado (Mississippi State). If you haven't seen Varnado, the nation's leading shot-blocker (4.8 per game), then you're in for a treat. He simply has amazing instincts for rejecting shots, which means any Memphis player who'll want to drive the lane in round 2 had better think twice.

Best Matchup: Stanford-Texas. It may not end up as the best game (that might be Memphis-Texas in a possible regional final), but Stanford-Texas would feature the most fascinating contrast of styles. The Cardinal, led by the 7-foot Lopez twins, are one of the most effective tall teams in the tournament, while Texas is one of many title contenders that spreads you out and relies on three-pointers and penetration. To me, those contrasts (and how coaches try to make them work to their advantage) are always more interesting than watching two teams with similar styles.

The pick: Texas. It's awfully hard to pick between the Longhorns and Memphis, but the Texas-friendly crowd (in Houston) and Texas' repeated ability to knock off big-time foes this season makes me lean ever so slightly toward Rick Barnes' squad in a regional final for the ages.

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