Monday March 16th, 2009

Underrated: No. 4 Gonzaga The Zags flopped the last time they were in a high-profile game, losing by 18 to Memphis in Spokane on Feb. 7, and severely damaged their national rep. But Mark Few's team also went undefeated in the West Coast Conference, has one of the country's best combo guards in 6-foot-5 junior Matt Bouldin, and -- most importantly -- is the only club in the country to finish in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Zags' defense is ranked higher than that of North Carolina (the South's one-seed), Oklahoma (the two-seed) and Syracuse (the three-seed).

Overrated: No. 5 Illinois The Illini are the only team in the South that played better D, on the season, than Gonzaga, and they've earned their seed by beating Missouri, Ohio State twice and Purdue twice. They've been one of the country's biggest overachievers. So why are they listed here? Because their glue guy and defensive stopper, senior guard Chester Frazier, has a broken right hand. And he's right-handed. Which means he'll probably be in the same place during the NCAA tournament that he was during the Big Ten tournament -- on the bench. Without Frazier, Illinois is more like a 7-8 seed, and will be vulnerable to getting upset by No. 12 Western Kentucky.

Bracket Buster: No. 10 Michigan There have been times when the Wolverines were atrocious this year -- especially during their inexcusable loss at Iowa -- but they rise to the occasion against elite teams, causing headaches with their 1-3-1 zone defense. The Wolverines beat UCLA in November, Duke in December and gave UConn a scare in February, and John Beilein is a skilled postseason coach. Don't be shocked if Michigan send both Clemson and Oklahoma packing.

Home Cooking: North Carolina The Tar Heels play in Greensboro for the first two rounds, but the Heels won't need any extra help against Radford and either LSU or Butler. UNC could rout all three of those teams in true road games. Gonzaga, meanwhile, gets a boost by being assigned to one of the Portland pods. Even though it's not comfortable driving distance from Spokane, it's the closest site to the Zags' campus, and rest of the teams in the pod (No. 13 Akron, No. 5 Illinois and No. 12 Western Kentucky) have essentially been banished out there.

Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Matt Howard, Butler Tyler Hansbrough isn't the only pale post force in the South Region. Howard, a 6-8 sophomore with a hobbit-like mop and an inside-out undershirt, is just as active around the basket as Psycho T is, and could give him a challenge (albeit in a losing effort) in the second round. Howard averaged 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds on the season but has picked up his play down the stretch, going for 20 points or more in four of the Bulldogs' final seven games. He ranks fourth among tourney players in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, too -- just behind Hansbrough:

Best Matchup: No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Michigan, in Kansas City Tigers 6-7 forward Trevor Booker -- author of perhaps the season's best follow-dunk -- produces enough highlights to be must-see TV, and Clemson will be desperately trying to salvage something out of a season in which it was 18-2 heading into February, but finished 23-8. The Tigers didn't pull an easy draw in Michigan, which has already beaten a much better ACC team (Duke) this season.

The Pick: North Carolina The Heels have the easiest road to Detroit of any of the No. 1 seeds. No. 4 Gonzaga could make some trouble for them in Memphis, but I question if the Zags are tough enough inside to deal with the giant quartet of Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller. No. 3 Syracuse and No. 2 Oklahoma are offensive powerhouses, but Carolina is the biggest offensive powerhouse of them all, and will cruise into the Flaming Tire Final Four.

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