Breaking down the 2012 NCAA tournament, region by region
Is your brain scrambled from trying to decipher all those names and all those seeds and all those brackets? Fear not. Your resident Hoop Thinker has arrived in the nick of time. Let's take a spin through the four regions and see what comes to mind.
• If you read
• Interesting how everyone claims this is the toughest region because Kentucky could face defending champion UConn in the third round. I imagine Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is using this as motivation for his guys. I have UConn winning the game, but I will say this -- the Cyclones are going to have the best player on the floor in Royce White, and they'v been more cohesive and consistent the last six weeks. That game is no cakewalk for the Huskies.
• I'm not big on correlating performance in the conference tournament with the NCAA tournament. Teams have won a title after getting knocked out early in their conference tournament, and they've used a conference title to springboard to a championship. (UConn was the classic case last year.) Having said that, I truly believe Kentucky will benefit greatly from having lost to Vanderbilt. The Wildcats have been playing less carefree the last few weeks, as if the burden of history were starting to weigh on them. They also might have been starting to get complacent, or at least a little too comfortable. A loss like that can refocus the players and reset the season. I'll bet they come into this thing refreshed and ready to win.
• That goes double for Wichita State, which lost a genuinely disappointing game in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to Illinois State. I spoke with Shockers coach Gregg Marshall shortly after that loss, and he was, in his words, "still red-ass about it." And he wasn't just talking about the refs. Combine that with Wichita State's ability to shoot the three, its experience, and its big senior center Garrett Stutz, and then sprinkle in the torn ACL suffered by Indiana guard Verdell Jones III. Now you see why I picked the Shockers to get to the Sweet Sixteen.
• I had people ask me on Twitter if I really believed what I said when I picked South Dakota State to beat Baylor on the CBS Selection Show, or if I was just trying to stir the pot by taking a chance. The answer is yes to both. Don't get me wrong, the Jackrabbits are legit. They have one of the nation's most unheralded scoring guards in Nate Wolters, who torched Washington during South Dakota State's rout of the Huskies in Seattle. And I also believe Baylor has shown a lack of toughness over the course of the season, despite the Bears' upset of Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. I understand if they played this game 10 times Baylor would win nine of them, but they're not playing 10 times. They're only playing once, and I believe South Dakota State will have an underdog's psychological advantage. Besides, unless you think Baylor is going to the Final Four (which you don't), then why not try to score some extra points in your office pool by picking against them early? You won't get hurt too badly if Baylor only wins one or two more games.
• If there's one team that had a legitimate gripe about where it was seeded, it's Memphis. There's a HUGE difference between being an 8 or a 7, because if you're an 8 that means you have to play a No. 1 in your second game. Even though I picked Michigan State to beat Memphis in the third round, the Tigers could be the biggest sleeper in this whole tournament. They're exactly the kind of team that would give Michigan State trouble because they play tenacious perimeter defense, and the Spartans tend to turn the ball over too much. They also have an All-American-caliber forward in Will Barton. Plus, remember Michigan State is without freshman forward Branden Dawson, a starter who tore his ACL in the regular season finale against Ohio State -- although without Dawson, Tom Izzo has been forced to play senior forward Austin Thornton more, which has given a jolt to an offense that had stagnated. Still, if you want to take a chance that no one else is taking, you could do a lot worse than pick Memphis to beat the Spartans.
• I'm a little suspicious that Long Beach State coach Dan Monson still refuses to say whether senior guard Larry Anderson, who is the best defensive player in the conference, is healthy enough to play against New Mexico. Anderson did not play in the Big West tournament (shows you how good the 49ers are to win without him), so why would he all of a sudden be ready to go now? Either way I think The Beach will have a tough time with New Mexico because the Lobos play terrific defense. (And they better if they have to go against Casper Ware.) But this is an interesting little cat-and-mouse game Monson is playing, and we probably won't know until close to tiopoff whether Anderson is going to play.
• If you like quick, tough, exciting, veteran guards, then the bottom half of this region is for you. If we look at this by the old floor-and-ceiling metaphor, here's how I could rank the floors, from low to high: Florida, Missouri, Marquette, Murray State. In other words, if all of them play their worst, I think Murray State is the best of the four. But here's how I'd rank their ceilings from low to high: Murray State, Florida, Marquette, Missouri. So if they play their best, Missouri will beat Marquette in the Sweet Sixteen. So what will happen? How am I supposed to know? I'm guessing just like you. But I'd rather err on the side of the high ceiling.
• Teams can get tuckered out by winning a conference tournament, or that achievement can be evidence that they're getting hot at just the right time. In Louisville's case, I'm guessing it's the former. This team has limited talent, and though it has benefited from having gotten healthier the last four weeks, it does not strike me as a group that is ready to make a deep run in this tournament.
•This region takes on a whole different texture in the wake of Tuesday's stunning announcement that Syracuse center Fab Melo is ineligible for the NCAA tournament. You almost can't overstate the significance. In the first place, Melo, who was the Big East's defensive player of the year, was the anchor in the Orange's 2-3 zone. But as much as his absence diminishes the team's defense, it might hurt the offense more, because Syracuse's fast break has often been initiated by Melo's defensive rebounding and shot-blocking. We don't have to guess what the Orange will be like without Melo because we already saw it for three games in January. They missed him terribly. They lost their only regular season game at Notre Dame (the Irish out-rebounded them by 13), and they were fortunate to beat West Virginia at home by two points on a controversial non-goaltending call. Before the Melo news hit, I had Syracuse in my Final Four. After it broke, I switched my pick to Vanderbilt. Take that for what you will.
• Even before Melo was lost, I believed Vanderbilt was Syracuse's most dangerous team in the region. Of course, the idea that Vandy would scare anyone in the NCAA tournament is odd, but this thing is all about matchups, and the Commodores match up well with the Orange. In the first place, the biggest weakness of that 2-3 zone is its tendency to give up offensive rebounds, and Vanderbilt has several athletes who can pound the glass. The Commodores got 17 offensive rebounds in one of their losses to Kentucky this year. The other way to beat Syracuse's zone (or any other defense for that matter) is to make long-range shots, and Vanderbilt is one of the most lethal three-point shooting teams in the country. I also think Vandy got a much-needed jolt of confidence by beating Kentucky. The question is how long it will carry over.
• If Cincinnati plays Florida State in the third round, can we just say first one to 40 wins?
• I had Ohio State as my choice to win the title for much of the season, but I have to say the Buckeyes have not inspired much confidence lately. This team misses Jon Diebler a lot more than I imaged -- largely because William Buford is way too passive on offense. As good as Jared Sullinger is, he can't do it all himself, and his teammates have not been dependable enough the last few weeks. Ohio State doesn't strike me as a team that's going to lose a game it shouldn't, but it also doesn't strike me as a team that's going to win a game it shouldn't. So let the buyer beware.
• I have Texas losing to Cincinnati in the second round, but I don't think that nearly enough has been said about the job Rick Barnes did to get this team into the NCAA tournament. This program was devastated by graduations and unexpected defections from last season's roster, but despite having one of the youngest rotations in the country, Barnes guided them to a terrific year. The three keys were: 1) Defining everyone's role defensively; 2) senior center Clint Chapman's marked improvement from his first four years in Austin; and 3) the maturity and steady improvement of freshman Myck Kabongo at the point. Barnes gets a lot of criticism when his teams underachieve, but he's not getting nearly enough praise for this overachieving bunch. And don't look now, but this roster should return intact, and he's got a great recruiting class coming in next year.
• I wish I had thought to mention on the CBS Selection Show that if North Carolina and Creighton meet in the third round, that game would pit two All-American-caliber players who played on the same team in high school: North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Creighton's Doug McDermott. If that game happens that will be an obvious storyline, but I have heard mixed things about how close the two of them really are. At any rate, it won't matter, because Barnes has better teammates (albeit not by as big a margin as a lot of people think). Creighton is one of the few teams that can score with North Carolina, but these Bluejays are flat-out allergic to defense, and the Tar Heels understand that to advance in this tournament you have to D up. I think North Carolina would win, but it would sure be an entertaining game.
• I've often commented that Michigan is the type of team that has an advantage in the NCAA tournament because it plays a unique and intricate offense. That means its opponents in this tournament will be far less familiar with that plan of attack than the teams the Wolverines face in the Big Ten. Still, Temple would not be a good matchup for Michigan. This is not the old John Chaney matchup zone anymore, but the Owls are comfortable playing in both the open court and the half-court, and they really excel at playing perimeter defense. If the Wolverines are making three-point shots, they can beat just about anybody. If they aren't, they can lose to just about anybody. Just a guess (there's that word again) but I think the Owls will shut 'em down.
• Belmont was my big upset pick to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Some of you may recall that I picked the Bruins to beat Wisconsin in the second round last year. I wasn't the only one, and Bo Ryan used that to his advantage. Belmont's bandwagon isn't nearly as filled this time around, which is ironic considering it's basically the same team (nine of its top 11 players returned) and the Bruins won the Atlantic Sun by three games. I've also written before that if you look at Georgetown's schedule in the Big East, it's not easy to find real quality wins. The Hoyas were also especially vulnerable on the road. I have to say, the one thing that gives me pause is the fact that the Bruins like to run, and if the Hoyas make this a half-court game it will be hard for Belmont to adjust. I've always thought that in the NCAA tournament, it's easier to slow down a team that wants to run than speed up a team that wants to slow it down. On the other hand, Georgetown point guard Markel Starks has been very shaky the last two months, so Belmont's not a great matchup for them either. What the heck, take a chance!
• Ironically, Georgetown would be a tougher matchup for Kansas than Belmont because the Hoyas have legitimate size and strength up front in Henry Sims and Otto Porter. Trying to run with Kansas would be hard for anyone -- including North Carolina, which would be more than happy to get into a track meet with the Jayhawks should the two of them meet in the regional final. I picked Kansas in that game because I think they're the tougher team. The Jayhawks are one of the few outfits that has the bigs to compare with North Carolina's. (Jeff Withey's improvement is one of the most significant stories in college basketball this season.) And even though Tyshawn Taylor is a little more erratic than Kendall Marshall, he has a superior ability to make plays in the half-court, and he loves loves loves taking the big shot. It would certainly be a marquee matchup, but if it comes to pass, I feel pretty confident predicting Kansas to win.