STATE OF NO. 1: Kentucky
John Calipari's first season at Kentucky has been nothing short of dreamy. His team has gone 32-2, won both the SEC regular season and conference tournament titles and had a whole lot of fun doing it. Mega-recruits John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe have been every bit as advertised, with veteran forward Patrick Patterson joining them in the most talented starting lineup in the country.
But the Wildcats also do plenty to make their fans nervous, entering the tournament after an SEC final against Mississippi State that required a Cousins put-back with 0.1 seconds left in regulation to avoid defeat. Youth and a lack of depth will continue to concern Calipari. But Wall and Co. have played beyond their years all season, going 14-2 on the road and 8-1 in games decided by six or fewer points.
I would have gone with Cornell, a legit Cinderella (the Big Red lost by five at No. 1 Kansas early in the year), but Cornell got a bad first-round draw with Temple. The 11th-seeded Huskies are peaking at the right time (seven straight wins, the last six away from home) and boast two big-time players in forward Quincy Pondexter (19.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and guard Isaiah Thomas (17.1, 4.1).
SUSPECT TEAM: Marquette
With all due respect to coach Buzz Williams, who did a heck of a job finishing fifth in the Big East with a team that lost three star guards from a year ago, the Golden Eagles had almost no margin for error. Five of their last six wins have been by four points or less (and three of them went to overtime) before Georgetown ran them off the court in the Big East semifinals.
JUICIEST MATCHUP: Temple vs. Cornell
The Atlantic 10 champion Owls (29-5) drew too low a seed for a team that went 7-3 against RPI top-50 opponents, and now they're stuck playing the best Ivy League team in years. Cornell, a terrific outside shooting team (they've made 43.4 percent of their three-pointers), will be going against one of the nation's stingiest perimeter defenses (opponents shoot just 28.1 percent from beyond the arc).
GAME BREAKER: Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia
If you watched conference-tournament action last weekend, you surely caught a whole bunch of Butler highlights. His buzzer-beating three-point bank shot with a hand in his face beat Cincinnati in the quarterfinals, his 24 points were too much for Notre Dame in the semifinals and again, with the game on the line, he drove for the game-winning shot to beat Georgetown in the finals. Butler, a career 2,000-point scorer, has hit a remarkable six game-winners on the year.
BEST PLAYER YOU NEVER HEARD OF: Darington Hobson, New Mexico
He's the Mountain West's answer to Evan Turner, a 6-foot-7 juco transfer who averages 16.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. In the Lobos' conference-title clinching win at BYU on Feb. 27, Hobson piled up 20 points, 14 boards, seven assists and made a huge, game-saving block in the final seconds.
THE PRESSURE'S ON: Jon Leuer, Wisconsin
After missing nine games with a broken wrist, the 6-10 junior returned on Feb. 18, and by no coincidence, the Badgers won four of their last five. Leuer averaged 15.2 points during those games, but he's yet to fully reassert himself on the glass, averaging 5.4 boards. The Badgers don't boast a lot of other size and need him at his best.
NUMBER TO PONDER: 5-9
That's the combined record of first-round opponents Texas and Wake Forest since Feb. 16. The 'Horns have gone 7-9 since starting the season 17-0 and briefly holding the No. 1 ranking, while the Deacons have dropped five of their last six to fall from 11th to 37th in the RPI ratings. Someone has to win.
THE PICK: Kentucky
There's a chance the Wildcats will run into a series of opponents (Temple or Wisconsin, Marquette or West Virginia) with the ability to control the tempo and frustrate Wall and his run-and-gun crew. But none of those teams have the size to counter Kentucky's bigs, not even the Mountaineers, a tempting Final Four pick after their Big East tournament run.
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