Midwest Region: UNC to face stiff challenge from talented mid-majors
It could be better. The Tar Heels, which entered the season as the consensus national title favorite, took some lumps this year -- an early-season loss to UNLV, an embarrassing 90-57 defeat at Florida State on Jan. 14 and Austin Rivers' dagger in the first Duke on Feb. 8. North Carolina won nine straight after that, crushing the Blue Devils at Cameron and winning the ACC regular-season title, but fell in the conference tournament final, again to FSU. More troubling than that: ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson's wrist injury suffered in the quarterfinals against Maryland, causing him to sit the last two games.
When they're clicking, UNC has virtually all the pieces you could want: Three projected lottery picks in swingman Harrison Barnes (17.2 points per game), center Tyler Zeller (16.4, 9.2 rebounds) and Henson (2.9 blocks per game), along with consummate floor general Kendall Marshall (national-best 3.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio). But Henson's health is a big issue, along with the Heels' season-long questions: Will the enigmatic Barnes be assertive or passive and can UNC shoot well enough from three (34.4 percent on the season)?
An experienced, tourney-tested team, the Bruins took Duke to the wire in their opener, a 77-76 defeat in Durham, and enter the NCAA tournament on a 14-game winning streak. They're much better than their No. 14 seed would indicate, sitting 23rd overall in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Junior point guard Kerron Johnson makes the offense go, and seniors Mick Hedgepath (6-foot-10) and Scott Saunders (6-9) give them size up front.
This is not nearly the star-laden Aztecs team that gave UConn a fight in the Sweet 16 last year. Steve Fisher's squad overachieved in going 24-7 and finishing second in the Mountain West, but a three-game slide in mid-February and an 68-59 loss to New Mexico in the Mountain West final give reason for pause.
Many feel big-time scorer Doug McDermott (23.2 points per game) and the 28-5 Bluejays could be this year's Butler, but Creighton will have its hands full right off the bat with a Crimson Tide team that's already knocked off their Missouri Valley peer Wichita State, as well as VCU. The winner has the unenviable treat of facing North Carolina in Greensboro.
The co-favorite for national player of the year, Robinson is a beast on the boards, averaging 11.8 per game (No. 2 nationally) to go with 17.9 points on 53 percent shooting. Besides the UNC pair of Zeller and Henson, there aren't many players in this region that can match his physicality.
The latest in a line of Saint Mary's imports from Australia, the WCC Player of the Year does a little bit of everything. The 6-4 junior guard averages 15.6 points, 6.4 assists while shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. He can take over and be the primary scorer when needed or feed the ball to forward Rob Jones and sharpshooter Clint Steindl.
The pair put off NBA riches to return for a run at the national title, and while both have generally excelled (making first team All-ACC) they've taken their share of criticism, too (Barnes for not being more dominant, Zeller for perceived lack of toughness). Anything less than the Final Four will be considered a disappointment.
Michigan coach John Beilein has six previous NCAA appearances at four different schools (Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan), and he's won at least one game in every trip but the first one (1996 at Canisius). At West Virginia he reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. His motion offense and use of the 1-3-1 zone often confound opponents unfamiliar with him. And this, his most talented team to date in his five years in Ann Arbor -- led by standout freshman Trey Burke -- is flying under the radar as a No. 4 seed.
Bill Self's Jayhawks have had a slew of tourney misfortune when faced with capable mid-majors (Bucknell in 2005, Bradley in '06, Northern Iowa in '10 and VCU last year), so it's entirely possible that Saint Mary's or Belmont (who I'm picking to reach the Sweet 16) could torment them this year. But provided Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor get through the first two rounds they'll be at a distinct advantage playing in partisan St. Louis, and they'll catch a break when Creighton or Michigan takes down North Carolina.