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Monday, March 14, 2011,9:34 a.m.Updated: Monday, 12:55 p.m.By Benjamin Standig
CSNwashington.comIt's better than the NFL's first weekend, superior to baseballs opening day and at least on par with your dentist saying "no new cavities." Yes, we are talking the NCAA tournaments Selection Sunday and, more specifically, the time immediately after the bracket is revealed. Thats when everyone, whether he watched every minute of the season from Maui to Madison Square Garden or could not tell you what a Jimmer or a Kemba is, goes all expert and fills out that perfect bracket. Or so we all dream.No matter whatany "expert"or bracketologist (seriously, enough with that title) says about the field, the 2011 NCAA tournament is incredibly wide open. Outside of a couple of teams -- and, literally, I mean like two -- you could take the next 30 to 40 teams and match them up time after time and get different results. In other words, there are some true upsets, but few if any among those teams seeded two through eight, at least.I watched tons of ball, covering Georgetown and George Mason, among others, and by my count saw 17 of the 68 teams live andmore on television. So you know I'll lose to my friend who makes his picks based on whether he's visited a school, knows someone who wentto the universityor simply based on the ferociousness of the team mascot. Sigh. But that's OK, bring it on. That goes double for all you Dukies.Because the first games begin on Tuesday, no time to waste EAST REGION
Key to the region: Whether Ohio State picks the one-and-done tournament to have its first bad game of the season. Not that the Buckeyes have been perfect, but Jared Sullinger and crew have been close, losing only on the road at ranked conference foes Wisconsin and Purdue (and the Boilermakers needed a career-high scoring day from E'Twaun Moore to take control). North Carolina has been coming on over the second half of the season, Syracuse has that 2-3 zone, Kentucky won the SEC tournament and George Mason was sporting the nations longest winning streak at 16 straight just a couple of weeks back. Point being, the Buckeyes clearly have the tools to reach the Final Four, but they are not above losing to any of those teams if they have a single off day.Second-round upset: UAB (12) over West Virginia (5). Based on the uproar out of college hoops' chattering class, apparently I was the only one outside of Birmingham who had the Blazers into the field of 68. They won10games against the RPI top 100 (more than Virginia Tech or Alabama) and won the regular season in the decent Conference USA.The pick, however, first over Clemson and then WVU, is not about their previous accomplishments. Its all about the emotion after the public lashing the Blazers endured Sunday night by a cavalcade of grumpy analysts who pushed their chips all in on other bubble teams. Also, while the Mountaineers are always a tough out, their seed exceeds their talent this season.(Oh, yes, it says second and not first round. Thats because the NCAA has deemed the play-in games as the opening round. Sure, why not? Two of the four "first-round" games are in this regional, and UT-San Antonio wins the other one.)Others: Marquette (11) over Xavier (6)Player to watch: Marquette coach Buzz Williams sends players in and out of the lineup with the frenetic pace of hockey line changes, which should work well against the undermanned Musketeers. However, one player he leaves on the hardwood more often than not is forward Jimmy Butler. The Golden Eagles' leading scorer is a tough-nosed, 6-foot-7 wing forward with a solid mid-range and slashing game, but its when he does not produce major points that Marquette is at its best. When the 16-point-per-game scorer finishes with 20 or more points, the Golden Eagles are 2-6. When Butler scores 13 or fewer, they are 7-2, with two triumphs over West Virginia. Less is more, at least when it comes to the Butler doing it.Others: Luke Hancock (George Mason), Tu Holloway (Xavier), Jamal Olasewere (Long IslandSpringbrook High School)Sweet 16 matchups: Ohio State over Kentucky, UNC over Marquette. Expect the Buckeyes to have a tougher contest against the veteran Patriots of George Mason than the kids of Kentucky. When conference foes meet in tournament action, give me the underdog. Thats why I have the Golden Eagles taking down the Orange in the third round, for the second time this season. However, their run ends against the playmaking skills of Tar Heels freshman point guard Kendall Marshall and interior game of Tyler Zeller.And going to the Final Four: UNCs other freshman, Harrison Barnes, has shown why he was selected a preseason All-American with his barrage of points down the stretch. The Tar Heels' depth up front will give Sullinger fits, and Barnes star will shine bright, but experience wins in March. The Buckeyes have that and statistics on their side, ranking top five nationally in scoring margin, field-goal and 3-point percentage, turnover margin and fouls against. Ohio State, 78-72. Sullinger named Most Outstanding Player.George Mason aside: The 89 game is a bummer draw for the Patriots. Pitted against any No. 2 seeds named Notre Dame or North Carolina, Id have Cam Long and company moving on. If they do shock the Buckeyes, look for an Elite Eight run ending against the Tar Heels.WEST REGION
Key to the region: If Duke makes shots, it can fend off the pack of high-energy teams in this region, including San Diego State, Texas, Arizona, Tennesseeand Cincinnati. Kyle Singler, the 2010 Final Four MOP, has made 58 three-pointers on the season, but only three over his past nine games. The Blue Devilshave survived for the most part without that key component, but if Nolan Smith and the other perimeter players have an off night ... Second-round upset: Bucknell (14) over Connecticut (3). Picking against Connecticut's Kemba Walker seems like the definition of insanity after Walker slashed, dashed, shot and scored his way past five opponents in five days at the Big East Tournament en route to the title. If the Huskies can recover emotionally from such an epic run, they win, but I say their rotation of largely underclassman cannot rebound by Thursday. The Bisons Mike Muscala, the Patriot League Player of the Year, will still need to generate points inside.Others: Missouri (11) over Cincinnati (6), Tennessee (9) over Michigan (8)
Player to watch: Kawhi Leonard receives the bulk of any national attention for San Diego State, and guard D.J. Gay has made the highlights with his last-second heroics, including Friday, when he made another game-winning basket against UNLV. However, the one player who can help the Aztecs reach another gear is small forward Billy White. Though he averages only 9.9 points, the 6-8 forward scored 21 points in the Mountain West final against BYU while serving as the primary defender against Jimmer Fredette. Sure, the Cougars star scored 30 points, but it took him 25 attempts to get there. More than the stats, Whites willingness to take on the challenge defensively will come in handy with the likes of Dukes Singler and Arizonas Derrick Williams in this region.Others: Seth Curry (Duke), Lavoy Allen (Temple), Keith Benson (Oakland)Sweet 16 matchups: Duke over Texas, San Diego State over Missouri. Though I agree the Longhorns were seeded at least one notch too low, their body language down the stretch did not speak of a Final Four-type team. That wont cut it against yet another mentally tough Duke squad. The winner between Missouri and Cincinnati will reach the Sweet 16 if UConn is tuckered out and the relentless Tigers get the call over the Bearcats and their at-times offensive offense. Against Missouri, the athletes on San Diego State will look like the old Houston Cougars Phi Slamma Jamma crew with vast swaths of open court they can maneuver in before throwing down dunk after dunk. And going to the Final Four: If the Blue Devils can get the Aztecs to play a jump-shooting contest, Singler will have a chance at a consecutive Final Four MOP because Duke will have advanced to Houston. On the flip side, Leonard and Co. should dominate the boards, and if Duke struggles from the perimeter, good night. Picking against Coach K is rarely a smart move, but it sure feels good, especially in victory. In the same month a documentary about the Fab Five is airing, Steve Fisher takes another team to the Final FourSan Diego State, 84-75. Kawhi Leonard named Most Outstanding Player.SOUTHWEST REGIONKey to the region: Heady guard play is always a key to tournament success, and this region is jammed with high-end backcourt options. Notre Dames Ben Hansbrough was the Big Easts Player of the Year, while Kansas Tyshawn Taylor played at that level in the Jayhawks' run through the Big 12 tournament. Purdues E'Twaun Moore is a major scorer, Louisvilles Peyton Siva is a blur with the ball and Georgetowns Austin Freeman is a 3-point fiend, especially now that he has the indispensable Chris Wright back next to him. In other words, whichever guard does his best Kemba Walker impression could be the one getting his name in lights.Second-round upset: Richmond (12) over Vanderbilt (5). Not sure how the Atlantic 10 tournament champion Spiders ended up being seeded this low, but it means the Commodores' stay will not be long. Shifty point guard Kevin Anderson averaged 22 points during the three-game tournament run and directs the Spiders' complex sets. The emerging 6-10 Justin Harper has scored in double figures every game since Thanksgiving weekend.Others: None by seed, though based on the way the pundit class crushed Virginia Commonwealth, it will be considered a shock when it defeats USC. No. 10 Florida State could stop seventh-seeded Texas A&M if star forward Chris Singleton finally returns from injury.Player to watch: The NCAAs all-time leader in rebounds is not some player from a long-ago era like Bill Russell or an imposing force from the 1980s like Patrick Ewing. It sure seemed like Tyler Hansbrough played enough games to set the mark, but no, not him either. For some time, that record belonged to Tim Duncan, but no more, not since Morehead States Kenneth Faried rebounded his way past the former Wake Forest great in February. The 6-8 power forward, now with 1,643 rebounds, led the nation in rebounding with 14.5 per game this season, and his 64 percent shooting ranked fourth. More leaper than bruiser, the senior averages 17.6 points and led the Eagles to a bracket-busting win over the eventual Missouri Valley tournament champion Indiana State. Farieds nonstop action has generated NBA first-round buzz, which could grow louder if it takes down Louisville.Others: Trevon Willis (UNLV), Nikola Vucevic (USC), Jamie Skeen (VCU)Sweet 16 matchups: Louisville over Kansas, Notre Dame over Purdue. Maybe Ive caught the Jayhawks at the wrong times, and obviously their overall record is sublime, but I do not see them as being overly dominant, certainly not against a tested Big East power. Rick Pitino has always been high on my list of trusted big-game coaches, and he gains back some national street cred with the upset over Bill Selfs Jayhawks. The Irish under coach Mike Brey have more been a paper lion more often than not in the tournament, but this group has a bit more roar in them. Their size across the starting lineup causes problems, as does their ability to rain down threes.And going to the Final Four: This matchup occurred in the Big East semifinals, and Notre Dame squandered a 14-point lead and eventually lost in overtime. Hansbrough was a frustrating 3 of 16 from the field and missed six of eight 3-pointers, but hes not the first perimeter player held in check by the Cardinals defense. Louisville allows opponents to shoot 31 percent from beyond the arc while sinking 8.9 of their own per game, which ranks seventh nationally. That formula works again. Plus, I like picking teams that lost in their conference finals. They played well enough to get there, but still have bitter taste of losing in their mouth. Louisville, 76-72. Peyton Siva named Most Outstanding Player.Georgetown aside: If Chris Wright does notsuffer a setback in practice andis truly healthy and the rest of the Hoyas have not lost their confidence during the brutal four-game skid, Georgetown can defeat virtually any team in the country. But when filling out a three-week running bracket, picking them to advance far based on the hope that all is well with Wrights non-shooting hand is a risk too great. In my alternate bracket (come on, who doesnt fill out at least two or 16 sheets?), Id roll the dice that the Hoyas move past Purdue and perhaps more. But like the tournament itself, a single sheet entry is a one-and-done scenario. Cant risk being wrong on Wright.SOUTHEAST REGIONKey to the region: This region is chock full of upset specials. By my math, only the top two seeds, Pittsburgh and Florida, are in no danger of falling victim in their opening games (the Panthers will play Arkansas-Little Rock, for what its worth). Simply surviving the opening weekend will be deemed a success. Few high seeds will therefore be deemed, as Charlie Sheen would say, winning.Second-round upset: Wofford (14) over Brigham Young (3). Picking Jimmer Fredette to bow out in the first round is akin to stating one is anti-fun, but the Terriers have the goods to take down the Brandon Davies-less Cougars. Wofford, in the tournament for the second straight season, owns a win over George Mason and lost 94-90 to Xavier this season. The Terriers hit 40.7 percent of their 3-point tries (sixth nationally), shoot 47.9 percent from the field (eighth) and feature leading scorer Noah Dahlman (20.0) as one of five seniors in the standard rotation. Sure, the Jimmer might go for 40 at minimum -- the Wofford ranks 216th defending 3-pointers -- but the feisty Terriers will not fear his bark or bite.And another: Belmont (13) over Wisconsin (4). No knock on the Badgers, but the deep Bruins are a frightening matchup to open against, what with their 11-man rotation and penchant for firing from deep. Vince Gills favorite team has attempted more 3-pointers than any other team in the field. No mere chuckers, Belmont has also made the most while shooting a solid 38 percent from deep. Sorry cheese heads, but you already have a Super Bowl win, so no sympathies on this end.Others: Utah State (12) over Kansas State (5), Gonzaga (11) over St. Johns (6), Michigan State (10) over UCLA (7), Old Dominion (9) over Butler (8)Player to watch: Picking any one player to highlight on Belmont essentially misses the point of what the Bruins are about, but guard Ian Clark leads the team in points (12.4) and minutes played (25). Despite well over half of his shots coming from beyond the arc, the 6-3 sophomore sinks 49 percent of them. Clark is one of eight Belmont players with at least 11 made 3-pointers and part of a quintet that drains at least 40 percent of their threes.
Others: Kent Bazemore (Old Dominion), Tai Wesley (Utah State), David Stockton (Gonzaga)Sweet 16 matchups: Pittsburgh over Belmont, Gonzaga over Michigan State. Say what now? The (Vince) Gills, the (Tom) Izzos and the (John) Stocktons all make the Sweet 16? Apparently so. The Bruins' 3-point shooting ways will eventually be stymied by the Panthers, while the Zags' improbable run all the way to the Elite Eight continues behind guards Steven Gray's scoring and young Mr. Stockton's point guarding. Pretty sure they have those old Cinderella slippers tucked in a gym bag somewhere.-Initial post had Michigan State over Gonzaga, but that was from a draft I changed.And going to the Final Four: The hard-working, but not overly skilled Panthers have fooled me in the past with their plausible Final Four game, always leaving my bracket high and dry. So, why I am going back to that well one more time? Partly because of the implosion in the rest of the bracket, but also because the Panthers' grit has impressed me time and time again. Ashton Gibbs is their one true scoring threat and a legitimate cold-blooded shooter in the clutch. If his teammates can step up during those rare times he draws more iron than net, the Panthers will be heading to Houston. Pittsburgh, 68-61, Ashton Gibbs named Most Outstanding Player.
And cutting down the nets will be: In a season that was bloated with a large and mediocre middle, Ohio State was one of the few teams that consistently performed. Not flashy, just steady and, for the most part, wise. The Buckeyes' heady play takes down the Aztecs' athletes in the semis and then they square off against the Cardinals. Louisville beat Pittsburgh in overtime this season. History repeats. Whether long bomber Jon Diebler can break free for his patented 3-pointers against the Cardinals will be of major importance. Coach Thad Matta may lose another young player to the NBA after just one season, but Sullinger makes his count in the biggest and baddest of ways, despite 20 or more points from Cardinals guard Preston Knowles. Ohio State 78, Louisville 74. Jared Sullinger named the tournaments Most Outstanding Player.