NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region
If I'm a coach in this West region, my confidence in my team's ability to make a run in this tournament just reached an all time high. Every team from the 16 to the 1 is beatable. Even 16 seed Vermont was psyched about their draw, facing a Syracuse team in which they own, going 1-0 against them in tournament play over the past 5 years. The top seeded Orange are coming into the tournament off back to back losses, and won't have big inside presence Arinza Onuaku at full strength, if they have him at all. Kansas State has the dynamic backcourt duo in Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, however they have not beaten anyone good enough to scare anybody away. Pittsburgh is well coached and consistently competitive, however they lack that emphatic punch to label themselves as a serious threat to do any real harm.
This is a region in which a lot of potential Cinderella teams fell into. I really like UTEP, and their ability score from the guard position, as well as their toughness inside. I also like Xavier to show off their consistency in the tournament yet again, as they really have not had any bad losses as of late to warrant any reason to panic about a first round upset. Overall, it will be an exciting and interesting few weeks, while preventing any feelings of certainty when it comes to filling out your bracket in pen.
With that said, lets take a look at some key teams, matchups, sleepers and players that could make some noise in the coming weeks.
Why the No. 1 seed will make the Final Four:
This region is really Syracuse's to lose. A second round matchup with Gonzaga could cause some matchup problems, but Gonzaga has to worry about Soloman Alabi and Florida State first. Matt Bouldin and the Bulldogs know how to move the ball and shoot against a zone, but they would really have to catch the Orange on an off-day if they wanted to make a serious move. Kansas State could be a sexy team to write into that Final Four spot, but are they really that good? The Wildcats have played Kansas 3 times this season, and lost all 3. To me, in order to be a great team you need to beat a great team, and Kansas State failed in all 3 of their attempts. Butler could be a potential tough matchup for the Orange as they are well disciplined and can spread the floor, but they have enough to worry about in their first round matchup with a well rounded UTEP team, who would have been seeded higher if they didn't have a complete meltdown against Houston in their conference final. The Orange are probably more scared of Pittsburgh than anyone else just because of how well the teams know each other, and having lost to them at home earlier this season. But are the Panthers from a talent standpoint deep enough to reach the Elite 8? At the end of the day, as long as the Orange move well in that 2-3 zone, and Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins find their rhythm, they should find themselves in the Final Four by process of elimination.
Why the No. 1 seed will fall short:
Syracuse hasbeen struggling as of late, and without Arinze Onuaku in the middle, those struggles might continue. Other than Arinze, they really lack depth up front, with Rick Jackson being the only other big guy who playsconsistent minutes. When looking at their draw, Gonzaga could really cause problems for them in the second round. Excellent shooters and strong guard play from the Bulldogs could be a potential threat to the Orange. Butler could also be a tough matchup for the Orange. A well disciplined team that won't force the ball against the zone, patience will allow them to get the open look, which they are more than capable of knocking down. The Pittsburgh Panthers know the Orange as well as anyone, and I'd be willing to bet Syracuse would much rather play a teamoutside of the Big East that is unfamiliar with their style of play. Ithink the team that Syracuse has to worry about most though is themselves. If Andy Rautins or Wes Johnson start to cool off as the game progresses, they tend to try and shoot their wayout of the slump, as opposed to being aggressive and taking it to the basket. Syracuse also loves to give the ball up, turning it over 15 times per contest. When you combine turnovers with a team average of 67% from the free throw line, that could be too many points given away in a tight game against a hungry underdog trying to advance late into March and early April.
Best Non-No. 1 Seed:
The best team in this region other than Syracuse is Kansas State, and its not just because I see a number 2 next to their name. Its simply because they have the best guard tandem Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente of all the teams in the West, and yeah, maybe it's a cliche by now, but guards win games in March. Coach Martin takes intensity to a whole new level, and he won't let his players lose focus in a time where concentration and hunger is a deadly combination this time of year. With Jamar Samuels helping out on the boards off the bench, the Wildcats have the ability to really make a run in this inferior portion of the bracket.
Final Four Sleeper:
A final four sleeper in this region that has stayed under the radar thus far has been Pittsburgh. Not the strongest of the No. 3 seeds, but Pitt is playing under Coach of the Year candidate Jamie Dixon, and whoever you throw on that guy's team is bound to compete. Last year they were an Elite 8 team. They lose 3 of their key players, and miraculously find themselves as a 2 seed in the tough Big East tournament. They've beaten Syracuse in the Dome this year, showing they are capable of rising to the occasion when facing a superior team in a hostile environment. Ashton Gibbs has taken his game to a new level from a year ago , while Brad Wanamaker, Jermaine Dixon and Gilbert Brown all score in double figures to give the Panthers multiple options and depth. They may not be the most talented of the bunch, but they are well coached, and have played and beaten teams equally as tough as Kansas State, and again, have already taken down the number 1 seed once this year.
Sweet 16 Sleeper:
UTEP is a dangerous team who dropped to a 12 seed after a poor showing in their conference final. The Miner's sport guard Randy Culpepper, who drops 18 a game and could really get hot and take over a game, to go along with 6'9 Derrick Caracter and 6'11 Arnett Moultrie down low- and that combination of scoring and size, inside and out, could really cause problems for a lot of teams in the region, as well as the rest of the bracket. UTEP is the biggest darkhorse in the tournament as a 10 seed or lower with a legitimate shot to reach Indy.Overall Sleeper:
BYU has two things going for them. Motivation to play in Utah with a dominant home court advantage, and Jimmer Fredette. If you have not heard of Fredette, you most likely have not seen BYU play. And that's fine, 95 percent of the country has not seen BYU play. They take on a Florida team who struggles against physical play, while in their minds they've already won already just by making it to the field of 65. If anyone missed Stephen Curry take Davidson a few rounds deep in 2008, well here's your chance to possibly see another version of that.
Top first-round matchup:
UTEP vs. Butler is a great matchup of size and athleticism vs. shooting and defense. UTEP's physical tools will give Butler some serious problems down low, while Butler's defense, ability to spread the floor and shoot the ball could stop the Miners from overpowering them up front. If Butler's big guys can stay out of foul trouble, we could be in for some crucial final possessions. Whoever advances past this game can be a dangerous team moving forward.
Top Potential Matchup:
If Pitt can find a way to knock off a beatable Kansas State team, they could be in for an Elite 8 matchup with Syracuse. As mentioned earlier, the Panthers beat Syracuse in the Dome earlier this year by ten, not to mention having their number the past few years. Jamie Dixon knows this Syracuse team very well, and with Jim Boeheims reluctance to change his gameplan, Pitt might figure out how to beat them again. Either way, any Big East showdown in an Elite 8 round of March Madness could create instant memories for the future.
Top Potential One-on-One Matchup:
It would be tough to pick one player versus one playing as an intriguing head to head matchup somewhere along the road in this region. So I'm going with a tag team showdown, in a possible Elite 8 matchup of the top 2 teams in the region. In the left corner, wearing orange trunks, standing at 6'7 and 6'5 respectfully, averaging a combined 28 combined points per contest, and two of the deadliest shooters in the game, please welcome Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins from the Syracuse Orange. And in the right corner, wearing purple trunks averaging a combined 35 points per game, with neither player standing over 6'2, please welcome the quick and dangerous, runnin' and gunnin' backcourt of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente of the Kansas State Wildcats. If these 4 guys take the same court, we could be in for some serious highlights.
A lot of great coaches in this region. Jim Boeheim. Frank Martin. Jamie Dixon. Brad Stevens. But the best has to go a guy who currently ranks second on the wins list of active division 1 coaches, winning a National Title and appearing in 3, while coaching his team to the number 1 seed one year after losing their top three scorers. He's appeared in 26 NCAA tournaments, and there is nothing he hasn't seen. If I didn't pick Jim Boeheim as best coach in the West region, it just wouldn't make much sense.
Butler's young and bright Brad Stevens has been a head coach since 2008. If you've ever seen him, you might have mistaken him for an injured player. However, he's young and on the rise, winning 82 games in his first 3 seasons as head coach. Stevens has a smart team, a disciplined team who hustles and plays defense. If he finds a way to hold off the Miners in the first round, who knows where he could take this sharp and intelligent group. He's been coaching a few years now, and he's bound to push the right buttons sooner rather than later. Why not this year?
Top 5 NBA Prospects:
1. Wesley Johnson sat out a year after transferring from Iowa St, and stepped into a new system in a tough conference to average 16 points and over 8 rebounds. He uses his long wingspan to his advantage on both ends of the court, and has the ability to isolate himself and shoot with a hand in his face. The go-to player for one of the best teams in the country all year, if Wes isn't hitting a 3 or pulling up from midrange, hes cutting back down for the alley-oop. And yes, he plays defense. NBA, meet Wesley Johnson of the Syracuse Orange... you will be in touch.
2. Kris Joseph is still a year away from putting it all together but shows a lot of promise with his prototypical athletic abilities at the wing position. The high flyer is the nation's top 6th man and with the departure of Johnson should emerge as the Orange's next star in 2010-11.
3. Solomon Alabi for Florida State is 7'1, and athletic. Offensively, he's effective in the post, and can shoot over anyone. He is a defensive presence to say the least, and will make anyone think twice when driving through the paint. 7'1, athletic and able to knock down FTs is just not easyto find.
4. Jordan Crawford of Xavier is a player to watch out for. Best known for being the guy who dunked on LeBron at his own Nike camp, this guy has really come on as a player. He has the ability to take over agame, which is key come this time of year.
5. Gordon Hayward out of Butler is 6'8, with shooting touch and the ability to take it to the hole. He's a smart player who can pass and make his teammates better. He's long which helps contribute to his 8.5 rebounds per game, and more or less he's just efficient.
This region's breakout player is Jimmer Fredette from BYU, who doesn't get much publicity, but why should someone who put up 49 points against Arizona get any love? Fredette is the type of guy that can score so many pointsfrom so many places, it doesn't even matter who else is on his team... or the other team. How do you stop a guy who can shoot 6 feet behind the 3 point arch? He's scored 75 points in his last 2 games!
Even if he's playing against a team of pigeons, it's still a tough feat to score 75 points in 75 minutes. In a tournament where every point is so crucial, his ability to hit 23 of 24 free throws like he did against TCU in the conference tournament will be quite advantageous. He's figuring it out and catching fire just at the right time. For those of you who don't know Jimmer, he plans on making his National Introduction this Thursday.
Best Player with Limited NBA Potential:
This unfortunate award would have to go to Randy Culpepper. He's a shade under 6 feet tall, and can score the basketball at a high level in the college game. Averaging less than 2 assists per game, he lacks playmaking abilities, which he will need if he wants to succeed at the next level. At his height, he's got a better shot of reaching the Final 4 than he does of being a contributor in the NBA.
Other Notes in this region:
Marqus Blakely is a force for a Vermont team, which is why most people have not heard of him. There are two players in the countrywho average over 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists per game — Blakely and Ohio State standout Evan Turner. Just check out his dunks on YouTube. ... Also, pay attention to Murray State in the first round, a 30 win team that shoots over 50% from the field and hold their opponents to below 40%. And who doesn't want to write Murray State at least once in your brackets, right?
NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region
NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Region
NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region