NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region
The East Region may just be the most intriguing in this year's NCAA Tournament. The mixture of styles of play is fascinating. You have the run and gun teams with: Kentucky, Texas, Washington, Clemson and Missouri. Then you have the crawlers with: Temple, Wisconsin, Wofford, Marquette and West Virginia. The East also boasts one of college basketball's top cinderella stories in No. 3 seed New Mexico, which stunned the hoops world en route to a 29-4 regular season. How far can the Lobos go? Is John Wall ready to lead top seed Kentucky to a national championship? The Wildcats will face some tough obstacles along the way with the Big East, Atlantic 10 and Pac-10 champions standing in their path to a title. Let's take a closer look at what the East Region has in store...
Why the No. 1 seed will make the Final Four:
To put it simply, Kentucky may be the most talented team in college basketball. The freshman backcourt duo of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe is nearly impossible to keep out of the paint. Both are lightning quick and have deceptive strength. Patrick Patterson is a versatile power forward with the ability to knock down jumpers and abuse opponents in the post. DeMarcus Cousins is an absolute load inside and a beast on the offensive glass. As a team, the Wildcats grab over 14 offensive boards per game. They're also a very stout defensive unit, holding opponents to 38% shooting and blocking seven shots per game. The only team in the East that can remotely match their athletic ability is Texas, and the two could potentially meet in the round of 32.
Why the No. 1 seed will fall short:
The Wildcats are very young, with 3 freshmen averaging more than 30 minutes per game, and a fourth at 13 minutes. They can usually mask their lack of experience and immaturity with tremendous skill, but the NCAA Tournament is a different animal. Extended rough patches can rarely be overcome. For all the positives Wall and Bledsoe bring to the table, turnovers have been a significant problem. They combine for more than 7 turnovers a night. Kentucky has had problems with zone defenses this season, specifically against the length of Tennessee. Consistent outside shooting has not been a strong point, as they win in spite of poor 3-point shooting in most games. A rugged, defensive-minded team likely awaits in the Sweet 16, in either Temple or Wisconsin. Both play a methodical pace and grind out W's. The Wildcats patience will be tested.
Best Non-No. 1 seed:
The Big East champions from West Virginia were overlooked for a #1 seed, but they are still quite dangerous. Bob Huggins' crew executes at a high level offensively. They dish off 16 assists per game against only 12 turnovers, a ratio good for 18th in the country. In addition, they are one of the dominant rebounding teams in college basketball. If he hadn't distinguished himself already, forward Da'Sean Butler certainly did so in the Big East Tournament, nailing two game-winners, including an off-balance leaner with 4 seconds remaining in the title game against Georgetown. Fellow forwards Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks are unique players with great length and versatility. The play of point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant will be critical to West Virginia's success- Bryant is a more of scoring guard, but has been forced into running the show for the Mounties, and has done so admirably.
Final Four Sleeper:
It might not always be pretty, but the Temple Owls win games. The Atlantic 10 champions have the nation's third-best scoring defense and fourth best field goal percentage defense. The Owls are meticulous with the basketball, rarely wasting possessions or allowing fast breaks. While they can look helter-skelter offensively for 30 seconds, guards Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks are capable of creating shots in late clock situations. Both shoot 80% from the free throw line and ice away games late. Forward Lavoy Allen is one of the most underrated players in the country, averaging 12 points, 11 boards, 2 assists and 1.5 blocks. Allen has been knocked for lack of aggression and killer instinct: It's time for him to kick it up a notch. A Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky would be an enormous road block, to put it lightly, should they even get past No. 4 seed Wisconsin.
Sweet 16 Sleeper:
The Washington Huskies enter the Big Dance playing their best ball of the season. They have won 13 of 15, including taking down the Pac-10 crown over California. Their defense, which had been non-existent early on, has been much improved since February. The Huskies don't lack for offensive firepower and are a very aggressive group. They attempted 855 free throws this season, converting on 73% of those opportunities. Forward Quincy Pondexter and guard Isaiah Thomas both get to the line for six attempts a game. Washington has great depth with 11 players playing over 10 minutes. They can come in with quality size and guard play off the bench at any time. Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday are both defensive dynamos for the Huskies. Their road to the Sweet 16 will go through Marquette and New Mexico, two solid teams that lack explosive athleticism -- meaning Washington should find itself in the game against both opponents.
Making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since entering Division I in 1995, the Wofford Terriers boast an impressive resume. The Southern Conference champs claimed victories over South Carolina and Georgia and played Pittsburgh to a three point margin on the road. The Terriers are a fundamentally sound team that plays strong defense. They are led by Southern Conference Player of the Year, Noah Dahlman, who put up 17 points, 6 boards and made 58 percent of his field goals this season. He produced some of his top efforts against the toughest competition. Ten players gets 10+ minutes per game. Wisconsin is a winnable game in the first round, as they won't be flustered by a deliberate pace.
Top First Round matchup:
Clemson vs. Missouri will be a battle of Tigers, and two squads that love to play pressure defense and force the pace. Both excel in a frenzied, out-of-control style of play, forcing turnovers and in getting easy baskets. Missouri leads the nation in steals, with Clemson not far behind at seventh. They can be classified as 'momentum' teams. If this one turns into a halfcourt affair, Clemson has the edge. Missouri lacks a go-to scoring option and has no answer for Trevor Booker. It must be noted that the pressure is building on Clemson and coach Oliver Purnell, who has never won an NCAA Tournament game despite very talented teams in recent years.
Top Potential Matchup:
Kentucky vs. West Virginia would pit arguably the top No. 1 seed against the top No. 2 seed in the Elite Eight. How the committee put the top of this region together is still unclear, but it would make for a terrific matchup. The Wildcats and their NBA lottery picks versus the lunch pail, rugged Mountaineers. WVU usually succeeds at controlling the pace, and that would obviously be essential in beating Kentucky. If this turns into an up and down affair they have no shot. The Mountaineers also change defenses frequently and effectively, using the 1-3-1, 2-3 and man. The mettle of the young Wildcats would surely be tested in this clash of styles.
Top Player Matchup:
Damion James and Al-Farouq Aminu are both NBA-caliber small forwards who will face off in the round of 64. Both players lead their respective teams, Texas and Wake Froest, in scoring and rebounding, with James at 18 and 10, and Aminu at 16 and 11. They have similar skill sets as well, with Aminu having the edge in ball handling, and James having the stronger frame and ability to finish with contact. If you like guys that attack the rim with and without the ball, this is the matchup for you.
To say that Bo Ryan gets the most out of his players is an understatement. The Wisconsin coach has consistently won, having made the NCAA Tournament each of his nine years in Madison. He's won when he's gotten there, too, making it past the first round all but once and to the Elite Eight once as well. And he's done it all without much help from NBA-caliber players. Ryan's teams usually have no more than one future pro in a key role, and this year's 23-8 incarnate is no different, with Jon Leuer being the likely only NBAer. Ryan preaches a slow tempo and limited mistakes, and in the end he is the perfect counterpoint to Kentucky's John Calipari.
The Grizzlies failed to reach the tournament in the first two years under coach Wayne Tinkle, but are back this season. He kept his team together in the face of a 20 point halftime deficit on the road in the Big Sky Championship at Weber State. Montana knocked off Nevada in the round of 64 in their last tourney appearance in 05-06, perhaps more magic is in store for Anthony Johnson and Grizz.
Top 5 NBA propsects:
1. John Wall, Kentucky: If Evan Turner is the best college player, Wall is the best prospect. The Kentucky freshman's athleticism alone can drop jaws, but his body control and court vision are what make him a particularly special prospect. Wall may not have quite the defensive skill or strength that Derrick Rose had coming out of Memphis, but he's an even more creative and fun to watch player. The hype around this guy has been enormous, but deserved. He will be an all-star caliber point guard.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky: Weighing in at possibly 270 pounds, Cousins is a dominating post player when he's feeling it. The problem is, for every moment he looks like the next Shaq, there's another where he more closely resembles Eddy Curry. Cousins should be better than Curry, for sure. But he still has some issues to sort out with a checkered past and a lack of consistent effort. Many question his motor and his care on the defensive end.
3. Al Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest: Aminu's been high on the NBA radar since dominating Georgetown's Greg Monroe in a high school game their senior years. Now a sophomore, he has taken over the Demon Deacons as the clear-cut star. His ball-handling is what makes him such a unique player -- he seems able to create separation for any jump shot while also blowing by slower defenders to the rim on a consistent basis. Aminu has the potential to be an all-star caliber player, though many rank him a notch below the first wave of prospects, players such as Wall and Cousins, in this draft.4. Damion James, Texas: Likely the best senior prospect in the country, James has spent years tantalizing NBA people with his skills and athleticism. He's a bit rigid, but he has a great combination of strength and skill. Some have compared him to Shawn Marion, as he can control the boards and score at a high volume, but would be best with a Steve Nash-like point guard setting him up. There's reason to doubt that James will ever be a star in the NBA, but he should be a good role player.
5. Devin Ebanks, West Virginia: Ebanks gets the nod over his more popular -- and frankly, better right now college teammate Da'Sean Butler. While Butler is limited by his athleticism, Ebanks' potential is absolutely enormous. He resembles Lamar Odom in a lot of ways, what with his tenacity on the boards and defensive skill, along with his inconsistency and unusual style of play. For a time, it appeared Ebanks would be a top-10 pick. But an up-and-down sophomore slump has left him on the fringes of the top 20. Still, he rates as one of the top four small forwards in this draft class.
Break out player:
New Mexico point guard Dairese Gary has snuck beneath the radar all season while teammate Darington Hobson gets all the accolades. Gary is a bull attacking the basket, getting to the free throw stripe seven times per game and converting over 75 percent of his attempts. He is an extremely steady hand with the rock, averaging four assists and fewer than two turnovers. He has done his best work in the biggest games, averaging 24 points and five assists in the two meetings with BYU. Gary is the Lobos' go-to-guy in crunch time and will likely make a crucial play at some point in this tournament.
Best player with limited NBA potential:
Trevon Hughes has evolved as much as any player in the country while playing under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. The ultra-quick New York City point guard came to Madison with a game that consisted of essentially one tool -- he could drive to the basket. Now, he been able to make a smooth transition off ball and into the role of lead scorer. He's turning it over less, finding his teammates even from the wing, and running the show for the big moments. Hughes also has great shooting ability. His size and combo guard status limit him. He'll likely never reach the NBA. But he's become a great college guard and emotional leader.
NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region
NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Region
NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region
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