Thursday, March 17, 2011

West Regional: An Insider's Guide

The road to a repeat for Nolan Smith and reigning national champion Duke begins tomorrow in Blue Devils' backyard of Charlotte against Hampton. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Our final regional preview comes after a 2-for-2 night on the second set of First Four play-in games, and we'll even recap the previous picks at the end of this one as an added bonus. Sixteen more teams and one more hour before West Virginia and Clemson officially start the madness. Here we go.

#1 Seed Duke vs. #16 Seed Hampton - If you still had any doubt about the Blue Devils attempting to defend their national title, Kyrie Irving may be making his long-awaited return in Charlotte tomorrow after missing the last 26 games with a toe injury. In his absence, Nolan Smith has picked up an ACC Player of the Year award while also minimizing a down year for forward Kyle Singler. Duke might not win the national title, but they'll definitely be one of the last 32.

#8 Seed Michigan vs. #9 Seed Tennessee - The Wolverines are the biggest beneficiaries of the Bruce Pearl controversy, as the embattled Tennessee head man may not be back in Knoxville next season according to the Vols' athletic director's press release that stated the administration would "decide once we're out." Tennessee is the epitome of big game team, however; with wins over Pitt and Villanova (the 'Nova win isn't as big now) on neutral courts, and most of this team was around last year when the Vols knocked off Kansas and Kentucky before advancing to the Elite Eight in the Midwest.

#5 Seed Arizona vs. #12 Seed Memphis - Past meets present for Tigers coach Josh Pastner, a former Arizona assistant. Memphis had been among the last teams out before their run to yet another Conference USA title, and now they draw the unenviable task of attempting to neutralize Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams. Only a sophomore, the Wildcats' big forward will attempt to control the game in what could be a springboard for coach Sean Miller to take a higher-profile job, but don't expect the former Xavier boss to leave Tucson right away.

#4 Seed Texas vs. #13 Seed Oakland - I'm legitimately surprised by the amount of people discounting the Longhorns here, even if their regular season campaign did feature a trademark Texas slide. The Grizzlies come in out of the Summit League (Mid-Continent Conference for my fellow old-timers) led by forward Keith Benson and former St. John's transfer Larry Wright, who is still an outside threat all these years later. Oakland's undoing will be on the glass, as the Grizzlies do not have the bodies necessary to compete with the Texas frontcourt of Jordan Hamilton, Gary Johnson and freshman Tristan Thompson.

#6 Seed Cincinnati vs, #11 Seed Missouri - Mick Cronin finally gets into the "Big Dance" with the Bearcats, but the affable head man still isn't getting any respect for turning this program around after it was essentially left for dead following Bob Huggins' departure. The lack of respect plays its way into the draw as well since the Bearcats draw a Missouri team that is a tough out just for the simple fact that they're coached by Mike Anderson, he of the "40 Minutes Of Hell" school of thought. The matchup between guards Marcus Denmon (Missouri) and Dion Dixon (Cincinnati) will be fun to watch on both sides of the three-point line.

#3 Seed Connecticut vs. #14 Seed Bucknell - The Huskies finally got a break after having to literally run the gauntlet by playing an unprecedented five games in as many days on their way to a Big East championship. Next up for the Kemba Walker Show is the Patriot League champion Bucknell, who upset Kansas back in 2005 as a 14 seed for those scoring at home. If UConn has showed anything over the last week, it's that Kemba isn't alone. Freshman Jeremy Lamb has developed into a great shooting guard, and Alex Oriakhi and Tyler Olander have given the Huskies some depth and presence on the boards. Throw in a sixth man that would start on any other team in fellow frosh Shabazz Napier, and you have a team destined for a deep run in March.

#7 Seed Temple vs. #10 Seed Penn State - Penn State coach Ed DeChellis leads his upstart Nittany Lions into battle against a Temple team that was among the class of the Atlantic 10 all season. Talor Battle and Juan Fernandez will be engaging in a shootout if Penn State is unable to show the defensive prowess they exhibited in their 36-33 (no typo) Big Ten tournament quarterfinal win over Wisconsin.

#2 Seed San Diego State vs. #15 Seed Northern Colorado - The Mountain West champions look to win their first NCAA Tournament game against a school making its first appearance. The only good thing for the casual fan is that they'll be introduced to the player who has earned the title of best player you've never heard of this season: Aztecs power forward Kawhi (pronounced Ka-WHY, like the Hawaiian island of Kauai) Leonard, a sophomore who averages a double-double every time he takes the court.

The Way I See It: Predictions
Second round:
Duke defeats Hampton
Tennessee defeats Michigan
Arizona defeats Memphis
Texas defeats Oakland
Missouri defeats Cincinnati
UConn defeats Bucknell
Temple defeats Penn State
San Diego State defeats Northern Colorado

Third round:
Duke defeats Tennessee
Texas defeats Arizona
UConn defeats Missouri
San Diego State defeats Temple

Sweet 16: (Regional semifinals)
Duke defeats Texas
UConn defeats San Diego State

Elite 8: (Regional final)
Duke defeats UConn

Final Four Predictions:
Duke defeats Ohio State
Kansas defeats Kansas State

National Championship:
Kansas defeats Duke (Most Outstanding Player of Tournament: Kansas F Marcus Morris)

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