Overview: CV Smoothâ€™s alma mater, UConn, enters this tournament as the odds-on favourite to cut down the nets in Indianapolis on April 3. Also in this bracket is red-hot North Carolina, led by fab frosh Tyler Hansbrough and this yearâ€™s surprise team, Tennessee.
Best first-round matchup: #8 Kentucky vs. #9 UAB, Friday. Kentucky entered the season as a top-ten club, but has been up and down all season. They are led by sophomore G Rajon Rondo (11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and senior G Patrick Sparks (9.0 ppg). UAB knocked off Kentucky two seasons ago and the Wildcats will be out for revenge. The Blazers play at a frenetic pace and are not scared about shooting the trey, led by guards Marvett McDonald (15.2 ppg) and Squeaky Johnson. The X-factor in this one might be Kentucky C Randolph Morris, who flirted with the NBA after his freshman season. The Blazers may not have an answer for him.
Upset Special: Those who have been following my Around the Mocks column for a while know that I am big on Utah State. While some say that they should not have received an at-large bid, the Aggies will pose many problems for #5 Washington on Thursday. They are led by 6-7 senior F Nate Harris (17.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and sophomore gunner Jaycee Carroll (16.7 ppg, 47.6% 3FG%). As a team, the Aggies shoot 50.1% from the floor and nearly 42% from downtown.
Best Players You Havenâ€™t Heard of: There are a few in this region, led by the aforementioned Harris. Keep an eye on Wichita State C Paul Miller (13.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who was the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. George Mason F Jai Lewis is a mid-major version of LSUâ€™s â€œBaby Shaqâ€, Glen Davis.
Donâ€™t be surprised if: Wichita State makes the Sweet 16.
Regional Champ: UConn will knock off Hansbrough and the Tar Heels in a hotly contested elite 8 matchup to earn their ticket to Indianapolis.
Overview: Dickie Vâ€™s fave, Duke, is the #1 seed in the Atlanta Regional. They are joined by #2 seed Texas and a slew of solid teams that are poised to make a deep run in the tourney, such as Iowa, LSU, Syracuse and West Virginia
Best first-round matchup: There were a few good ones in this region: Cal/NC State, George Washington/UNC Wilmington, West Virginia/Southern Illinois, even LSU/Iona. In the end, we think the best first round game will pit the #5 Syracuse Orange against the #12 Texas A&M Aggies.
Syracuse willed its way into the Dance on the shoulders of Gerry McNamara and are one of the hottest teams in the country. Meanwhile, Texas A&M come into the tournament on a roll as well and are one of the best teams in the nation at winning close games (10-3 on games decided by five or fewer points). If McNamara stays hot, the Orange can continue their roll into the second round. If not, and the Orange canâ€™t contain 6-9 sophomore Joseph Jones (15.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), the clock will strike midnight on Syracuseâ€™s Cinderella story.
Upset Special: Texas A&M over Syracuse.
Best Players You Havenâ€™t Heard of: You may have heard of him, but not to the extent you should. His name is Leon Powe. He plays for Cal. Heâ€™s good, nearly averaging a double-double this season (20.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg). Also, keep an eye on UNC-Wilmington G John Goldsberry, who is a defensive stopper and can score as well (11.2 ppg). His team might not be around for long, so be sure to catch Iona G Steve Burtt, who torched the Metro Atlantic Conference nets to the tune of 25.1 ppg this season.
Donâ€™t be surprised if: Northwestern State gives Iowa a game. Just because you havenâ€™t heard of them doesnâ€™t mean they canâ€™t play. The Demons can ball.
Regional Champ: Duke rides J.J. Redick to a win over Texas and a date with the winner of the Oakland Regional in Indianapolis.
Overview: Top seed Villanova is joined by the surprise of the Big 10, Ohio State, along with Florida and Boston College, two dangerous squads who have the potential to reach Indianapolis.
Best first-round matchup: Tough call, but Iâ€™m going to go with Thursdayâ€™s tilt between #6 Oklahoma and #11 Wisconsin-Milwaukee. UWM was the darling of last yearâ€™s dance, led by coach Bruce Pearl, who has since rolled down to Knoxville and turned around the Vols. A lot of people will probably see UWM as a prime upset pick and they may be right. Led by senior G Boo Davis (16.2 ppg) and senior F Joah Tucker (16.4 ppg), two key components of last yearâ€™s run, the Panthers and their five senior starters will be ready for the Dance. So, we should all pencil in UWM for the win, right?
As my man Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friend. Oklahoma has been somewhat unpredictable this season, but they are talented. Four starters average double figures and their frontcourt, which UWM will have no match for, of Taj Gray (14.4 ppg) and Kevin Bookout (11.1 ppg) will prove to be the difference-maker in this game.
Upset Special: #10 Northern Iowa over #7 Georgetown. Good defense? Check. Outside shooting? Ben Jacobson is one of the best. Rebounding? Two of the Missouri Vallleyâ€™s top four rebounders in Grant Stout and Eric Coleman. Combine that with Georgetownâ€™s lack of tourney experience and you have the makings of an upset. Book it.
Best Players You Havenâ€™t Heard of: Apart from the UWM duo of Davis and Tucker, the best player you may not have heard of is Nevadaâ€™s Nick Fazekas. The 6-11 junior averaged 21.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game for the Wolf Pack this season. Cut out of a similar mold to Fazekas is Pacificâ€™s 6-9 senior Christian Maraker (Reads like Mah-ray-ker. Sounds like Mo-Rah-ker). If Pacific werenâ€™t playing Boston College, Iâ€™d have pegged Maraker (17.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and his Tigers to advance to the second round.
Donâ€™t be surprised if: Davidson gives Ohio State all it can handle.
Regional Champ: This region is probably the toughest out of the four. Because of that, I feel that this region has the best chance of having an upset champion. With that in mind, I am calling for Boston College to knock off Florida in the regional final.
Overview: The top seed in Oakland is the ultra-athletic Memphis Tigers. Rodney Carney and his Tigers are joined in the region by the resurgent UCLA Bruins, everyoneâ€™s favourite former Cinderella, Gonzaga and a pair of tough outs in Kansas and Pittsburgh.
Best first-round matchup: This is another region with a bevy of good first-round matchups. Can Bucknell upset Arkansas? What about Patrick Oâ€™Bryant and Bradley against the youthful Jayhawks of Kansas? For my money, though, the game not to miss is #7 Marquette against #10 Alabama.
The Golden Eagles are young and explosive, led by 6-10 senior forward Steve Novak, who can stroke the long ball as well as anyone in the nation. The Crimson Tide are young, big and athletic, the type of team that poses problems for Marquette. Their froncourt of freshman Richard Hendrix and Jermareo Davidson will be a major issue for Marquette. This one might be decided by free throws, where the Golden Eagles have the edge.
Upset Special: #11 San Diego State over #6 Indiana. I think I could dedicate the entire â€œBest Players You Havenâ€™t Heard ofâ€ for this regional to SDSUâ€™s Marcus Slaughter and Brandon Heath. Slaughter is the muscle down low, averaging a double-double this season (16.6 ppg, 10.9 rpg). Heath led the Mountain West in scoring with 18.4 points per game. They are joined by 6-10 Florida transfer Mohamed Abukar, who averaged 14.2 ppg for the Aztecs this season.
Best Players You Havenâ€™t Heard of: The top player on this list, apart from SDSUâ€™s duo of Slaughter and Heath is Marquetteâ€™s electric freshman PG Dominic James. James is listed at 5-10, but thatâ€™s awful generous. Regardless, he throws down like Nate Robinson and plays like Nate Archibald. Even though they wonâ€™t be around long, make sure you check out Oral Robertsâ€™ duo of Caleb Green (20.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and 6-1 guard Ken Tutt (14.3 ppg).
Donâ€™t be surprised if: Xavier knocks off Gonzaga in the first round. Iâ€™m not going to go out on a limb and predict the upset but, if Justin Cage can shut down Adam Morrison, and the Musketeers keep up their red-hot run, who knows???
Regional Champ: Much like the Atlanta regional, it appears that the top two seeds will hold serve until the regional final. The final should pit the youthful athleticism of Memphis against the lock-down defensive schemes of Ben Howlandâ€™s UCLA Bruins. This game should be a classic, with UCLA squeaking it out in the end.
Duke vs. UCLA: UCLAâ€™s run comes to an end at the hands of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams.
UConn vs. Boston College: Doug Flutie is booted out of the RCA Dome as Connecticut wins the Battle of New England.
UConn vs. Duke: The Huskies are too talented for Duke and pull out a close victory to win their second national title in three years.