NCAA Outlook - Midwest Regional
pblackwell, Wed, March 18th, 2009
As our NCAA Tournament preview keeps going, attention now shifts to the Midwest, where the no. 1 overall seed holds court, but might have to hold off a couple of other familiar March names.
Louisville is in its best position to win it all since Pervis Ellison led the 1986 Cardinal crew to the summit. Winning the regular season and tournament titles in the rugged Big East got Louisville into this position, as did typical Rick Pitino depth and in-your-face defense. Most nights, Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and the Cards will deck you, but the occasional hiccup (see Notre Dame in February) does raise a red flag.
Louisville gets Ohio Valley champ Morehead State first after the Eagles won the dreaded play-in game with Alabama State. It's an intrastate battle of two Kentucky schools, but it isn't likely to be close.
By the way, wouldn't it make more sense to put, say, Arizona and Wisconsin (the last two teams in the field, if you believe the seeds) into the play-in? Every little guy conference champ should be protected, but God forbid the NCAA should do anything other than kowtow to the BCS conferences?
Okay, rant over, back to the Dance..
Ohio State got quite a break by getting to play in Dayton despite its no. 8 seed. On the other hand, Siena has more tournament experience after getting to the second round with the same Kenny Hasbrouck-led starting five in 2008. This group of Buckeyes is young and not used to this kind of pressure, and that just might lead the deep, balanced Saints to the second round.
Perhaps more pressure is on Arizona than anyone else, to justify that it belongs here after losing five of six down the stretch. That means a trip to Miami and a clash with Utah, the Mountain West champs who feature a 7-2 force in Luke Nevill. Maybe the Cats have more talent, but at this moment, the Utes are playing better, and that might make the difference.
Once upon a time - January, to be precise - Wake Forest was no. 1. But then the Demon Deacons' youth showed, and many think Wake, a no. 4 seed, could get toppled by Horizon League champ Cleveland State, the Vikings back for the first time since Mouse McFadden and that famous Sweet 16 run in 1986. Wake could get to the Final Four, or fall out now, and neither would be a shock. Regardless, it will be educational.
West Virginia is showing a propensity to stay in the bracket no matter who is coaching them - three Sweet 16 appearances in the last four years. Led by the underrated De'Sean Butler, the Mountaineers could do it again, but first it must confront Dayton, who will go as far as Chris Wright (he led the Flyers in scoring and rebounding) takes them. Buoyed by beating Pitt a week ago, WVU should win here.
The best first-round atmosphere might be at high noon in Minneapolis when no. 3 seed Kansas meets North Dakota State. Despite losing all five starters from last year's title team, the Jayhawks built around Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich and won the Big 12 regular-season title. Somehow, the Bison got here by winning the Summit League in its first year of Division I eligibility. NDSU might have thousands in the Metrodome to celebrate this breakthrough.
Southern California had to win the Pac-10 Tournament just to get here - and now that they did, the Trojans have a great shot against Boston College. Tyrese Rice is terrific, and the Eagles did beat both North Carolina and Duke this season. But BC also lost to....Harvard. And this wasn't debate club. USC just needs to bring that same energy that it showed in L.A. to Minneapolis, and it can win.
Think Michigan State is glad to be far away from any more Big Ten Slugfests? The no. 2 seed Spartans overcame all kinds of injuries to dominate their conference, and are massively motivated to reach the Final Four in nearby Motown. That should prove too much for Northeast Conference champ Robert Morris in the first round, but Tom Izzo's crew will have a lot to prove from that point forward.
Still, as far as the four teams getting to the Sweet 16 is concerned, Michigan State and Louisville should get by, though with a lot of sweat. The surprises will be elsewhere, as Utah defies expectations and West Virginia topples the champs from Kansas to create an intriguing second week of action in Indianapolis..