After yesterday’s rambling introduction, we’ll start the breakdowns with the East Regional, headlined by overall No. 1 seed North Carolina.
This region is completely loaded. The Tar Heels may have received the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament, but the committee didn’t do them any favors, making the journey to the Final Four exceedingly difficult.
After potentially having to face a talented, if not dysfunctional, No. 8 Indiana team in the second round, the Heels will likely get matched up with a grinding, slow-down team in No. 4 Washington State, a potent No. 5 Notre Dame team or a No. 12 George Mason team that defeated the Tar Heels en route to a Cinderella Final Four in 2006. The other side of the bracket is no picnic either, with No. 2 Tennessee (the SEC regular season champion) and a senior-laden No. 3 Louisville team (led by Rick Pitino and his six Final Four berths with three different schools) headlining that portion of the bracket.
Watch out for: Louisville.
Obviously North Carolina is the favorite in this region, and rightfully so. But the Cardinals are intriguing because they can play a variety of styles offensively and lock down defensively. They equipped themselves well in the hard-nosed Big East, employing the size of 6-foot-11 senior David Padgett, 6-8, 265-pound sophomore Derrick Caracter and 6-9 senior Juan Palacios. They also have solid guard play in Earl Clark, Moreno Valley native Andre McGee and sophomore Jerry Smith. Add in Terrence Williams, who is as athletic as they come, and Louisville can hang with the Tennessee’s and North Carolina’s of the world.
Stay away from: Indiana.
On the surface, the Hoosiers look like a perfect upstart. They were 25-7 in the Big Ten, have a go-to scorer in freshman Eric Gordon (21.3 points per game) who will be a top 5 NBA draft pick in June and a dominant post presence in senior D.J. White (17.3 points, 10.4 rebounds per game). But this team’s karma is horrible. Since Kelvin Sampson resigned under pressure due to possible NCAA violations a month ago, the Hoosiers have lost at a bad Penn State team, been blown out by Michigan State and lost a buzzer-beater to Minnesota in Christian Laettner-esque fashion in the Big Ten Tournament. They almost lost to Big Ten doormat Northwestern as well. The Hoosiers look spent and should fall to No. 9 Arkansas in round one.
High risk, high reward: Notre Dame.
The Irish have all you could ever want in a tournament contender, with a go-to player in sophomore forward Luke Harangody (20.8 points, 10.2 rebounds per game), good guard play from junior Kyle McAlarney and sophomore Tory Jackson, and a squad that shoots 3-pointers at a 41 percent clip. The Irish have all the elements necessary to upset North Carolina and get to the Elite 8, but could also bite the dust against George Mason in round one. Even without Mason’s run to the Final Four two years ago, the Colonial Athletic Association is known for its upsets. VCU took out Duke last year and George Mason could do the same to the Irish. But if Notre Dame survives, look out.
Upset special: No. 11 St. Joseph’s over No. 6 Oklahoma, first round.
I was tempted to go with No. 13 Winthrop over No. 4 Washington State here, but went with the Hawks. St. Joseph’s may have the coolest mascot concept in the country, as their Hawk must keep flapping his “wings” constantly during an entire game. Another thing they have is a history of winning NCAA Tournament games. The Hawks have won their first-round game in four of their last five tournament appearances, most recently going on a run to the Elite 8 in 2004. This Hawks team is led by senior Pat Calathes and junior Ahmad Nivins and defeated Xavier, the No. 3 seed in the West Region, twice.
The Sooners have bounced back nicely from the tumultous end to the Kelvin Sampson era, finishing third in the Big 12 behind freshman foward Blake Griffin. But these Sooners are young and slight overachievers, making them ripe for the upset.
Lead-pipe lock: Bruce Pearl will wear something ridiculous
Ok, so this has nothing to do with the bracket. Or maybe it does, if you base your picks on bizarre clothing. But Pearl, the coach of the No. 2 Volunteers, is known for his outlandish attire, as he has worn a bright orange blazer or scrapped clothing all together, painting his chest orange to support the Tennessee women’s team. So expect something crazy from Pearl in the next couple of weeks. As far as his team, the Vols can run and score with anyone, but have a hard time with teams that can break their full-court press. If it gets past Louisville (or even No. 7 Butler),to the Elite 8, I don’t like the matchup against North Carolina or even Notre Dame.