We’ll stay on the right side of the bracket (according the one we are running in the Sun) and head to the Midwest. This region might be the most entertaining of the four, with great teams (Kansas, Georgetown, Wisconsin) combining with great individual players (Kansas State F Michael Beasley, Vanderbilt G/F Shan Foster, Davidson G Stephen Curry) for what should be entertaining theatre. Oh yeah, there’s some guy named Mayo playing for USC worth watching.
Besides what I discussed before, this region is extremely balanced and might have the most teams who have a realistic shot at the Final Four. While No. 1 seed Kansas and No. 2 seed Georgetown are obvious contenders to make it to San Antonio, one would be remiss if they didn’t consider teams like No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 4 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Clemson or No. 6 USC.
But what really makes this region a make-or-break entity on your sheet is that each of those teams could easily tumble early. Only Kansas seems to be a no-brainer to make it to the Sweet 16. The Hoyas, who made the Final Four a year ago, could easily be tripped up by the Gonzaga-Davidson winner in the second round, while Wisconsin could be taken out by USC or Kansas State, who could kill a Trojan run before it starts. Clemson could make a run, unless it loses to Vanderbilt, who could lose to Siena. And to borrow a line from Austin Powers, I think I’ve just gone cross-eyed.
Watch out for: Clemson
Right after I talk about how difficult it could be for Clemson, I go and give the Tigers props. Am I schizophrenic? Possibly, but that’s what the Midwest region does for you. I really like the Tigers because of their athleticism and their backcourt play. K.C. Rivers can create his shot from the wing, Cliff Hammonds is a seasoned point and Terrence Oglesby’s range is anywhere within the time zone from where he’s shooting. Their inside guys, Trevor Booker and James Mays, aren’t huge, but are athletic and good passers.
The Tigers could easily take out Kansas in the Sweet 16, as I see them cruising past No. 12 Villanova (who shouldn’t be in the tournament) in round one and dispatching No. 4 Vanderbilt, who has problems playing away from home. The only thing that concerns me about Clemson is its free throw shooting, but the Tigers hit 7 of 8 late in their ACC semifinal victory over Duke Saturday. If they do that, they’ll be money.
Stay away from: Vanderbilt
I hinted at this one above, but I’m not sold on the Commodores. Yes, they beat Tennessee when the Vols were No. 1 a few weeks back and gave Kentucky a prodigious beating in January. But those games were at home in Nashville, which is 705 miles away from Tampa, where the Commodores will be playing Friday, and presumably, Sunday. But even Sunday isn’t guaranteed for Vanderbilt, as it plays a tough No. 13 seed in Siena. Daily News columnist Tom Hoffarth has already gone on the record in picking a Siena upset and while I won’t go that far, his concern about Vandy is well-founded.
The Commodores, while perfect at home, struggled on the road in SEC play, only winning 2 of 8 games. Losing to Arkansas in their first SEC tournament game didn’t alleviate concerns. I think Vandy faces a matchup problem with Clemson in the second round and falls there, if not to Siena in the round prior.
High risk, high reward: USC
This may seem like a hometown pick, but I think the No. 6 Trojans are an interesting swing team. Talent-wise, they can hang with anyone in this region, with only Kansas seeming to have more raw talent. However, the Trojans, while capable of beating teams like UCLA, are also capable of losing to teams like Mercer. Which is why they are in this category.
Looking at the bracket, I can see USC beating No. 3 Wisconsin – which is like UCLA without the elite talent – in round two. The Badgers can lock down on defense, but they don’t have the shot creation ability that the Trojans have. I could even seen USC beating No. 2 Georgetown in the Sweet 16, though the Hoyas play a similar style to Trojan nemesis Washington State. But I could also see USC crashing and burning against No. 11 Kansas State and freshman phenom Michael Beasley in the first round.
Upset special: No. 5 Clemson over No. 1 Kansas, Sweet 16
I’m going out at a limb here, just because I really don’t feel like being lame and picking No. 10 Davidson over No. 7 Gonzaga. 10-7 and 9-8 matchups are basically toss-ups anyway, so for me to pick that would be a gross misuse of my duties as an edgy sportswriter. So I’m repeating myself with Clemson.
Don’t get me wrong, Kansas is good. They have pretty much everything you can ask for – balanced scoring from the inside and outside and a deep bench. But I’m not a big fan of Bill Self at tournament time. He was never able to get Illinois over the hump and into the Final Four and he’s been equally as unsuccessful with loads of talent at Kansas. Clemson, having taking North Carolina to the wire three times and beating Duke in the ACC tournament, will not be intimidated by what the Jayhawks have to offer.
Lead-pipe lock: There will be a feeding frenzy of NBA scouts at the USC-Kansas State game
As far as pure entertainment value, it doesn’t get much better than Mayo vs. Beasley. NBA scouts tend to agree. While Mayo and Beasley won’t guard each other, they will be competing against each other as far as how to disperse the millions that both are sure to see when they declare for the NBA draft, presumably this spring. Beasley looks like a no-brainer No. 1 draft pick while Mayo could valut himself into the top 5 with a big tournament. Add in other NBA prospects, such as USC sophomore post Taj Gibson, USC freshman forward Davon Jefferson and Kansas State sophomore forward Bill Walker, and professional scouts will be plenty busy.