The final of our four regions is extremely wide-open, as any one of the top five seeds have a realistic shot of making it to the Final Four in San Antonio. Memphis, Texas, Stanford, Pittsburgh and even Michigan State could make a run, depending on how things go down.
It’s all about point of view. No. 1 seed Memphis has the depth and athleticism, but play in a weak conference and have free throw shooting issues. No. 2 Texas has superior guard play and a favorable draw, but is lacking a true post presence. No. 3 Stanford has the Lopez twins in the middle, but haven’t played well in tournaments past. No. 4 Pittsburgh is hot coming off the Big East Tournament, but has perimeter shooting issues and seems to get gummed up in the Sweet 16. No. 5 Michigan State has a deep roster and coach Tom Izzo, but has been maddeningly inconsistent away from home. I think you get the point now.
Watch out for: Texas
Yes, I mentioned that Texas lacks a true post presence. Although Damion James rebounds, the Longhorns’ center, Conor Atchley, is more of a perimeter presence. That could be a problem if Texas plays the Lopez twins and Stanford in the Sweet 16.
But the Longhorns have much more going for them than drawbacks. The backcourt combination of point guard D.J. Augustin (a probable NBA lottery pick) and A.J. Abrams can score in bunches and the Longhorns will play their Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games at Reliant Stadium in Houston, a venue that’s sure to be bathed in burnt orange. Since I don’t see Austin Peay or the St. Mary’s-Miami winner taking down the Horns, I figure this team is a Final Four squad waiting to happen.
Stay away from: Pittsburgh
A lot of people are on the Panthers’ jock after their run to the Big East Tournament championship. I even saw someone on ESPN picking the Panthers to go to the final. To these people, I really suggest that they step away from the plank and take Pitt for what its worth. Right before the Big East tourney, Pitt was beat down by West Virginia. They are tough in the middle (all Pitt teams are) and have a sweet swingman in Sam Young, but the Panthers have had backcourt problems due to inconsistency (Ronald Ramon) and injuries (Levance Fields and Mike Cook).
Sure, Pitt could make the Sweet 16. It has four times since 2002. But there’s no way Pitt is getting past Memphis and could even be tripped up by Michigan State or Temple in round two.
High risk, high reward: Michigan State
Coming into the season, the Spartans were the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten. But as has been the pattern in recent years, Michigan State struggled on the road and finished fourth with an experienced squad. Needless to say, Denver isn’t East Lansing and the Spartans run into a red-hot team in No. 12 Temple, the Atlantic 10 champion. MSU could easily lose in the first round, as it did to George Mason in 2006 and Nevada in 2004.
However, this Spartan team has perimeter scoring in Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas, an athletic, multifaceted swingman in Raymar Morgan and a cadre of physical post players. They also have Tom Izzo, who led a No. 5-seeded Michigan State team to a Final Four in 2005. If MSU. who beat Texas in Austin in December, steps it up, don’t be surprised if Izzo goes back to the Final Four for the fifth time in 10 seasons.
Upset special: No. 11 Kentucky over No. 6 Marquette, first round
There are so many possible upsets that could come from this region, but I feel like this one has the best shot of happening. While I’m not a huge fan of Kentucky being in the tourney, it seems as Billy Gillispie’s style is starting to pay benefits in Lexington. Gillispie teams lock down on defense and play hardnosed inside. It will be very interesting to see Marquette’s three-guard punch of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews take on the Kentucky perimeter of Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley and Jodie Meeks.
Neither team has an inside attack worth mentioning, but the Golden Eagles haven’t won a first-round game since Dwyane Wade led them to the Final Four in 2003. He beat Kentucky to do that, something that the Big Blue’s fans haven’t forgotten.
Lead-pipe lock: The average SAT score at Honda Center Thursday afternoon will be 1350
The Stanford band’s main schtick is to mockingly belittle its opponents, as it did when it wore rednecky overalls to lampoon Mississippi State during the 2005 first round. However, the Cardinal band will be in rare position of being mocked for its academic shortcomings, as No. 3 Stanford will be playing Ivy League champion Cornell at 2 p.m. I really don’t know anything about the Big Red (and I refuse to look), but I do know that the valedictorian of my high school went there. There was a girl who went to Stanford in my high school class as well, but she was further down the line. While Cornell will lose, at least they have that going for them.