The best is saved for last – at least when I let bias leak into my opinion. Let’s go down South.
Is Ty Lawson healthy? All year North Carolina has been regarded as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship, with Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Deon Thompson expected to grab a title before (presumably) going to the NBA. Even when the the top-seeded Tar Heels stubbed their toe, it was generally theorized that they’d be the team to beat.
However, Lawson sprained the big toe on his right foot, keeping him out of the ACC tournament and almost assuredly making him less than full strength for the NCAA Tournament. Who wins this region, and perhaps the national title, might be decided on how Lawson’s toe holds up.
Watch out for: Syracuse
Typically I’d see a team like the Orange – a team that played a combined seven overtimes in the Big East Tournament before losing in the final – and declare that they shot their wad emotionally and physically. I definitely would have said that if Syracuse had won the Big East tourney. But their loss to Louisville leaves some unfinished business.
And No. 3 Syracuse has the personnel and scheme to take care of business. Sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn is extremely explosive, Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf can fill it up from outside while Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku can score in the paint. Add in their always tough matchup zone and the recent flakiness of No. 2 Oklahoma and the Orange could cruise to the elite 8.
Stay away from: Illinois
The No. 5 Illini were a pretty good story in the Big Ten this year, as they emerged from a rare losing season to finish in a second-place tie in the conference. Illinois plays a tough, matchup defense that yields very few points and a lot of confusion. But Illinois comes into the tournament hurting, as senior point guard and floor leader Chester Frazier is out with a wrist injury.
Frazier’s defense will be missed, but his ability to find the open man in Illinois’ sometimes stagnant offense might be missed more. With No. 12 Western Kentucky, which made it to the Sweet 16 with the exact same seed last year, appearing in the first round, odds are that the Illini’s return to the tournament will be a short one.
High risk, high reward: Michigan
You knew I was going to throw these guys in here somewhere, as the No. 10 Wolverines are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. But personal loyalties aside, the Wolverines have a style that could get them on a roll of upsets – or send them to a quick, painful defeat by No. 7 Clemson in the first round.
Michigan coach John Beilein has spun magic in the tourney before, taking a No. 7-seeded West Virginia team to the Elite 8 in 2005 and a No. 6-seed Mountaineer team to the Sweet 16 a year later. The Wolverines are predicated on a funky 1-3-1 zone and a propensity for the 3-point shot. When the 3 is falling, Michigan can assert its pace and beat anyone – as evidence by wins over Duke, UCLA, Purdue and Illinois. When its not, the Wolverines – even with star guard Manny Harris – can look ugly.
Upset special: No. 11 Temple over No. 6 Arizona State, first round
Both of these teams have players that can carry a team just through scoring in Dionte Christmas (Temple) and James Hardin (Arizona State). They both have master strategists as coaches in Fran Dunphy (Temple) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). It should be an interesting chess match and one of the better first-round games to watch.
I’m picking Temple here because, quite frankly, Temple is playing better right now. The Owls surged at the end of the year to pick up their second straight Atlantic 10 title while the Sun Devils have been prone to lapses in concentration. If another one of those happens, ASU won’t be in the tourney long.
Lead-pipe lock: Mid-major powers will have fun…till Carolina takes them out.
Two of the premier “mid-major” programs of the past decade are present in this region. No. 9 Butler plays a talented, but young and somewhat struggling, No. 8 LSU team in the first round. The Bulldogs’ tournament savvy should rule the day in that matchup, but they don’t have the guns to take down the Tar Heels in the second round.
No. 4 Gonzaga also has its program humming and got hot after a tough start to grab its usual spot as a high seed in the tournament. The Bulldogs should make quick work of No. 13 Akron – which is likely overseeded – and should have the advantage over the Western Kentucky-Illinois winner as well. But Carolina in the Sweet 16 will be the death of the Zags as well.