Now we are off to the West. While the Midwest is filled with giants and the prohibitive championship favorite, the West could be, as the cliche’ goes, wild.
This region is pretty much a free-for-all, as the higher-seeded teams come in slumping. No. 1 Syracuse has lost its last two games, at Louisville and against Georgetown in the Big East tourney, and might be without center Arinze Onuaku. No. 2 Kansas State struggled a bit down the stretch, losing to Kansas twice and at home to Iowa State. No. 3 Pittsburgh lost its Big East tourney opener to Notre Dame while Vanderbilt was eliminated early in the SEC tourney. You get the picture.
Watch out for: No. 7 BYU
The Cougars have suffered their share of heartbreak in the tourney over the years, as Danny Ainge’s miracle shot against Notre Dame in 1981 is the last time they went to the Sweet 16 – until this year perhaps. BYU has perhaps the best pure scorer in the field in Jimmer Fredette and a first-round game against a questionable Florida team. With shaky Kansas State in the second round, BYU has a good chance to make it to the Sweet 16 in its backyard of Salt Lake City. Should the Cougars make it there, they could be a Cinderella Final Four squad.
Stay away from: No. 4 Vanderbilt
The last time the Commodores were a No. 4 seed was just two years ago, when they were embarrassed by Siena in the first round. Vanderbilt comes into this tournament limping a bit, and a 30-4 Murray State team is hardly the pushover that it was hoping for in a No. 13 seed. Vandy could lose right away and if it doesn’t, it will have its hands full with the Butler-UTEP winner. I wouldn’t put too many sawbucks on the ‘Dores right now.
High risk, high reward: No. 9 Florida State
The Seminoles haven’t won a tournament game since 1998 and their first-round game is no picnic, as they draw tournament veteran Gonzaga. However, the Seminoles have a lot of size, especially in the interior, and play defense more like a Big Ten team than an ACC one. With a Syracuse team of questionable health looming if it beats Gonzaga, don’t be shocked if FSU is still standing in the Round of 16.
Upset special: No. 12 UTEP over No. 5 Butler, first round
I could have gone a million ways with this one. I’ve hinted at a couple of the other possibilites (Murray State over Vanderbilt, FSU over Syracuse, BYU over Kansas State), leaving this upset as the winner. UTEP boatraced Conference USA this year, going 15-1 in the conference behind guard Randy Culpepper, who averaged nearly 20 points per game. Butler did the same in the lesser Horizon League, but mid-majors with major seeds tend to have uneven results (see Drake, 2008). Add that to the 12-5 upset phenomenon that tends to happen and there ya go.
Lead-pipe lock: Pittsburgh will make it to the Sweet 16
The No. 3-seeded Panthers are a steady force in this wildly unpredictable bracket, as they have made it to the tournament’s second week five times since 2002. Pitt is physical down low, has athletically erratic guard play and a wing player that can jump out of the gym. It’s pretty much the same every year. They don’t make it past the Sweet 16 often, as last year was the first in their current run, but they are good until then. You can pick Pitt a couple rounds and feel pretty secure about it.