Now to the West Region, which will have its regional finals held in Glendale, Arizona. It will also have some new faces near the top of the regional as well.
This region will be about putting up or shutting up. The slotting of Connecticut as a top seed was pretty controversial, as the Huskies were the third Big East team to get a No. 1 seed. UConn lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament (albeit in six overtimes) and hasn’t won a postseason game – conference tournament or NCAA tournament – since beating Washington in the Sweet 16 three years ago. The Huskies have something to prove.
No. 2 Memphis, who feels that it should have been the top seed, also has a chip on its shoulder. Not only do the Tigers have to deal with the stigma of being from the weak Conference USA, but they also have to deal with their collapse at the free-throw line late in last year’s title game that cost them a ring. So if Memphis and UConn make it to the regional final, look out.
Watch out for: Purdue
The No. 5 Boilermakers have been up and down this season, as they were just as capable of losing to Northwestern at home as they were of whipping Big Ten champion Michigan State by 18 points – both things they “accomplished” this year. The volatility that Purdue showed was explained pretty simply – they just haven’t been able to stay healthy. Until now.
The Boilermakers were finally at full strength during the Big Ten tournament, with star sophomore Robbie Hummel and defensive sparkplug Chris Kramer finally 100 percent. Not coincidentally, Purdue won the tournament. They have a manageable No. 12 seed in Northern Iowa and can match up physically with No. 4 Washington. They also have the discipline and shooting capability to mess with No. 1 UConn as well.
Stay away from: California
This category could go to a host of teams, No. 13 Mississippi State (the SEC tourney champion – unlikely tourney champions tend to flame out early in the tournament) and No. 4 Washington (struggled a bit down the stretch), or No. 6 Marquette (who I’ll address later) but I went with the Golden Bears.
It’s tempting to pick a No. 7 seed to win a couple rounds, but Cal is not the one to pick. While the Golden Bears were surprising under first-year coach Mike Montgomery, they faltered a bit down the stretch and are matched up with a No. 10 Maryland team and star guard Greivis Vasquez. Forget about picking Cal to the second round, much less anywhere further.
High risk, high reward: Missouri
I guess its a little weird to have a third seed in this position, but this category has to do with the Tigers’ Final Four chances. While UConn and Memphis are getting all of the buzz, Missouri has a chance to sneak through the cracks and make it to Detroit. The Big 12 tourney champions employ a high-intensity, full-court pressing attack reminiscent of Arkansas’ “40 Minutes of Hell” under Nolan Richardson.
Missouri also has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation and two talented forward in DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. So where’s the risk? The risk is in Missouri’s relative inexperience, as it hasn’t been to the tourney since 2003, and picking them to the Final Four in a region with two No. 1-seed worthy teams. But a brassy pick here could pay off big time.
Upset special: No. 11 Utah State over No. 6 Marquette
Marquette has the scoring ability to hang with anyone in the nation with seniors Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews along with junior Lazar Hayward. But there’s one key player missing in senior point guard Dominic James, who broke his foot late in the regular season.
The Eagles, ranked in the top 10 at one point, lost five out of six since James’ injury and have been generally off. They had a similar situation two years ago when McNeal went down and fell meekly in the first round to Michigan State. With a Utah State team that has 29 wins staring them in the face, the Eagles look to be in trouble.
Lead-pipe lock: UCLA won’t win the region
That might seem like a “No, duh!!” statement, considering that the Bruins aren’t even one of the 16 teams in the region, but the West has been UCLA’s playground the last three years – as the Bruins have run through on the way to the Final Four each season. But with no UCLA on the docket, teams like Connecticut, Memphis and Missouri can play a little bit more.