by Chris Molicki
Kansas has the No. 1 seed, but has to beat possibly North Carolina and VCU to get to the regional finals. Talk about tough. There’s certainly no shortage of star power in the South. Otto Porter, Ben McLemore, Trey Burke, Nate Wolters, and Shabazz Muhammad are all NBA caliber players who will bring some excitement to this region.
The Favorite: This one is pretty wide-open, so when in doubt, go with Bill Self. The Jayhawks have one of the best interior defenders in the nation in Jeff Withy. Lucky for them, they have guys like Perry Ellis and Kevin Young emerging at the end of the season to shore up depth issue. Elijah Johnson is a masterful point guards who can do some amazing things, but are his turnover-issues really behind him? We’ll find out. Travis Releford brings much-needed leadership, as does Self, who has won a national championship before and made it to the title game last year. The interesting thing is that last year’s team, a No. 2 seed, was probably more talented than this year’s No. 1 seed. Kansas No. 5 in adjusted defense and No. 25 in adjusted offense, two very good numbers. And of course, let’s not forget McLemore. A potential No. 1 overall pick, he has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor and really take over a game. However, being a freshman who has been prone to disappearing acts, which McLemore will we see? The answer to that question will likely tell us whether or not Kansas is Final Four bound.
The Contenders: Florida is a tough team to figure out. The Gators are 26-1 in blowout games and 0-6 in games decided by single digits. What gives? The SEC surely was weak, but it’s hard for me to trust Kenny Boynton in crunch time. If they don’t get to crunch time, then the Gators are good. Patric Young has been a monster in the post, and the return of Will Yeguete has shored up defensive issues for the No. 2 defensive team in the nation (and No. 5 offensive team). Mike Rosario is a key scorer, but Erik Murphy is the true x-factor. His ability to stretch the floor will create matchup problems that other teams just simply can’t deal with. Georgetown features arguably the best player in the nation, which for some is enough to have them in their Final Four. Otto Poter is truly a do-it-all player, and he leads the No. 4 defensive team in the country. Even with the absence of Greg Whittington, Porter has led the defense and allowed players like Markel Starks, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and now Michael Hopkins to evolve into big-time studs. If Porter or Starks gets in foul trouble or the team can’t hit their shots, the Hoyas could be in trouble. However, expect Nate Lubick to be a calming source if things get crazy. VCU made the Final Four two years ago, and Shaka Smart’s new HAVOC defenders could be on their way again. Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic, and Troy Daniels are all good scorers and defenders, but unheralded Briante Weber is the true defensive whiz.
The Dark Horses: It might be weird calling Michigan a dark horse, but they lost as a No. 4 seed last year, and don’t play defense or rebound well, two very important things in the NCAA tournament. However, they have star power in Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, and Glenn Robinson III, propelling the No. 2 offense in the country. Despite losing Jordan Adams, it seemed like UCLA, one of the most talented teams in the nation, was finally putting it all together. The talent, led by Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, is still there, but it remains to be seen if the Bruins are done with their underachieving ways. If they are, their ceiling is high. Remember when the 1985 Villanova Wildcats won the nation championship as an No. 8 seed? Well ironically enough, the current Wildcats’ first round opponent, No. 8 North Carolina, could do just that. After switching to a small lineup with James Michael McAdoo at center, the Tar Heels are playing up to preseason expectations. P. J. Hairston is on fire, and experienced guys like Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland, and Leslie McDonald have the ability to settle this team in pressure situations. How they fare against big lineups remains to be seen.
Upset Special: No. 13 South Dakota St. over No. 4 Michigan. That’s right, in their encore performance, the Jackrabbits will win a tournament game. Nate Wolters can score, rebound, pass, and defend. He’ll be a hassle on Trey Burke (who has been know to have bad shooting nights) and shore up South Dakota St.’s leaky defense. With other options like Chad White, Jordan Dykstra, and Tony Fiegen, the Jackrabbits will match the Wolverines high-powered offense. The kicker here: South Dakota St. doesn’t turn the ball over, a very crucial factor when playing a more talented team.
Other Things to Watch For: The bruising Golden Gophers of Minnesota are an enigma. They could take their Big Ten physicality and knock of UCLA and Florida, two teams not exactly know for inside presences, on their way to a Sweet Sixteen. Or they could falter like they have down the stretch of the season. Your pick. San Diego St. and Oklahoma headline another intriguing 7-10 matchup. Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are more talented with Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, but have somewhat underachieved this season. Meanwhile, Lon Kruger’s Sooners play good defense and have a top notch player in Romero Osby. Northwestern St. loves getting into track meets, as they are the most fast-paced team in the nation, but that may play right into the Gators’ hands. Remember when I said UNC’s play against big teams is something to watch for? There’s Villanova right on cue, who wins ugly, grind-it-out games with their trees. Florida Gulf Coast is a very good No. 15 seed who can flat out put the ball in the basket. If Sherwood Brown and his squad can break Georgetown’s defense, we’ve got a game.
The Pick: Georgetown. The Hoyas have proved that as a team, they’re not a fluke this season, but ultimately, Otto Porter will be the one to push them into the Final Four over Ben McLemore.