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The East Region is another bracket with plenty of Final Four contenders, in addition to the top seed Kentucky. West Virginia won the Big East tournament title, New Mexico was the Mountain West champ, Temple won both the regular-season and tournament titles in the Atlantic-10, while Washington won the Pac-10 tournament. Throw in the talent of a Texas, the coaching at Wisconsin and the determination of Marquette (and don’t forget Cornell), and this region has numerous teams capable of winning a couple of games this month.
Favorite: Kentucky. The Wildcats rolled to a 19-0 overall start and only lost two games all season, road contests to South Carolina and Tennessee. Kentucky is efficient at both ends of the floor, and can score inside the arc as well as anyone. Defensively, they block shots and guard very well. Their only weaknesses are youth, lack of three-point shooting and turnover propensity. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are All-Americans and two of the most dominant players in the country, while Patrick Patterson is arguably the best third option in the country. Eric Bledsoe is an overshadowed point guard. Will the lack of experience – and maturity – come back to haunt them?
Contenders: West Virginia, New Mexico, Wisconsin. The contenders in this region are abundant. West Virginia is playing as good as anyone in the country right now, beating Georgetown and Villanova before going on a run and winning the Big East tournament. They have excellent size, led by the forward trio of Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones. They struggle with athletic guards who can penetrate to the basket and also don’t have a ton of perimeter playmakers. Darryl Bryant and Joe Mazzulla need to come up big. New Mexico is one of the more underrated teams in the country, in my opinion, despite its three seed. It bounced back from a 0-2 start in MWC play to win its last 14 games and the league title. The Lobos are an efficient offensive team, taking care of the ball and getting to the free-throw line. They are also a very good three-point shooting team. Defensively, they dominate the boards and guard the perimeter. Darington Hobson is one of the top all-around players in the country; he is capable of carrying the Lobos in the postseason. Roman Martinez and Philip McDonald are excellent shooter, while Martinez is also a very good rebounder. Dairese Gary is a quick distributor who doesn’t turn it over. Wisconsin won’t jump off the page at you, but the Badgers are capable of making a deep run. They are ranked No. 3 at Kenpom.com and are tough to beat given the way they take care of the ball and limit second chances for opponents. The Badgers are extremely efficient, and have been one of the best teams in the country when forward Jon Leuer is on the court. Leuer is a match-up problem inside, while Trevon Hughes is one of the best point guards in the Big Ten. Jason Bohannon can shoot the three effectively, and Jordan Taylor is capable of putting up numbers.
Sleepers: Texas, Marquette. Sure, the Longhorns have been a complete disaster in the second half of the season, but they are still one of the most talented teams in the country and can be a threat if they are able to put it together for a couple of games. Damion James is one of the best players in the country and has been dominant at times this year. Dexter Pittman needs to dominate down low, while the Texas guards have to be more consistent from the perimeter on offense. Marquette finished very strong, winning nine of its last 11 before making a run to the conference tournament semifinals. The Golden Eagles are very efficient offensively, and are tough to beat when they are hitting their threes. They are certainly susceptible on the glass, though. Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler are undersized but create match-up problems at the forward spot. Darius Johnson-Odom came on down the stretch to provide an excellent third option. Maurice Acker takes care of the ball and knocks down threes.
Non-BCS Teams to Watch: Temple, Cornell. Temple won the Atlantic-10 regular-season and conference tournament titles, yet received a No. 5 seed and a tough first-round match-up. The Owls are a tremendous defensive group that controls the glass and defends opponents closely. Temple has given up more than 70 points just four times all season. The Owls are led offensively by the backcourt of Ryan Brooks and Juan Fernandez, two guys who can create their own shot and also knock down threes. Lavoy Allen averages a double-double in the paint. Cornell is Temple’s opponent in the first round. The Big Red jumped on the nation’s radar this year after nearly knocking off Kansas on the Jayhawks’ homecourt. Cornell is extremely solid offensively, with a host of players who can consistently knock down three-pointers. Ryan Wittman is the go-to-guy offensively, capable of lighting it up. Louis Dale is a solid senior point guard, and Jeff Foote is a tough match-up for most at the center position. What will give in this game: Temple’s second-rated three-point defense or Cornell’s top-rated three-point offense?
Upset Pick: Missouri over Clemson. There are several upset possibilities in this bracket, with the popular pick being Cornell over Temple, or even Wofford over Wisconsin. However, I think that Missouri will be the only double-digit seed to advance. The Tigers are a nightmare to play, given their “40 Minutes of Hell” defense and ability to force turnovers. Their pressure defense will cause Clemson, a team who struggles with turnovers already, to throw the ball over the court. As long as Mizzou doesn’t get dominated on the glass, it will advance.
Top Five Players (only one per team):
- 1. John Wall, Kentucky
- 2. Darington Hobson, New Mexico
- 3. Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia
- 4. Damion James, Texas
- 5. Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest