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The West Region is going to be a very interesting bracket. Syracuse was sent out to the opposite coast despite winning the Big East regular-season title and dominating throughout the season. The Orange have plenty of competition, with the Big 12 (Kansas State) and SEC runner-ups (Vanderbilt) in their bracket. Pittsburgh, Xavier and BYU were both the No. 2 seeds in their conference tournaments, while Butler and Gonzaga handled their respective leagues well. With the injury problems ‘Cuse has right now, this bracket could be wide open.
Favorite: Syracuse. The Orange were one of the season’s most surprising teams, going from losing to Le Moyne in an exhibition game to a Final Four threat. Their 2-3 zone defense creates problems for opponents due to their size and length, while their offense has plenty of inside-outside balance. Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins were conference Player of the Year candidates, while Rick Jackson has improved nicely inside. Kris Joseph is one of the best sixth men in the country. The questions for the Orange revolve around big man Arinze Onuaku’s health (he will miss the first weekend) and consistency at the point with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche.
Contenders: Kansas State, Vanderbilt. Kansas State lost only four games all season to teams not named Kansas. The Wildcats attack the basket as well as anyone in the country, and they do an effective job forcing turnovers defensively. Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen form one of the best backcourt duos in the nation, with both capable of lighting up the scoreboard. Curtis Kelly is a key player inside, while Jamar Samuels was the best sixth man in the Big 12. The frontcourt needs to step up in the Big Dance for KSU to advance. Vanderbilt may not have a weakness on its team, despite a couple of questionable losses throughout the season. The Commodores are outstanding offensively, shooting very accurately from two and three but also getting to the free-throw line. Defensively, they are efficient and guard the two. Vandy is very balanced, with Jermaine Beal and John Jenkins providing the outside shooting, Jeffery Taylor scoring from the wing and A.J. Ogilvy anchoring the post.
Sleepers: Xavier, BYU. This region is filled with lower-seeded teams capable of making run, but these two have the best shots. Xavier had a great second half of the season after going just 6-4 in its first 10 games. The Musketeers finished the season by winning seven in a row and 17 of their last 20 before bowing out in the semifinals of the conference tournament. They’re an extremely efficient offensive team with the ability to score in the paint and on the perimeter. Jordan Crawford is a big-time scorer who can get hot and carry the Musketeers, while Terrell Holloway is a solid point guard. Jason Love has become a go-to option in the paint. BYU went from a potential four-seed to a No. 7 in the span of a couple of weeks. However, the Cougars have the pieces to make a run. They are one of the most efficient teams in the nation, scoring from both inside and outside the arc and also taking care of the ball. They are an up-tempo group but they dominate the defensive boards and force turnovers. Jimmer Fredette is a legit All-American candidate; he has put up some of the best individual performances in the country this season. Jackson Emery and Tyler Haws are solid scorers who can also do a little of everything else – Emery is a dead-eye shooter who racks up steals. Jonathan Tavernari has slipped this season, but he is still capable. Keep an eye on guard Michael Loyd.
Non-BCS Teams to Watch: Gonzaga, Murray State. Naturally, Gonzaga is in the mix once again in March. The Bulldogs received a tough draw after losing in the West Coast Conference Tournament, but they have the talent to play with anyone. They are very good on the offensive end, with versatile weapons that can score inside and outside the arc. Defensively, they control the glass and force tough shots. Matt Bouldin is the leader of this team; he can do it all and is one of the best go-to-guys in the country. Elias Harris has been one of the best freshmen in the country, while Steven Gray can shoot. Robert Sacre has been inconsistent inside, while Demetri Goodson is a disappointment at the point. Murray State absolutely rolled over the Ohio Valley, going 17-1 and winning 12 games by double-figures before winning the conference tournament. The Racers are excellent at both ends of the floor, forcing turnovers and difficult shots defensively, while crashing the offensive glass and ranking fourth in the country in effective field-goal percentage. They are extremely balanced on offense, with five players averaging between 10.2 points and 10.7 points, and another putting up 9.5 per game. B.J. Jenkins can shoot, and Tony Easley is a solid inside player.
Upset Pick: UTEP over Butler. Had UTEP won the Conference-USA Tournament, the Miners might have been a couple of seed lines higher. As it stands, they are a very tough match-up for Butler. The Bulldogs struggle against big, athletic teams – which describes UTEP’s frontcourt. Derrick Caracter and co. can dominate the boards, while guard Randy Culpepper is one of the most explosive guards in the country. Butler is a fundamentally-sound team that can hang with anyone, but this match-up just isn’t favorite to the Bulldogs.
Top Five Players (only one per team):
- 1. Wesley Johnson, Syracuse
- 2. Jimmer Fredette, BYU
- 3. Jacob Pullen, Kansas State
- 4. Jordan Crawford, Xavier
- 5. Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga