MIDWEST REGION: Kansas Aims To Fulfill Potential
Breakdown:Kansas, with its blend of talent and experience, has its best shot at a national title since the national finalist team in 2003. KU heads to Omaha for two "protected" games, but will likely have to play either No. 3 seed Wisconsin or No. 2 seed Georgetown in the Elite Eight. Defensive juggernauts, they are both the kinds of teams that frustrate the talented-but-mercurial Jayhawks. The rest of the region is populated with athletic, inconsistent teams like Clemson, Vanderbilt, Southern California, Gonzaga and Kansas State, and potential Cinderellas, like Davidson. Each of them can make a deep run in the tournament; each also has a weakness. Bottom line: The Midwest is the Jayhawks' bracket to blow.
Best Five Players:Kansas State F Michael Beasley, Kansas G Brandon Rush, USC guard O.J. Mayo, Vanderbilt F Shan Foster, Davidson G Stephen Curry
Best Uniforms:Kansas. Simple. Iconic.
Worst Uniforms:Kansas State must excise black from its color palette.
Best Shooters:Curry and Foster.
Best Big Man:Georgetown's Roy Hibbert
X-Men:Foster and Rush. Both cherry-picking gunners, these two can carry a team on their backs if their shooting stroke is right. Or the exact opposite could occur.
Best Coach: Tim Floyd, USC. Surprised? Eh, don't be. Floyd's been around the block, and he knows how to get his team ready for an opponent. Especially an opponent's offense. If only the Trojans weren't playing Wisconsin in the second round.
Overseeded:USC is more suited to an 8 or 9. Vanderbilt got a fair seed for its body of work, but it's still not very good.
Underseeded:Maybe Kent State, which passes the eye test better than some. Certainly Gonzaga and UNLV.
No. 1 Kansas (31-3)The equivalent of a Euro sports car. When it performs - as it did in the Big 12 Championship - it's quite a machine. If it breaks down halfway up the Tourney mountain...good luck fixing it. The most talented team in the field, KU routinely spits the bit in March, particularly against aggressive defenses. When on, Kansas plays the game as it was invented, with motion, speed, intelligence and high execution. But KU still has too many nervous, unmotivated egos to stroke, too many shooting biorhythms to gauge, and a reticent star player in guard Brandon Rush, who only occasionally rises to the level of his overall talent. The Jayhawks are truly prodigal sons. Is it their time to go home?
No. 2 Georgetown (27-5)The opposite of Kansas: A plodding, defensive team full of grinders, gamers and textbook passers. Seven-foot-two center Roy Hibbert attracts a lot of attention, but he's not very assertive as a scorer. And he's not a great rebounder. Ultimately, he draws defenders to him, then kicks out to a wide array of guards for 3-pointers. Guards Johnathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp both make more than 40 percent of 3-point attempts. The Hoyas' defense - a blanket of gray jerseys that block any entrance into the lane - is inspiring to watch, forcing a lot of ugly, late-in-the-shot-clock 3-pointers that clang against the rim.
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Wisconsin's smothering defense is its best hope at capturing the region.
No. 3 Wisconsin (29-4) Elevates defense to high art, allowing just 54.3 points per game. Unwatchable to some, it's a Monet to others, the way Badgers fan out in hard-to-crack defensive sets and dare opposing teams to drive into its web. On offense, UW spreads the court, running clear out plays for guard Trevon Hughes, double screens for guards Brian Bohannon and Michael Flowers, and making room for post players to work one-on-one. It's a spare look that helps Wisconsin in close, endgame situations, which are often decided by such plays. Nevertheless, the Badgers struggle against quick-yet-tall teams that can dribble through tough defense, and still rebound. Kansas would be a tough matchup.
No. 4 Vanderbilt (26-7) Overrated. A team of gunners that's won a bunch of close games against so-so teams like DePaul, Wake Forest, Tennssee-Martin, and South Carolina. The Commodores can't take their home gym - a weird, cavernous opera hall - with them. Vandy is defense-optional. Forward Shan Foster is one of the great shooters in recent years, a Donyell Marshall type who will have a job in the NBA for 15 years and seven teams. Might hang around for a weekend. Shouldn't beat Kansas.
No. 5 Clemson (24-9)Just one thing - free throw shooting - keeps this team from being a top three seed. Deep, athletic, and dangerous. Took North Carolina to the wire three times, and beat Duke. The Tigers' big guys - forwards Trevor Booker and James Mays - both have decent range. Guards Terrence Oglesby and Cliff Hammonds can go for 20 or more. Clemson with scrap, too, on defense. Because of their awful free throw shooting (just 63 percent as a team), the Tigers are not likely to advance any further than the Sweet 16, but they can put a scare into Kansas.
No. 6 Southern California (21-11)Your garden variety collection of stud athletes who don't know from one night to the next how they'll play. Led by freshman star O.J. Mayo, the Trojans suffer from youth and "ballhoggery" on offense; half of the time it looks like an AAU game as USC engages in round-robin isolation plays. But they're also the kings of junk defense, which is Coach Tim Floyd's forte. KSU's Michael Beasley might be in for a tough game. At any rate, USC hasn't been able to solve sturdy defenses all season; Wisconsin will snuff out the Men of Troy if Kansas State does not.
No. 7 Gonzaga (25-7)A big, deep, gifted team that's a year away. Of course, the Bulldogs always seem to be a year away. Tall guards in Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs. Long, talented frontcourt with freshman 6-10 freshman Austin Daye and 6-11 junior Josh Heytvelt. That said, there's often more potential than production; Gonzaga still doesn't commit itself to using its height to draw fouls and wear a team down. The Zags have to travel 3,000 miles for its first-round game, and they're playing this year's preferred Cinderella, Davidson. Maybe the jet lag will sink them, but the Bulldogs are the better team.
No. 8 UNLV (26-7)These Rebels don't run too much, but they do live and die by the 3-pointer (23 attempts per game) and tough half-court defense. UNLV takes cares of the ball - only 10 turnovers per game - but it's A smallish team that's liable to get beat on the boards. Comes into the tourney pretty hot, though, having soundly beaten both Utah and BYU in the Mountain West Tournament.
No. 9 Kent State (28-6)A balanced, experienced team that had four players with more than 100 free throw attempts. Can win a lot of different ways, and even managed to beat a methodical, brain-numbing Miami (Ohio) team three times. Laugh, but Miami beat Xavier and South Alabama, and lost by three and four points to Louisville and USC, respectively. The Golden Flashes routinely play nine, often use a point guard for defense and assists only, and need to get some calls from the referees. Bottom line: Kent's no joke.
No. 10 Davidson (26-6)Well, this is as good as the Wildcats have ever been and ever will be. Sophomore guard Stephen Curry is a bona fide NBA prospect, averaging 25 points a game. Senior point guard Jason Richards dishes out eight assists a game. The frontcourt is experienced, if offensively challenged. Finally, Davidson is deep enough to hang in against bigger, stronger foes. Has a prayer in a second-round game vs. Georgetown - but only that.
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Davidson and guard Stephen Curry: Ready for their close-up as the Big Dance's next Cinderella story.
No. 11 Kansas State (20-11)The Michael Beasley show! But the nation's best player can't win games all by himself, and too often he's asked to do just that. As a leader, he's an acquired taste, a mixture of confidence, innate basketball genius and occasional cool detachment. He's a bit like Kobe Bryant. Fellow freshman Bill Walker takes far too many bad shots and nobody else on the Wildcats is particularly noteworthy. First-year coach Frank Martin's insistence on tight man-to-man defense leaves the KSU vulnerable to back door plays. Sadly, this team is a novelty, and little more.
No. 12 Villanova (20-12)Probably the last team in the field (other than SEC Tourney champ Georgia), the Wildcats went through the gulag that was the Big East Conference in 2008. Tough-minded and undaunted, Nova still isn't very big, it can't shoot very well and it fouls like no tomorrow. At least that won't hurt the Cats against Clemson. Asks too much of young guards Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher. You get the sense Coach Jay Wright doesn't like his very much.
No. 13 Siena (22-10)A young, small, run-and-gun squad that got a good match in first-round foe Vanderbilt. The Saints can pull an upset, but they'd better be prepared to score 80-90 points to do it.
No. 14 Cal-State Fullerton (24-8)Every so often, a pretty salty team will emerge from the Big West Conference. This isn't one of those years. This brand of gleeful gunners will find open shots hard to find vs. Wisconsin.
No. 15 Maryland-Baltimore County (24-8)The Retrievers are a little better than their seed suggests - good shooting, low turnovers, fair on the boards. Not that it matters.
No. 16 Portland State (23-9)Another team better than its seed, although the Vikings did lose by 16 to Cal-State Fullerton. For PSU, the trip to Omaha is the reward.
First-round upsets:We're predicting none, because Davidson is favored to beat Gonzaga anyway. Villanova and Siena probably have the best looks. Kansas State won't come within single digits of USC.
Bracket busters:Vanderbilt and Clemson have the potential, as does USC. With a slightly different seed, Kent State could have made a lot of noise.
Best Bets:KU has a clear road to the Elite Eight. In the bottom half of the bracket, it's a scrum between Georgetown, Wisconsin, USC, Gonzaga and Davidson. Any of them could emerge. Our call is Wisconsin, which pits KU-UW in a regional that - you know what? - the Badgers just might win.
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