We continue our look at the NCAA tournament field with our third of three regions. Jay and Joe already did a fantastic job with the West and Southeast regions yesterday. The Southwest region seems a lot easier to predict than the Southeast with a lot fewer chances for upsets in the first round. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some teams to look out for, though!
Favorites: There is no question about the top favorite for this bracket. Kansas, last year’s overall #1 seed, is in no danger of facing the same fate as last year. This year’s team is a dangerously deep and talented group, not dependent on any one player to get the job done. The Morris brothers, Markieff and Marcus, lead the team in points per game and rebounds per game as well as leading a trio of fantastic frontcourt players. Overall, Kansas plays with an incredibly fast pace, and runs with a significant height advantage that could give their opponents trouble.
Keep an eye on Purdue as well. While the Boilermakers ended the season in pathetic fashion (losses to Iowa and Michigan State), they are still a spectacularly dangerous team when they’re on their game. Expect Matt Painter to lead his team deep into the tournament as he’ll be more than capable of refocusing his troops on the importance of March.
While you’re keeping your eyes on Purdue, note that they are currently missing one of the regulars in their rotation. Kelsey Barlow was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team”, though no further details were revealed. Now, Barlow was not a critical player by any stretch, coming off the bench for 5 points and 3 rebounds in about 20 minutes of play. However, he did provide quality defensive minutes and rest for some of the starters down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how much the Boiler’s miss him.
Incidentally, as an interesting trivia question to ask your family, how many straight seasons has Kansas had 23 or more wins? The answer is a surprising 22 straight. That’s right fans, the last time the Jayhawks had fewer than 23 wins was in the late 80′s. That’s consistency right there.
Cinderellas: It’s rare for many low-seeded teams to make deep runs like George Mason or Butler. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t teams capable of it on a year-to-year basis. In the Southwest this year there are two potential candidates to make an appearance into the Sweet 16 or further.
Florida State deserves some attention. Falling down to the 10 seed despite being third in the traditionally powerful ACC, Florida State managed to defeat Duke in their only meeting this season. The Seminoles also played close, hard-fought games against both the Buckeyes and Gators this year, in fact holding the Buckeyes to their lowest point total all year (tied with Northwestern).
More impressive than Florida State’s resume is that of the Richmond Spiders. The Spiders were one of the few teams to defeat Purdue this year, catching them 65-54 early in the season with their first loss. Impressively, Richmond is on a 7 game winning streak, capturing the Atlantic 10 Tournament title. That included a 13 point smackdown of Dayton in the championship game, and a four point victory over Temple in the semifinals. Expect to see Richmond in the second round, if not playing Kansas in the Sweet 16.
Players to Watch: We’ve already mentioned the Morris brothers in Kansas. You’re probably also familiar with Johnson and Moore at Purdue. Therefore, it’s worth pointing out Ben Hansbrough at Notre Dame.
You’re probably familiar with Ben’s immediately older brother Tyler. Tyler Hansbrough was a standout player at North Carolina for several years, winning a national championship in his senior season, and currently plays for the Indiana Pacers.
Ben has taken the reigns at a very solid Notre Dame program, leading the team in scoring with 18 per game while picking up 4 assists and 4 rebounds per game. Ben really turned it on this season, vastly improving his scoring and role on this team. As a senior guard, Hansbrough will be a critical component to Notre Dame’s tournament hopes.
Interestingly, Ben plays a much different position than his brother. While Tyler was a 6’9″ Power Forward and exerted his will in the paint, Ben is only 6’3″ and plays a Shooting Guard role for the Irish. It’s surprising two kids from the same parents could end up being so different in stature. Ben makes it work though, making a name for himself and not living under his brother’s shadow.
Unheralded Player: If you are a Buckeye fan, you may be familiar with the name Kenneth Faried. Faried, the 6-8 Center for Morehead State, faced the Buckeyes earlier this season. Against the Buckeyes he picked up an impressive double double 15 points and 12 rebounds. For the season, Faried is averaging a double double with 18 points and 15 rebounds per game. If Faried has an above average game in the first round, Louisville could find themselves in trouble.
Team from Obscurity: The Virginia Commonwealth Rams are located in Richmond, Virginia and is a traditional urban university. VCU, the #4 team in the Colonial Conference this season, has participated in the NCAA Tournament fairly regularly over the years, entering the field 9 times over the last 30 years, including their last appearance in 2009.
VCU’s most famous NCAA Tournament win would be an upset of #6 Duke in 2007. They followed that win up by taking Pittsburgh to overtime before succombing 84-79. The Rams have never made it past the second round, despite 5 attempts to do so.
VCU is lucky to be playing in this tournament. They squeaked in on the graces of the tournament committee, and must play USC in one of the first play-in games. While many will say that the loser was still “in” the tournament, I’m still going to argue that the field is only 64 teams and only the winners of the play-in games actually get to be “in”.
Elite 8 picks: With my favorites spaced out in the region, it is easy to pick these. Expect Kansas and Purdue to be playing for a final four berth by the second weekend of the tournament. There is no reason to believe Kansas wouldn’t win that game, but a hot Purdue could get the job done and make it into the final weekend.