The West Region of the 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket presents Duke as the #1 seed, followed by San Diego State at the #2 and UConn at the #3. The West has as many as six teams that appeared in the top 10 of the AP ranking at some time during the season, a list that includes Tennessee, Texas, and Missouri in addition to the three noted above. No other bracket has a former top 10 team ranked as lowly as Missouri is ranked in the West, coming in at the #11 seed. This reflects the Tigers’ struggles late in the season, but also can be seen as a testament to the depth of good teams in the region.
Final Four Fav’s: Looking at the potential matchups in the bracket, it’s hard to pick against UConn as a good candidate to make it to the Final Four. With their much-heralded five-win streak through the Big East Tournament, the Huskies have shown an ability together a solid string of back-to-back victories. Getting to the Final Four would potentially mean getting past San Diego State, but UConn is likely up to the challenge, especially given that SDSU appears to be one of the weaker number 2′s.
Duke would be a natural pick to make it to the Final Four, but my other top candidate from the West is Arizona. Although I don’t agree with Charles Barkley’s assessment of Ohio State’s chances in the tournament, I do agree with his pick of Arizona to go a long way. Sean Miller is a great coach who knows how to get his team ready (see Xavier vs. Ohio State circa 2007). The Wildcats finished their Pac-10 season fairly strong despite the loss to Washington in the conference championship game, and I don’t expect they’ll have much difficulty overcoming Memphis in the first (no, not second) round.
Cinderella candidate: Ohio State fans and other fans in the Midwest are familiar with the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, who fell to the Buckeyes in late December, but only after beating Tennessee. The Grizzlies went on to storm through their conference, and it’s possible that people in other parts of the country (I’m looking at you, Texas) may be caught unawares by this solid club. Oakland ranks very highly in a number of statistical categories (2nd in points per game, 2nd in FG percentage, 14th in rebounds), and they’re used to playing top competition, having faced Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, West Virginia, and Michigan in addition to the Volunteers and the Buckeyes.
Other lower seeded teams that could make a good run include Missouri, who is well-positioned to overcome Cincinnati given the style of play of each team and the strength of each team in the context of the whole season, and Penn State, who is playing very well right now and has the x-factor of inspired upperclassmen.
Players to watch: There are two players in the West who are fairly sure bets to be first team All-American this year: Nolan Smith from Duke and Kemba Walker from UConn. Smith stepped up in a big way for the Blue Devils this season after Kyrie Irving went down with his early season toe injury and ended up posting over 21 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. Walker’s numbers were just as impressive, as the Husky junior (graduating this year) put up over 23 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game.
Some others to watch include Derrick Williams from Arizona, a sophomore stud who averaged 19 points and 8 rebounds per game on the season, and Jordan Hamilton from Texas, another talented sophomore with comparable numbers to Williams at 18 points and 7 boards per outing. Of course, Ohio State fans already know about Darius Morris of Michigan and Talor Battle of Penn State, having seen them in action both three times throughout Big Ten regular season and conference tournament play.
Unheralded player to watch: One player flying a bit under the radar is Tobias Harris from Tennessee. Although the Volunteers have a fairly high-profile program, Harris’ name hasn’t been mentioned too much among the other freshmen phenoms in the country like Sullinger, Barnes (North Carolina), and Jones (Kentucky). However, Harris is a great talent. He averaged over 15 points and 7 rebounds on the season, and in his last four outings had totals of 25, 18, 20, and 25 points. At 6’8, Harris can score inside, run the floor and handle the ball on the break, and even step back for the three.
Team from obscurity: Since they didn’t get any love as the Cinderella candidate, let’s look at the Bucknell Bison in this section of the post. Bucknell, a school based in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, last participated in the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and won their first round game over Arkansas before being eliminated in the second round by Memphis. More interestingly, the prior year Bucknell also made it to the Big Dance and shocked Kansas in a 3/14 upset (take notice UConn). Bucknell – not to be confused with Boise State (check the colors) – finished the season at 25-8 and won the Patriot League championship to earn their right to take on the Huskies.
They are led by point guard Daryll Shazier, who is second in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio behind only…ugh, do I have to say it? Jordan Taylor. Since we’ve already crossed that line, I may as well note that Bucknell’s mascot (the Bison) is also named “Bucky.” Bucknell is a fairly small school overall, with only around 3500 students.
Elite 8 picks: Since they wouldn’t have to play each other early in the tournament, my picks for the Elite 8 from the West are UConn and Arizona. I think that either Michigan or Tennessee could give Duke problems in the second round, and given the roll Penn State is on right now, they would be a fairly solid pick to upset San Diego State. UConn and Arizona both have superstar players, and they are extremely well-coached teams.