Here's the breakdown of these two regionals. The entire Midwest and half of the East begins play on Friday.
(1) Pitt vs. (16) E. Tenn State
(8)Okla State vs. (9) Tennessee
(5)Florida State vs. (12) Wisconsin
(4) Xavier vs. (13) Portland State
(2)Duke vs. (15) Binghamton
(7)Texas vs. (10) Minnesota
(3)Villanova vs. (14)American
(6)UCLA vs. (11) Va. Comm
During the selection show, CBS' Seth Greenberg showed his surprise that at #12, Wisconsin skidded as close to being out as they possibly could have. As expressed here a few times in the final week, I never did see the UW case for inclusion as being airtight. Now that they are here, they have an interesting draw in that Florida State's the very team that ran them off the field in the Champs Sports Bowl. The same could happen in hoops, but if Wisconsin follows its game plan of taking good care of the basketball and running a half-court game, they can get the 'Noles out of their element. If they do that, Xavier is a beatable team in round two. While the odds are that the Badger season ends sometime this weekend, a #12 seed can't complain about a draw as manageable as this one is.
Minnesota has it tougher. Texas is a battle-tested squad in tournament play, having reached a couple regional finals in the last three years and making the Final Four back in 2003. They have been inconsistent this year, so the opener is very winnable. But having to deal with Duke in front of a hometown crowd in Greensboro looks like an impossibility. The Gophs will have to be satisfied with making the tournament, and Tubby Smith can find even more satisfaction that he's here at the Dance while his ungrateful former employer at Kentucky is out.
Around the rest of the bracket, Pitt has a pretty easy run through this regional. While I hesitate to ever consider Coach K out of it, I don't think Duke is strong enough inside or experienced enough to beat the Panthers. I expect Villanova to make the regional final. They'll have homecourt advantage in Philly for the first two rounds, where they should end UCLA's string of three straight Final Fours. And when this region goes to Boston next weekend, they'll get Duke away from the friendly confines of North Carolina. But when all is said and done, no one in this bracket can match up with Pitt. No excuses for Jamie Dixon not to make a big run this year.
(1)Louisville vs. (16)Morehead State
(8)Ohio State vs. (9) Siena
(5)Utah vs. (12) Arizona
4)Wake Forest vs. (13) Clv State
(2)Michigan State vs. (15)Robert Morris
(7)Boston College vs. (10) USC
(3)Kansas vs. (14)North Dakota State
(6)West Virginia vs. (11)Dayton
Ohio State's in a tough draw. Siena is a very good team and probably seeded a little low for how strong they were throughout the year. I'm picking the Buckeyes to advance, but they drew a tougher game than was justified, based on their seed. Louisville is beatable as a #1 seed, but I'm not sure Ohio State will have the ability to handle the pressure well enough to be that team. So I'm playing the chalk here and have the 'Ville coming out of this pod and the top half of the bracket overall.
Michigan State's got a good draw the first weekend. USC is the kind of team Purdue is, even more so in fact, in that they are not likely to sustain a run through a conference tournament into the NCAA. If the second round is Michigan State-Boston College, this would also be a Champs Sports Bowl rematch. An odd bit of trivia that the Champs Sports games of 2007-08 could both be rematched in successive rounds. Even more odd that I actually think of stuff like this. But I digress. BC would be a worthy foe, and if I didn't respect Tom Izzo's ability to prepare a team in March, this might be a potential upset. But Michigan State generally plays at least to its capacity and sometimes beyond (e.g. 2005), so I think they'll be ready for the Eagles.
I like West Virginia to come out of their pod and take out defending champ Kansas. The Big 12 is not that strong. That would ease Michigan State's path to the regional final, where I then pick the Spartans to beat Louisville. Kalin Lucas can handle Louisville's pressure, and if the Cards don't shoot the ball well (a likely possibility), Michigan State rebounds too well.
So including yesterday's picks, that makes for a Final Four of Michigan State-Memphis, and Pitt-North Carolina. I'm very confident in the first three choices, less so in Carolina, whom I lean to primarily because there's no good alternative. I then like Pitt-Michigan State in the final, with the Panthers to win it all. It would continue a championship run for Pittsburgh, coming off the Super Bowl and the Penguins making the Cup Finals.
Penn State had to go to overtime to beat George Mason last night 77-73. Talor Battle played all 45 minutes and scored 24 points. The Lions survived their danger game, the one coming only 48 hours after the disappointment at having been jobbed out of an NCAA bid. They should be able to more easily manage the second round.
Northwestern starts off tonight with a road trip to Tulsa. Should they survive that, a likely road game at Auburn would be next. If they pull the upsets and get past that, they could potentially host the quarterfinal if #6 seed Georgetown can get its own act together. If chalk holds, either #2 Virginia Tech or #3 Baylor is at the end of the line. The second part of that three-game journey is the toughest for the 'Cats, as they try to make the trip to New York City.
I'll be back on Monday, after we let the first two rounds play out, to review each pod and look ahead to the regionals.