Tournament action begins Thursday in all of the West and most of the South regionals, so we'll preview those two first. Here's the bracket lineups
(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Radford
(8) LSU vs. (9) Butler
(5) Illinois vs. (12) Western Kentucky
(4) Gonzaga vs. (13) Akron
(6) Arizona State vs. (11) Temple
(3) Syracuse vs. (14) Stephen F. Austin
(7) Clemson vs. (10) Michigan
(2) Oklahoma vs. (15) Morgan State
Interesting draws for both Big Ten teams and they set up for each to have a reasonable shot at surviving and getting to the regionals next week in Memphis. Much was made on about Illinois being vulnerable to Western Kentucky. Fair enough, but it should also be pointed out that Gonzaga has not looked like the stuff of champions in its major non-conference battles. If Bruce Weber's team avoids the upset challenge, I really like their chances to take out the Zags.
For Michigan, they'll be taking on a team that's always found a way to implode every March. If they get past that, Oklahoma has been struggling down the stretch. The Wolverines have as good a shot as a #10 seed can hope to have of advancing deep into the bracket. I've got them pegged for a Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona State, a game that would be a rematch of when the two schools squared off in the '86 ASU club. Something I'm sure that is foremost on Manny Harris' mind right now (note sarcasm).. Michigan could get revenge for that loss to a steroid-jacked
Overall, I think this is the region most likely to be gutted by upsets. The #2, #3 and #4 are all beatable by mid-level teams and even North Carolina can get careless with the ball and on defense. I'm picking the Tar Heels to ultimately prevail over an upset-ridden pairing.
(1) UConn vs. (16) UT-Chattanooga
(8) BYU vs. (9) Texas A&M
(5) Purdue vs. (12) Northern Iowa
(4) Washington vs. (13) Miss State
(6) Marquette vs. (11) Utah State
(3) Missouri vs. (14) Cornell
(2) Memphis vs. (15) UC-Northridge
(7) Cal vs. (10) Maryland
Purdue sits on the same seed line as Illinois and has the same pitfalls and possiblities that accompany that. If they can get past Northern Iowa, #4 Washington is not strong for a conference champ. But I think Purdue is a good bet for a team likely to fall in the opener. Often a team that comes up with the kind of run they did to win a conference tournament makes a quick exit in the NCAA (e.g., Pitt a year ago winning the Big East and quickly going out to Michigan State). I think the same will happen here, and my bracket's called for Northern Iowa winning that pod and advancing to Glendale next weekend.
That Marquette-Missouri pod is an interesting one (almost as interesting as the Committee shipping both Marquette and Wisconsin to Boise. We'll find out if beer and potatoes make a good mix). Like Purdue, Mizzou fits the profile of teams that often have trouble after winning a league tourney. And Marquette is not even #6-caliber without Dominic James. I'm picking Utah State to win that group of four.
It all sets up to creating an easy path to a 1-2 showdown with UConn-Memphis. Without Jerome Dyson, UConn's not the same. Memphis has shown they can handle the adjustment from Conference USA competition to the . In addition to last year's run to the championship game, they made a regional final in both 2006 and 2007. They'll return to the Final Four this year.
In the last post's brief mention of the NIT, I mentioned Iowa joining Penn State. I apologize to Northwestern fans for the oversight in omitting them. And it ends up looking like an even dumber statement considering Iowa didn't even make the field, and I must have lost track of their overall record down the stretch, as they ended up 15-17.
If Penn State can get past their disappointment over being here in the first place, they have a favorable draw. They are a #2 seed in a tournament broken down into four brackets of eight, with homecourt advantage applying for the first three rounds. So home dates with George Mason and then either Niagara or Rhode Island are all that stand between them and a potential trip to Florida in the quarterfinals. The matchup PSU fans would have loved in football instead settles a trip to New York City for their hoops team, if all goes well.