This series of columns is for today's The Washington Post --------------
Southwest Region -- Kansas appears locked in as it sets sights on Houston
If ever a team looked like a Final Four lock, it was Kansas a year ago. If ever a team looks like a Final Four lock, it is Kansas this year.
Of course last year the Jayhawks lost in the second round to Northern Iowa, an upset only the folks in Cedar Rapids might have seen coming. Do not expect the same from UNLV or Illinois — Illinois, really? Over Virginia Tech? Was the ACC that bad this season?
The best first-round matchup in the entire tournament (other than Butler-ODU) might be Vanderbilt-Richmond. The committee clearly loves the SEC; not so much the Atlantic 10. The A-10 tournament champion got a No. 12 seed. It is seeded lower than Georgia, which belongs in the tournament less than Illinois but slightly more than UAB.
That said, the most dangerous team on the road to Houston for Kansas might be Purdue if only because Notre Dame is so dependent on three-point shooting. The Irish can beat anyone, but can they stay hot for four straight games? That’s the second-most asked question in South Bend these days, right after, “How do the quarterbacks look in spring practice?”
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West Region: West Region could have a Hollywood ending, or a predictable coronation
It could happen. On the other hand, Texas could survive that game — and it almost assuredly will not be easy — and if it does, could easily find itself in the region final. This is a very wide open region. The hottest team entering the tournament is the No. 3 seed, Connecticut. The Huskies may also be the most tired. Duke is the No. 1 seed, but the committee did it no favors with a second-round game against either Michigan or Tennessee. The Vols may be the most schizophrenic team in the field — a reflection of their coach — and Michigan shoots threes a lot, which makes it dangerous when they go in. Don’t be stunned by an early Duke exit. It has happened before.
San Diego State is the mystery No. 2 seed. On the one hand, the Aztecs have two losses all season, both to Brigham Young when the Cougars were whole. On the other hand, they haven’t been tested in either conference play or nonconference play the way the other high seeds have been. A second-round game against Temple or Penn State will tell us a lot about them. If the committee had any sense of history, it would put Temple-Penn State in at the Palestra. But this is a group whose chairman now refers to “style of play,” as a criteria for getting into the field. If so, how can Penn State and Wisconsin be allowed anywhere near any tournament building?
One of the most popular first-round upset picks will come out of this region: Oakland over Texas. The Longhorns, who looked like a possible No. 1 seed a month ago, stumbled to the finish line to drop to No. 4, and Oakland is one of those veteran teams from a mid-major conference that played a very tough nonconference schedule that included a win at Tennessee.
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East Region: Virginia Tech left out of East bracket while George Mason faces tough draw
Let us begin with two local teams who the committee did wrong: Virginia Tech and George Mason.
If Mason wins that game, it gets to play Ohio State, the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament, on what will be virtually a home court for the Buckeyes in Cleveland. That’s the beauty of the pod system, which was a bad idea to begin with and remains that way. Mason would have been better off as a No. 10 seed than it is as a No. 8 seed. In fact, a 10th seed would have given them a potential second-round game against North Carolina — the same school it beat in the second round en route to the Final Four in 2006.
At least Jim Larranaga’s team is in the field. The same can’t be said for Virginia Tech. The ACC should seriously consider replacing Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman as its committee rep after he was clearly outmaneuvered by SMU Athletic Director Steve Orsini in the committee room. Somehow, UAB got a second bid for Orsini’s league (Conference USA) while the ACC got just four bids — with Clemson getting sent to Dayton for the play-in round. (Sorry, NCAA, I’m not buying into this “First Four” marketing brand.)
The good news for the Patriots is that they have a very winnable first-round game against a Villanova team that became the first in tournament history to get an at-large bid after losing its last five games. That’s where the good news ends.
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Southeast Region: Pitt had best beware of ODU-Butler winner
The NCAA tournament selection committee may have decided it likes CBS and Turner’s money more than ESPN’s, but it clearly buys into ESPN’s Big East hype. So if you take 11 teams from one conference, you better do everything you can to ensure at least one of them makes the Final Four.
The anointed Big East team is clearly Pittsburgh. The Panthers have what amounts to a dream draw. Jamie Dixon has been close to the Final Four, but has never quite gotten there. He will never have a better chance than right now.
Consider the next three seeds in his region: Florida, which won a remarkably weak SEC; BYU, which deserves the No. 3 seed but is without leading rebounder Brandon Davies; and Wisconsin, which is as well-coached as any team in the tournament but scored 33 points against Penn State on Friday. Pitt’s most dangerous game may be its second, against Old Dominion or Butler.
Putting ODU and Butler up against each other on the 8-9 line is pretty close to criminal. ODU is the best rebounding team in the country and won the most underrated conference in the country. Forget that Butler was two inches from being the defending champion in this event; the Bulldogs have won nine straight, and their conference was the toughest it has ever been.
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