Chaos and insanity rule the first week of the NCAA men’s tournament, but oh how sweet it is to still be alive when the sun rises the morning after the second round.
The sweet sixteen is about to commence for the 2011 college basketball season, with a mixed bag of obvious favorites and improbable low seeds moving forward. This year’s tournament is unique in that at least one underdog has emerged from each region. The West is the closest in terms of favorites coming out of the pack (with fifth-seeded Arizona the lowest seed in their bracket), while the Southwest only has one team with a single digit seed (Kansas at number one) in their final four.
Getting to this point in the tournament has been easy for a few, but most kept their fans on pins and needles.
All of the top seeds escaped the first two rounds with double digits wins (except for Pittsburg, who got upset, and Duke, which won their second round game by two points). Arizona won both of their first two games by a total margin of five points, while Butler topped both opponents by a total of three points (including a controversial win over top seed Pittsburg).
The four Cinderella stories left in the tournament created the most buzz of all in the first four days.
Eleventh-seeded Marquette escaped past Xavier in the first round quite easily, but survived an even tougher challenge with a four-point win over third-ranked Syracuse. Florida State, a tenth seed, had a totally opposite first two games of the tournament from Marquette with a tougher challenge against #7 Texas A&M (squeaking by seven in the win) than #2 Notre Dame (a cruising fourteen-point victory).
After twelfth-seeded Richmond shocked Vanderbilt fans with a win by three points, they faced off against another underdog in thirteenth ranked Morehead St. They would come out of that game unscathed by beating down the Eagles by seventeen. VCU’s play has been the most impressive of all; first by winning a play in game against USC for the eleventh-seed, then torching favorites Georgetown and Purdue eighteen a piece en route to the Sweet Sixteen.
Make no mistake though, despite the degree of difficulty on "The Road To The Final Four", the ride only gets bumpier with higher seeds waiting on the horizon and upsets around every corner.
Here’s a look at the storyline for each region:
East Region: Ohio State’s For The TakingAside from Marquette, this region has gone according to par and that’s got to be an advantage for Ohio St.
While others will maintain that doesn’t work in their favor, Ohio State will take facing young, inexperienced teams in the next two rounds. Kentucky was a number one seed last year, but the core of that team left for the NBA. Although they were able to reload with talent, with players like G Brandon Knight and F Terrence Jones, the Wildcats don’t have the depth to contend with the Buckeyes nor the size to take on big man Jared Sullinger.
North Carolina is also dealing with experience deficiency within their personnel and will hope to get through Marquette with freshman F Harrison Barnes and Sophomore F John Henson. The Golden Eagles will be ready for the game, having already beaten two higher seeds, and stage an all out war to advance, but the Tar Heels will find a way to prevail forward.
A convincing win might go far for North Carolina, but Ohio State will prove to be too much for Roy Williams’ team and emerge from this division unscathed as a Final Four contestant.
Projected Winner: Ohio State
West Region: Hardest Bracket To Declare A VictoryBoth games in the third round can go either way and will be a hard fought battle for all four teams that will only get tougher for the final two.
Duke was lucky in the second round but they will have to play better if they hope to escape. Arizona has already won two close games, showing that they are unafraid to take the game into the last moments of regulation. F Derrick Williams has been impressive by getting to the line 24 times in both games. Yet, the lack of an interior defense may be the Achilles heel of the team with a Blue Devils team that loves to penetrate with G Nolan Smith and G Kyrie Irving.
Kemba Walker has depleted his tank in order to keep his Connecticut team alive. Even after injuring his wrist and hip, the star guard carried his team past Cincinnati. Sadly though, his impressive run will halt at this stage with a more complete squad in San Diego State. The Aztecs have a stronger supporting cast surrounding sophomore sensation Kawhi Leonard.
With Duke and San Diego in the final, expect a close, wire-to-wire championship that may will need extra time to reach completion. When the dust settles, the Aztecs will be the ones on the ladder cutting down the nets.
Projected Winner: San Diego State
Southwest Region: A Favorite Vs Three CinderellasOf all the regions, this is the most intriguing.
With Kansas as the only single-seed in the bracket, penciling them into the Final Four appears simple. Their first opponent will be Richmond, a team that is known for knocking off favorites. In order to continue in that tradition, the Spiders will need their stars, G Kevin Anderson and F Justin Harper, to be on their A-game. Yet, the dream will end here for Richmond with a Jayhawk roster that consists of a high level of talent and depth.
It’s been a long week for VCU, who finally got a break after their last win. The team played out of their minds against Purdue, with six players reaching double-digit points and stellar play from their undersized leader, five foot, ten inch G Joey Rodriguez. Florida State won both of their games with strong, team defense (holding both opponents to under 32% from the field). This will be tough for both teams, but VCU will cool down with the long layoff and Florida State comes away victorious with their tough defense.
Kansas will surface as the winners of the Southwest, with a defiant win over Florida State and a berth into the Final Four.
Projected Winner: Kansas
Southeast Region: No Number One To Stand In The WayWith Pittsburg’s demise, this region is up for grabs.
Butler will hope that the win over Pittsburg and last year’s magic is still with them heading into the Sweet Sixteen. It will only get harder when they face off against Wisconsin and their leaders, F Jon Leuer and G Jordan Taylor. Taylor will need to shoot better than he did in the second round if they hope to top F Matt Howard and the Bulldogs. The magic continues to rain down upon Butler, who will knock off another favorite in the Badgers in this game.
BYU will hope that G Jimmer Fredette will continue his magical shooting stroke from all over the floor. The college superstar lit up the first two rounds and will hope he can continue that against second seed Florida. The Gators’ overcame inexperience by riding G Erving Walker’s hot shooting to win the first two games convincingly. Both teams will make this match up a shootout, in which Fredette will stand out above the rest and lead his Cougars to the Southeast championship.
The magic will run out for Butler in the championship game, Fredette’s ability to fill up the stat sheet will be a deficit they cannot overcome. BYU will march forward and be the final team to dance into the Final Four.
Projected Winner: BYU