While other teams may have been more spectacular at times in terms of making dramatic impressions there was arguably no more consistent team on the one line than the Big Ten champion Ohio State Buckeyes, who were rewarded with the top overall seed in the bracket. They've lost just twice with both defeats coming on the road to ranked opponents (Purdue and Wisconsin), and their rotation may lack numbers but it doesn't lack versatility. Freshman Jared Sullinger has been outstanding inside, and he surrounded by a number of players who can make plays from about anywhere on the floor. But the road to Houston will not be without its road blocks, likely beginning with a second round matchup with either George Mason or Villanova.
Many have rushed to write off the struggling Wildcats, who have lost seven of their last nine games. But in the history of the NCAA Tournament no program has won more games as a lower seed and Jay Wright has won his last three first round games. Villanova has talent but with players such as Corey Stokes and Mouphtaou Yarou banged up will they have the health? They will be tested by an experienced George Mason squad that ran away with the CAA regular season title, winning the conference by two games. Jim Larranaga's been down this road before with many still having the 2006 Final Four team on their minds, and players such as Cam Long and Ryan Pearson are more than capable of winning in the tournament. As for UTSA and Alabama State it's tough to give a 16-seed even a puncher's chance of beating a one when it's never happened before.
Tampa (March 17)
(5) West Virginia vs. (12) UAB/Clemson
(4) Kentucky vs. (13) Princeton
Play in this grouping begins on Tuesday with UAB and Clemson meeting in Dayton as part of the "First Four" in Dayton. The Blazers have been raked over the coals when it comes to their inclusion in the field, but it's pretty obvious that the selection committee gave them credit for rising above the ruckus to win the regular season title in Conference USA. Senior point guard Aaron Johnson is among the national leaders in assists per game. Clemson's "finishing kick", which included wins over both Boston College and Virginia Tech, likely got them in. Their opponent will be West Virginia, who finished in the top half of the wildly competitive Big East. The Mountaineers have dealt with their share of issues, from Dan Jennings leaving the team to Casey Mitchell being suspended. But they've found a way to win games with the tough trio of Truck Bryant, Kevin Jones and Joe Mazzulla leading the way.
As for Kentucky, they enter the NCAA Tournament with a high level of confidence, closing the regular season with a win at Tennessee then winning the SEC Tournament. With all the talk about their freshmen it's been upperclassmen such as DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller who have raised their play of late, and John Calipari is a tournament-tested coach who knows how to win in March. Their opponents will be the Princeton Tigers, who make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004. The Tigers are experienced in regards to years, and a senior class that started their careers with a six-win season gets their ultimate reward for all of the hard work. Douglas Davis' shot delivered the automatic berth, and with Ian Hummer, Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides Princeton has a nucleus that's seen a lot of what college basketball has to offer.
All Top-Half Team
G Brandon Knight (Kentucky)
G Jon Diebler (Ohio State)
F Terrence Jones (Kentucky)
F Kevin Jones (West Virginia)
F Jared Sullinger (Ohio State)
Top Half All-Rookie Team
G Aaron Craft (Ohio State)
G Doron Lamb (Kentucky)
Top Half All-Lower Seed Team
G Corey Fisher (Villanova)
G Demontez Stitt (Clemson)
G Aaron Johnson (UAB)
F Kareem Maddox (Princeton)
F Jerai Grant (Clemson)
Cleveland (March 18)
(6) Xavier vs. (11) Marquette
(3) Syracuse vs. (14) Indiana State
All four games in Cleveland are part of the East region, allowing teams to get a look at who they may possibly run into in Newark in the Elite 8. Syracuse has their active 2-3 zone that can give teams unfamiliar with its nuances fits, and the Orange will begin their run with Missouri Valley tournament champion Indiana State. Point guard Scoop Jardine needs to make sound decisions with the basketball because when their other weapons are neglected the Orange can struggle offensively. ISU beat the top two seeds on consecutive days to grab the automatic bid. The Sycamores did achieve their best finish in the MVC in over a decade but do they have the shooting required to deal with Syracuse's zone.
While there is the possibility of the Orange running into a familiar face in conference foe Marquette, it won't be expected as Xavier has one of the best backcourts in the region(Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons). Chris Mack's Musketeers emerged as the class of the Atlantic 10 in the regular season, only to fall to rival Dayton in the conference tournament. Marquette will have their hands full with the Musketeers but Buzz Williams' team plays as hard as any team in the country. Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom are the leading scorers for Marquette, who needs other guys to step up in order to prolong their stay. Whether or not they play well enough to advance, because their effort will be there, remains to be seen.
Charlotte (March 18)
(7) Washington vs. (10) Georgia
(2) North Carolina vs. (15) Long Island
North Carolina, regular season ACC champions, will get to share their subregional site with rival Duke but the Tar Heels traditionally enjoy the fan edge in the Queen City. Roy Williams' freshmen (Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall) have figured out what they're required to do in their roles and its shown on the floor. But they got off to slow starts in all three ACC Tournament games, and a similar beginning could keep the NEC champion LIU around longer than they're expected to be. But the Blackbirds, who are making their first NCAA appearance in more than a decade, are blessed with depth that isn't seen in most 15-seeds especially in the frontcourt with Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere leading the way. .
The 7/10 matchup is where the region's "Cinderella" may come from, although it's tough to peg the Pac-10 tournament champs with such a label. Point guard Isaiah Thomas put forth a virtuoso performance this past weekend, capping it all with a jumper at the buzzer to beat Arizona in overtime. While Georgia has an athletic perimeter rotation led by Travis Leslie the Huskies enjoy a clear advantage when it comes to decision-making. Obviously with their 10-seed it would be easy to assume Mark Fox's team was in the field, but their late-game decisions in the loss to Alabama in the SEC quarterfinals very nearly earned them an NIT berth.
All-Bottom Half Team
G Tu Holloway (Xavier)
G Isaiah Thomas (Washington)
G Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette)
F Harrison Barnes (North Carolina)
F Rick Jackson (Syracuse)
Bottom Half All-Rookie Team
G Kendall Marshall (North Carolina)
G C.J. Wilcox (Washington)
G Jake Odum (Indiana State)
F C.J. Fair (Syracuse)
Bottom Half All-Lower Seed Team
G Travis Leslie (Georgia)
F Julian Boyd (Long Island)
F Trey Thompkins (Georgia)
Region Winner: Ohio State