John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who just topped off an SEC regular season title with the tournament crown, were the top seed in the East as expected. In John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins the Wildcats have two likely lottery selections whenever those two decide to ply their trade in the NBA, and Patrick Patterson isn’t exactly chopped liver himself. But for all their talent there is a lack of tournament experience, especially in the role of favorite, and there are also teams in their region who can at the very least make them work for a trip to Indianapolis.
That could start as soon as the second round, with a pair of talented underachievers facing off in New Orleans in the first round. Texas was at one point the top-ranked team in the nation; ever since that crown was knocked off their head by a mediocre UConn team, Rick Barnes’ squad has struggled. Wake Forest had the look of an ACC title contender back in January…and they closed out the regular season 1-5 in their last six games. Both teams essentially find themselves in the same boat: which one is more capable of “flipping that switch” under college basketball’s brightest spotlight?
Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson make up the lion’s share of a Texas frontcourt that can make things difficult up front for a Cousins, Patterson or Daniel Orton. But their issue could be guard play, especially at the point. J’Covan Brown, Jai Lucas and Justin Mason haven’t played to a level anywhere near what they’ll see from John Wall.
The Demon Deacons have a point guard in Ish Smith who can match Wall in the speed department, and the senior also has plenty of experience. But which Al-Farouq Aminu will show up for Dino Gaudio? The body language of Wake’s most talented interior player (they’re deep up front as well) in recent games has not been on par with what you’d expect of a possible lottery pick.
West Virginia, who had quite the argument for being a one seed, is the two in their region. And if you follow the S-curve (with Kentucky being the second-best one seed) that would make Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers the second-weakest two in the eyes of the selection committee…fail. WVU has a number of talented players all in the 6-7 to 6-9 range, and while they aren’t the best shooting team out their this length makes them a monster on the offensive boards (going into the Big East Tournament they had an offensive rebounding rate of nearly 41%).
Da’Sean Butler was the most evident hero of their run to the Big East Tournament crown but he had plenty of help from the likes of Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks, Wellington Smith and the underrated Joe Mazzulla. They’ll face a team in Morgan State that has two of the better players around most people haven’t seen much of: Reggie Holmes (a lights-out scorer) and Kevin Thompson (a very good rebounder).
The region also included the Mountain West regular season champ in New Mexico, a team that in regards to personnel bears a resemblance to the Mountaineers. Darington Hobson took the west by storm this season, and players such as Dairese Gary and Roman Martinez aren’t slouches either. Wisconsin, who will need to deal with Wofford's Noah Dahlman in the first round, has one of the best coaches in the game in Bo Ryan. That swing offense is a pain to prepare for much less play against. Trevon Hughes, Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil are three players to keep an eye on.
And then you’ve got arguably the best first round matchup of the Tournament, one that makes you wonder what the committee was thinking when seeding both teams (IMO, both were underseeded). Temple takes on Cornell in a 12-5 matchup that will lead to much hand-wringing among most (if not all) pool competitors in the days leading up to Thursday. Juan Fernandez, Lavoy Allen and Michael Eric are just three of the players that the Big Red will have to account for.
Not to be outdone, Cornell brings Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale to the table with some of the best three-point shooters around also at Steve Donohue’s disposal. Add in the teacher/pupil angle (Donohue was an assistant on Fran Dunphy’s staff at Penn) and you’ve got a game that should not fail to live up to the hype. Marquette/Washington and Clemson/Missouri also make for intriguing matchups; the first game matches two teams that played well in their conference tournaments while the second will be a test in both teams’ ability to take care of the basketball.
Also, it would be a good idea for Oliver Purnell’s team to not go through stretches where they think that big muscular man wearing #35 (Trevor Booker) is on the other team. The Midwest may be the toughest bracket but this one isn’t far behind; don’t be surprised if more than one of the double-digit seeds moves on to the second round (and maybe even further). Will Kentucky be the last team standing on March 28th in the Carrier Dome? Possibly, but they’re going to have a serious fight on their hands in getting to that point.
Pick: West Virginia
Sweet 16: Kentucky, Temple, New Mexico
Best 1st Round Game: #12 Cornell vs. #5 Temple
1st Round Upset Possibility: #13 Wofford over #4 Wisconsin
Scary Underachiever: #8 Texas
Sweet 16 “Crashers”: #11 Washington/ #12 Cornell
Players who can shoot their team to an upset:
G Reggie Holmes (Morgan State), G Ryan Wittman (Cornell), F Damion James (Texas) F Quincy Pondexter (Washington)
East Region Team (one per team):
G John Wall (Kentucky), G Trevon Hughes (Wisconsin), F Lazar Hayward (Marquette), F Da’Sean Butler (West Virginia), F Quincy Pondexter (Washington)