The last time Pittsburgh made the Final Four was all the way back in 1941, and this group has the ability to end the drought. Guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker have led the way, with Gibbs leading the team in scoring and Wanamaker doing a variety of things on both ends of the floor. Their five losses have been by a combined 17 points, and defensively the Panthers are a very tough group to crack. And despite the questions about them offensively, Pitt is among the most efficient teams in the nation. They'll get the winner of Tuesday's game between UNC Asheville, who win the Big South title on regular season champ Coastal Carolina's home floor, and Sun Belt tournament champ UALR. The Panthers should be somewhat familiar with UALR guard Solomon Bozeman, who began his collegiate career at USF before transferring.
The 8/9 game will be intriguing, especially if you're a fan of defense. Butler made their run all the way to the national title game a season ago, and even though it took some time to figure out how to get on without Gordon Hayward (Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley as well) Brad Stevens' Bulldogs figured it out and win the Horizon League tournament title. Old Dominion is back as well, winning the CAA Tournament behind guard Kent Bazemore and forward Frank Hassell. The matchups of Bazemore/ Shelvin Mack and Hassell/ Matt Howard will be entertaining, with an important contribution from one of the other players in either rotation being the difference.
Tucson (March 17)
(5) Kansas St. vs. (12) Utah State
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) Belmont
Remember when there were questions as to whether or not Kansas State, who went to the Elite 8 last year, would even make the tournament? That seems like a long time ago for Frank Martin's team, who got tougher and with Jacob Pullen leading the way have the ability to make some noise in the next couple of weeks. How far the Wildcats go will depend on the frontcourt, and they've got a tough test on their hands in Utah State. Tai Wesley leads a deep frontcourt and on the perimeter there's point guard Brockeith Pane and senior Pooh Williams. The Aggies are a tough team to scout given the number of sets that head coach Stew Morrill will run, and their offensive execution can burn opponents who don't remain disciplined defensively. Get through this one and Kansas State can make a run, but beating Utah State is by no means a sure thing.
Belmont has been the trendy upset pick by many and that began even before the brackets were announced. Rick Byrd's Bruins go 11 deep and seven average at least five points per game. Forwards Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders play well off of each other and when Belmont succeeds at speeding teams up turnovers tend to follow. But Wisconsin is a tough matchup for Belmont: the Badgers have an experienced point guard in Jordan Taylor who ranks among the nation's best, they don't turn the ball over and they've played more than 60 possessions in a game just eight times this season (65+ just once). Good luck speeding up Wisconsin, who also has forwards Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil to count on for scoring. The meeting between the Bruins and Badgers is a great contrast in styles, but Belmont will have to execute in the half-court if they're to pull off the upset.
All-Top Half Team
G Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin)
G Jacob Pullen (Kansas State)
G Brad Wanamaker (Pittsburgh)
F Jon Leuer (Wisconsin)
F Matt Howard (Butler)
Top Half All-Rookie Team
G Will Spradling (Kansas State)
G Josh Gasser (Wisconsin)
G Daylon Guy (Arkansas-Little Rock)
G/F J/.J. Mann (Belmont)
F Khyle Marshall (Butler)
Top Half All-Lower Seed Team
G Solomon Bozeman (Arkansas-Little Rock)
G Kent Bazemore (Old Dominion)
G Ian Clark (Belmont)
F Tai Wesley (Utah State)
F Frank Hassell (Old Dominion)
Denver (March 17)
(6) St. John's vs. (11) Gonzaga
(3) BYU vs. (14) Wofford
It's been a little too long between NCAA Tournament appearances for St. John's but the Red Storm are back in the first year of the Steve Lavin era. Dwight Hardy took off beginning in mid-January, and the move to point guard has paid off for the senior. But they'll be without their most versatile player in wing D.J. Kennedy, who tore his ACL in the Big East Championship last week. But it won't be one guy who replaces his contributions; instead it will have to be a number of players simply doing a little bit more as it's near impossible to simply replace a player of Kennedy's caliber. And if that isn't enough of a challenge how about traveling all the way out to Denver to take on Gonzaga? The Bulldogs improved in the latter stages of the season and with weapons such as Steven Gray, Elias Harris and Robert Sacre, head coach Mark Few won't lack for scoring options. They may be an 11-seed but Gonzaga getting to the Sweet 16 should not be considered a surprise if it were to happen.
As for BYU, they've been exposed some inside due to the loss of leading rebounder Brandon Davies. A simple redistribution of his six-plus rebounds per game is much easier said than done when factoring in the loss of size as well. The Cougars had problems with New Mexico in Provo and against San Diego State in Saturday's Mountain West title game, and such an issue could limit their potential in the Big Dance. Wofford has an outstanding frontcourt player in senior Noah Dahlman and Tim Johnson leads the team with more than eight rebounds per game. Wofford's been the better rebounding team of the two this season but do they have the ability to slow down Jimmer Fredette? Fredette can shoot the Cougars past Wofford but it will be tougher down the line to make up for the rebounding issue as the level of competition increases.
Tampa (March 17)
(7) UCLA vs. (10) Michigan State
(2) Florida vs. (15) UC Santa Barbara
Now that Michigan State is safely in the field, something that was in doubt down the stretch, the focus can be on how successful Tom Izzo-coached teams have been in the Big Dance. Six Final Four appearances and a national title for the Spartans during his tenure, but this is a different team than the ones that accomplished those feats. Kalin Lucas has increased his scoring but his teammates have struggled, especially Durrell Summers. With the talent that UCLA has, especially sophomore Tyler Honeycutt on the wing, Michigan State needs Summers to break out this week. Draymond Green is a versatile forward but he's got a tough matchup of his own with Reeves Nelson. Pac-10 teams tend to struggle when going from west all the way to the east coast so maybe the Spartans have that working for them.
Florida may have been over-seeded as a two but it doesn't matter now, and Billy Donovan's team took on a variety of challenges during non-conference play in addition to winning the SEC outright. SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons may not be a lights-out scorer but he's extremely versatile, giving the Gators whatever they need every night out. The frontcourt is deep but it will be guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker who determine their fate. They can be a bit erratic and that gets Florida in trouble, so if Boynton and Walker are under control they stand a much better chance of at the very least performing to their seed. Bob Williams' Gauchos won the Big West Tournament after finishing 5th during the regular season, and the backcourt of Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally can be a handful for opponents. But UCSB struggles on the boards, an issue that likely has them headed back home after Thursday.
All-Bottom Half Team
G Jimmer Fredette (BYU)
G Dwight Hardy (St. John's)
F Chandler Parsons (Florida)
F Tyler Honeycutt (UCLA)
F Noah Dahlman (Wofford)
Bottom Half All-Rookie Team
G Keith Appling (Michigan State)
G David Stockton (Gonzaga)
F Dwayne Polee Jr. (St. John's)
F Sam Dower (Gonzaga)
C Joshua Smith (UCLA)
Bottom Half All-Lower Seed Team
G Kalin Lucas (Michigan State)
G Orlando Johnson (UCSB)
F Draymond Green (Michigan State)
Region Winner: Pittsburgh