March 19, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

Midwest | West | East | South

Forty-eight games in four days. The most dizzying stretch of college basketball is upon us as the first round of the NCAA Tournament begins Thursday. Here is breakdown of what to look out for in each region.

Midwest Region
No. 1 Team

Big East regular season and tournament champion Louisville comes in as the overall No. 1 seed. Louisville, which has won 10 in a row, is a long, athletic squad with a lot of depth that is poised to make a deep tournament run.

Intriguing Matchup: (7) Boston College vs. (10) USC
The Trojans crashed the NCAA Tournament party by winning the Pac-10 tournament. USC is playing as well as anyone in the country, but Boston College, led by Tyrese Rice, is coming off a successful campaign in ACC play and will be looking to end USC’s Cinderella run before it begins.

Peaking At The Right Time: USC
USC has won five in a row and three in a row versus NCAA Tournament teams – UCLA,  Arizona State and Cal. Freshman DeMar DeRozan had a tremendous finish to the season, averaging 19.6 points in his last five games, and he may give Boston College headaches.

Teams That You Should Know About: (9) Siena
Siena has lost only twice in its last 18 games and the selection committee gave the Saints respect by putting them as a No. 9 seed. The Saints will have to play Ohio State in Dayton, Ohio but a balanced team with four players scoring in double figures – led by Kenny Hasbrouck – has the potential to make some noise.

Player That You Should Know About: Da’Sean Butler (West Virginia)
Butler is coming off a tremendous Big East Tournament where he averaged 19 points a night. He leads West Virginia in scoring and is second in rebounds, so if the Mountaineers make a run, Butler will have to continue to stay hot.

Interesting Subplot
Kansas lost its entire starting five from last year’s national championship team. Its team is largely composed of freshman and sophomores who will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament and how they respond will determine Kansas’ postseason fate.

West Region
No. 1 Team

Connecticut has lost only four games all year, but it has lost two in a row. The Huskies are without one of their top scorers in Jerome Dyson, but a strong frontcourt with Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien to go along with perimeter threat A.J. Price make the Huskies a justifiable No. 1 seed.

Intriguing Matchup (Team): (6) Marquette vs. (11) Utah State
Marquette lost five of its last six after Dominic James went down with a career-ending injury, albeit against Big East heavyweights like UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Villanova. Utah State will be playing close to home in Boise, Idaho and forward Gary Wilkinson, who averages 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, will have this Aggie team thinking upset.

Peaking At The Right Time: (13) Mississippi State
Mississippi State, like USC, played its way into the tournament with a magical run in its conference tournament. The Bulldogs have won six in a row and shoot well from behind the arc while having budding star Jarvis Varnado patrolling the paint. They play fourth-seeded Washington in the first round and will look to keep the hot streak going.

Team That You Should Know About: (9) Texas A&M
After losing three in a row in early February, the Aggies won six of their last seven, including wins over Texas and Missouri. Senior Josh Carter is heating up at the right time and Texas A&M will not be an easy out for BYU.

Player That You Should Know About: DeMarre Carroll - Missouri
Blake Griffin isn’t the only big-time player in the Big 12. Carroll finished the season with a flurry – scoring at least 15 points in six of his last seven games and averaging 8.9 rebounds in that span. His play keyed the Tigers to their Big 12 Tournament title and could key a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Interesting Subplot
Memphis could have received a No. 1 seed based on its nation’s longest win streak that is currently at 25 games, but the selection committee opted to put them as a No. 2. Memphis, like Kansas, lost a lot from its national runner-up team last year, so its inexperience will be a factor as the Tigers try to prove the deserved to be a No. 1.

East Region
No. 1 Team

Pittsburgh is a physically imposing, senior-laden team that wears down its opponents.  DeJuan Blair leads the Panthers by averaging over 15 points and 12 rebounds a game, but Sam Young and Levance Fields are also very dangerous weapons.

Intriguing Matchup (Team): (5) Florida State vs. (12) Wisconsin
The 5-12 matchups always seem to create some drama and this game should be no different. Wisconsin, which went to the regional finals last year, gives up less than 60 points a game and will have to contend with Florida State’s Toney Douglas who averages 21.3 points per game but is the only Seminole to average double figures scoring. If the Badgers can shut Douglas down, and upset could be in store.

Peaking At The Right Time: (8) Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have lost only twice since Feb. 14 and those losses came away from home against Oklahoma and Missouri. They also have a win over Oklahoma in that span. Sophomore guard James Anderson is playing exceptionally well and if they can get by Tennessee in the first round, they could cause some trouble for top-seeded Pittsburgh if it advances.

Teams That You Should Know About: (11) Virginia Commonwealth
CAA regular season and tournament champions, VCU is a dangerous No. 11 seed, even going up against perennial power UCLA. The ever-explosive guard Eric Maynor, who averages 22.4 points a game, gives the Rams a chance to win any game.

Player That You Should Know About: Dante Cunningham - Villanova
Cunningham, a second team All-Big East selection, leads the Wildcats in scoring (16 points) and rebounding (7.2 rebounds). The 6-foot-8 forward showed explosiveness by having two 30-point scoring games this year and if he continues to play well Villanova has the potential to go to the Final Four.

Interesting Subplot
UCLA has been a powerhouse, going to the Final Four each of the last three years. The Bruins come in as a lower seed this year and it will be up to seniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp if they want to get to Detroit and make it four in a row.

South Region
No. 1 Team

North Carolina has been considered a Final Four contender since the preseason and the Tar Heels backed it up by winning the ACC regular season title. Reigning Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough leads this experienced team, but the health of ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson will be crucial to UNC’s championship hopes.

Intriguing Matchup (Team): (7) Clemson vs. (10) Michigan
This is a classic ACC vs. Big Ten matchup. Clemson has lost four of its last five while Michigan is riding high from playing its way into the tournament. Clemson’s inside-outside duo of K.C. Rivers and Trevor Booker will be a fine matchup for Michigan’s duo of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims.

Peaking At The Right Time: (3) Syracuse
Everyone was captivated by Syracuse’s six-overtime victory against Connecticut and its magical run to the Big East Tournament final. Aside from their loss to Louisville, the Orange have won seven straight and they really improved their seeding with inspired play down the stretch.

Team That You Should Know About: (12) Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers have won 11 of their last 12 and cruised to a Sun Belt tournament title. Western Kentucky (24-8) went to the Sweet Sixteen last year and with a lot of returnees from that team, it has a chance to make a similar run like that this year. Illinois, without guard Chester Frazier, is its first matchup.

Player That You Should Know About: Jonny Flynn - Syracuse
Flynn scored 34 points in 67 minutes of action in that game against UConn and was one of the biggest reasons the Orange advanced to the finals. He averages 17.5 points and 6.7 assists, both tops on the team, and much of the offense goes through him.

Interesting Subplot
Lawson will have the most scrutinized big toe in the country these next few weeks. He missed the ACC Tournament and if he misses significant time in the NCAA Tournament – he is unlikely to play against Radford on Thursday – it would be a big blow to UNC’s title hopes.