Tuesday, March 17, 2009

2009 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Midwest Region Preview

Louisville was the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they drew what looks to be the toughest region, at least #'s 1-4. Kansas and Michigan State won their regular season conference championships, while Wake finished second, spent some time ranked #1 in the country, and has seven wins over the top six in the ACC (Duke, UNC, FSU, BC x2, Clemson x2).

And that is completely ignoring the fact that West Virginia, who is the 8th best team in the country if you listen to KenPom (you should, his top four last year were UNC, Kansas, Memphis, and UCLA) is seeded sixth in this region.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at the Midwest Region.

Final Four Favorite: Louisville

This should be obvious. Not only are the Cardinals arguably the hottest team coming into the dance (they rolled through the Big East tournament relatively unchallenged), but they are the second best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom (seriously, trust him). My biggest concern with the Cardinals is that they lack a go-to scorer and a true point guard. They are an interesting team in that respect, but with Terrence Williams and Earl Clark's play making ability, if the Louisville bigs are finishing at the rim and the guards are knocking down three's, this is going to be a tough team to beat. I don't envy anyone that has to go against that pressure.

And If They Lose?: Michigan State

I know, it is cheesy to go #1 and #2 as the two favorites, but I dare anyone to bet against Tom Izzo in the tourney. And remember, the Spartans were a popular Final Four pick in the pre-season. They struggled through an inconsistent regular season, mainly because of injuries and illnesses (Goran Suton and Raymar Morgan both missed significant time). But the bottom line is this - the Spartans defend, they rebound, and they have a point guard that can take over a game in Kalin Lucas.

Sweet 16 Sleeper (10 or lower): Arizona

Yes, Arizona was the last team that made it into the dance. But they have a great first round match-up with Utah and a potential second round match-up with Wake Forest, who hasn't played well against a zone defense all season. Arizona has three guys that can go for 25 any night (Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Nic Wise), and if you remember, they won seven in a row at one point this season. They have also beaten Washington, Kansas, and Gonzaga (all top four seeds and conference champs). If they get hot the first weekend, don't be surprised to see Russ Pennell get them into the Sweet 16.

Final Four Sleeper (5 or lower): West Virginia

The Mountaineers have been one of my favorite teams all year long. Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff form what was arguably the best shooting guard/small forward combo in the Big East (vs. Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews? Close). Freshman Devin Ebanks is turning into a star (16.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.7 apg in the Big East tourney). They have what seems like 17 guys that are 6'8" or 6'9", athletic, and aggressive rotating through their front line. The biggest issue I see is with Truck Bryant at the point, who is just a freshman. But I've seen him play about 10 times this year, and I think he will be able to handle it because the Mountaineers don't rely on him to do too much - get the ball over half court, don't turn it over, defend hard, and knock down an open three. Just for the record, West Virginia is almost always a safe bet for an upset in any tournament. Big East this year? They beat Pitt. NCAA's last year? It was Duke. And do I even need to mention the Pittsnoggle era (for the record, I loved that team - Pittsnoggle, Herbert, Beilein, Gansey. Their Elite 8 game against Louisville in 2005 was one of the best I have ever seen)?

Seeded Too High: Utah

I don't get how the Utes are 9th in the RPI. They went 23-8 and 14-4 in the Mountain West (granted, it was better than the SEC, but still), and while they did have five top 50 wins, they also lost to Idaho State (207) and Southwest Baptist (which does not get included in the RPI because they are D2). 13 road games and 5 neutral site games should have them prepped for the tourney, but I think the Utes as a five is similar to Drake as a five last year. And what happened to the Bulldogs?

Seeded Too Low: West Virginia/Dayton

It depends on what you means by underseeded. These teams both probably deserved the seed they got based on their performance this season, but I also think both teams are much better than where they were put. More on this in a bit.

Player To Watch (8 and up): Tyrese Rice, Boston College

Rice had a bit of a down year this year. Well, down isn't really the right term. His stats were down, but playing with much more talent on this year's team, Rice became more of a point guard and leader, happy to defer to teammates at times. But anyone that remembers this performance from last season should know that he is capable of taking over a game. He had some big games this year as well, going for 21 points, 6 boards, and 6 assists in the Eagles win over Duke, and 25 points, 6 boards, and 8 assists in their win at UNC. If BC wants to make a Sweet 16 run, they will need a great weekend out of Rice.

Player To Watch (9 and down): Ben Woodside, North Dakota State

You remember him. Yes, you do. He is the guy that scored 60 points in a 3 OT game this year (which is up there with Cuse-UConn as the game of the year). It wasn't against just anyone either. NDSU eventually lost to Stephen F. Austin, who was the Southland's auto bid. Anyway, Woodside averaged 22.8 ppg and 6.3 apg to lead the Bison to a regular season and tournament championship in the Summit League. It is a great story too - he and his classmates all red-shirted their first year at NDSU so they could play this season, their last, with the chance to make the dance ... and they did!

Best Match-up, First Round: #6 West Virginia vs. #11 Dayton

As I mentioned earlier, the Mountaineers and the Flyers are the two best teams in the region given their seeding. They both are hard-nosed, aggressive teams that play very similar styles - tough defenses, a ton of athletes, crashing the offensive glass. Dayton was once again hurt by injuries this season as Rob Lowery tore a knee ligament in February. The best match-up to watch in this game will be Devin Ebanks and Chris Wright. Both players are long and athletic, but can play either forward spot. While this will likely not be the most high scoring affair, there may not be a more intense, hard-fought first round game anywhere.

Best Match-up, Potential: #1 Louisville vs. #4 Wake Forest

There may not be two teams in the country with more size and athleticism 1-12 than Louisville and Wake Forest. Can you imagine watching Terrence Williams and Earl Clark do battle with James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu? Or how about Louisville's quartet of guards try to slow down Wake's Jeff Teague? I'm not sure if Wake can beat Louisville, but I guarantee this game would be up-and-down with a number youtube-worthy dunks.

Upset Alert!!!: Utah, Kansas, and Wake Forest

Like I said, I think it is very possible that Arizona makes a run to the Sweet 16, but I can also see them losing by 30 to Utah. Kansas needs to watch out for West Virginia in the second round. While I think very highly of Kansas this season, West Virginia has proven the ability to play with and beat some of the best in the country. One other possible upset - Cleveland State over Wake Forest. Wake has a tendency to not show up when they aren't playing a "name" team, and CSU has beaten Syracuse and Butler this season.

Anything Else?:

  • If only they could play 1-on-1: Sherron Collins vs. Ben Woodside. Collins in an all-american, but as we detailed earlier, Woodside is a baller too.
  • If Ohio State beats Siena in the first round, they play #1 overall seed Louisville in Dayton, Ohio. Really?
  • This region may have the best dunkers - Terrence Williams, Jeff Teague, Chris Wright, Durrell Summers, and Demar Derozan are all a defender-trying-to-take-a-charge away from Sportscenter.

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