Monday, March 14, 2011

2011 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: West Region

Duke's road to the Final Four is tougher that it initially looks on paper.

In the Sweet 16, barring an upset, they will be playing either Arizona (in Anaheim) or Texas. In the Elite 8, they could be forced to face a UConn team with a sizzling Kemba Walker or a San Diego State team more or less playing a home game.

This may also be the bracket to pick some first round upsets. Missouri matches up well with Cincinnati. Memphis head coach Josh Pastner will be playing the school he used to work for in Arizona. Oakland is legit and will square off with Texas, who is still coached by Rick Barnes.

Final Four Favorite: Duke Blue Devils

They may have a tough path, but I still have to go with the Dukies. They have two all-americans in Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler that have proven the ability to perform in the clutch. Seth Curry is starting to show everyone that he does, in fact, share some DNA with Steph Curry. After fading a bit down the stretch, the Blue Devils reasserted their dominance with an impressive win over UNC in the ACC Tournament title game. My biggest concern for the Blue Devils is that the four other top five seed all have a horse inside, and Duke has been notoriously bad against powerful big men. One thing we are all forgetting -- there is still a chance that Kyrie Irving is back at some point during the tournament.

(UPDATE: So it appears as if Kyrie Irving will be available for Duke, possibly as early as Friday's first round game. What does it mean? Well, it could me everything for Duke. It wasn't that long ago that Duke was the best team in the country, being discussed as a team with the potential to go undefeated. Putting that kind of talent into the lineup certainly could push them back to that level come the Sweet 16. Nolan Smith has proven what he can do when he is running the show. Am I the only one that thinks he is definitely unselfish enough to move off the ball if it is better for the team?

It could be a disaster. The Blue Devils have a pretty good thing going right now, with Nolan Smith playing like the national player of the year and Seth Curry finally getting into a rhythm. If Irving comes back and takes minutes away from Curry and shots away from Smith, it could kill their chemistry.

It could also mean nothing for Duke. Irving hasn't played in three months. He will be rusty. He may be out of shape. He may not even be 100% healthy.

Me? I expect Irving, if he does play, to start out as a change of pace, playing 15-20 mpg before earning his starting spot back.)

And if they lose?: UConn Huskies

I think the Huskies put to rest any doubt over whether they are good enough to win games in March. Now, the question is will they get enough rest. UConn finished off an impressive run through the Big East Tournament, winning five games in five days to rocket themselves up to a three seed. As good as Kemba Walker was in the Big East Tournament, the key for UConn is going to be the play of Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb. If Oriakhi is rebounding the ball and Jeremy Lamb is aggressive offensively, the Huskies are a much, much better team.

Sweet 16 Sleeper (10 or lower): Missouri Tigers

Missouri had a difficult and disappointing season, finishing just 8-8 in Big 12 play and falling all the way to an 11 seed. But for all the struggles they have had this season, Missouri is still a difficult team to play and a difficult team to prepare for. They pressure for 40 minutes. They force you to play their style of basketball. And when Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and company are making shots and Laurence Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe are rebounding the basketball, the Tigers have the potential to be tough to beat.

Final Four Sleeper (5 or lower): Arizona Wildcats

Honestly, I don't love this pick. But I also am not smitten with seeds 6-9 in this region, either. Arizona has one of the best players in the country in Derrick Williams. He's efficient, his ability on the perimeter makes him a matchup problem, and he excels at getting to the foul line, something that makes him much more consistent as a scorer. Will that be enough to carry Arizona to the Final Four? Probably not. The Wildcats are going to need a good week out of Momo Jones, Jordin Mayes, and/or Kevin Parrom.

Player to Watch (8 and up): Tristan Thompson, Texas

Prior to an ugly, seven point, two rebound, and foul-plagued performance against Kansas in the Big 12 title game, Tristan Thompson was playing arguably the best basketball of his career. The 6'9" lefty was attacking the glass with reckless abandon, 38 offensive boards over a six game stretch. Texas went just 4-4 in their last eight games, but the reason the Longhorns even did that well was the play of Thompson down the stretch. He recorded 19 offensive rebounds in close wins over Baylor and Texas A&M, two excellent rebounding teams.

Player to Watch (9 and lower): Talor Battle, Penn State

I'm glad we will be able to see Battle play at least one game in the NCAA Tournament during his career as a Nittany Lion. This season, he's playing more off the ball with Tim Frazier at the point, which has freed him up to become a 20.1 ppg scorer on a team that plays the 341st slowest pace in the country. He's a lights out shooter that can drive to the rim. When he gets hot, he's capable of hitting four or five threes in a row, as Michigan State found out on Friday.

Best Matchup -- 1st Round: No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 12 Memphis

This issue for Memphis this season hasn't been a lack of talent. Its been a lack of leadership and a lack of emotional maturity from everyone on the team, including the veterans. In fact, in terms of raw ability, the Tigers probably look better on paper than Arizona does. That's why most people that Memphis in the preseason top 25 and Arizona on the outside looking in. The most interesting part of this game, however, is that Josh Pastner came up as as assistant with Arizona before taking the Memphis job when Calipari left.

Best Potential Matchup: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 3 UConn

The last two times these teams have played in the NCAA Tournament have been classics. In 1999, UConn beat Duke in the title game 77-74 in a game that no one thought the Huskies had a shot at winning. Then in 2004, UConn overcame an eight point deficit in the final three minutes of the game, winning 79-78 in the Final Four. This season would be just as fun, with Kemba Walker and Nolan Smith going head to head.

Upset Alert!!!: Texas, Cincinnati

Oakland is a very good basketball team. They operate about their center Keith Benson, a potential first round pick, who should be able to matchup with Tristan Thompson. Reggie Hamilton is a creator at the points (17.4 ppg, 5.4 apg) while Larry Wright and Will Hudson are quality role players. The Grizzlies are an excellent offensive team, so they should be able to put pressure on the Longhorns defense.

I also like Missouri over Cincinnati. I just don't think the Bearcats have the back court talent to be able to handle Missouri's press.

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