March 18--West Region
FAVORITE: No. 2 Ohio State (26-7). The Big Ten tournament champions have won eight in a row and they showed down the stretch they can beat teams in many ways. They have a hellacious defender in Aaron Craft and one of the nation's best players in DeShaun Thomas.
NEXT IN LINE: No. 1 Gonzaga (31-2). The Zags haven't been great in the NCAA tournament, but this version is very, very good. No. 3 New Mexico (29-5). Steve Alford's crew has the look of a Final Four team. They can play big and small, they shoot it well and they have a really good lead guard in Kendall Williams (13.5 ppg, 5 apg).
SLEEPER: No. 12 Mississippi (26-8). The Rebels aren't consistent, or at least haven't been, but they found their stride down the stretch and have won six in a row, including the SEC title game. Their ability to score could prove to be a problem, but they proved in the SEC tournament they can win low-scoring games as well.
BEST SECOND-ROUND GAME: No. 10 Iowa State (22-11) vs. No. 7 Notre Dame (25-9). This could be a very entertaining game as the Cyclones like to fill it up (averaging 80 ppg) and the Irish have the ability to light it up at times as well. If it becomes a clash of styles and battle of wills, it becomes far less interesting.
UPSET SPECIAL: No. 11 Belmont (26-6) against No. 6 Arizona (25-7). The Wildcats are one year away and they have very few quality wins after Jan. 1. Belmont is always a team that is scary as the Bruins are athletic and feature a go-to guy in Ian Clark (18.1 ppg).
NOTEWORTHY: No. 4 Kansas State will play the winner of the first-round game between Boise State and LaSalle. ... Arizona coach Sean Miller played at Pitt and is the son of legendary former Blackhawk coach John Miller. ... Pitt is the region's No. 8 seed and will play No. 9 Wichita State. ... Harvard is in the field for the second year in a row after not playing in it from 1947-2011.
FAVORITE: Indiana (27-6). The Hoosiers were some people's pick to be the No. 1 overall seed and spent a number of weeks ranked No. 1. They won the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and feature a bona fide player of the year candidate in Cody Zeller (16.9 ppg). The Hoosiers are as balanced as anyone and can play inside and out and have the size to guard and score in the post. A Big Ten tournament loss to Wisconsin showed, however, that they may be vulnerable to a team that can slow it down.
NEXT IN LINE: No. 2 Miami (27-6). The Hurricanes are athletic, they play good defense, they can score from a number of spots and they proved they are clearly worthy of their lofty ranking by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles. A lack of tournament experience could be an issue. No. 4 Syracuse (26-9). The Orange aren't tough and fall apart at times but when they are playing well, they can beat anybody and they clearly have enough talent to make a run.
SLEEPER: No. 7 Illinois (22-12). Yes, a losing conference record. Yes, at one point considered outside the field. And yes, a talented team that just needs to stay focused and has wins against Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio State and Indiana. This is a really good team when it plays its game.
BEST SECOND-ROUND GAME: No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 14 Davidson. Marquette has a very good tandem of guards and defends well. But Davidson is a scary team because of its athleticism and ability to get up and down the court.
UPSET SPECIAL: No. 11 Bucknell against No. 5 Butler. The Bulldogs are always the darlings of the tournament, but this version came limping home and did not play well (4-3 in final seven) down the stretch.
NOTEWORTHY: Miami is coached by former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. ... UNLV averages 72 points per game. ... Temple has wins against Syracuse, Villanova and VCU, and a loss to Duquesne.
FAVORITE: Kansas (29-5). The Jayhawks appear -- at least on paper -- to have one of the easier roads to the Final Four, but that's not why they are the favorite. The Jayhawks won nine of their past 10, including the Big 12 championship. They had a rough stretch in early February where they lost three in a row, but they have been rolling since. They are athletic, they have some length and they can score, averaging 75 ppg. Bill Self also has shaken the "can't win in March" label by winning the 2008 national title and getting to the title game last year.
NEXT IN LINE: No. 2 Georgetown (25-6). The Hoyas struggled early in the season, but once they found their stride, they played well enough to merit consideration as a No. 1 seed until they lost to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. No. 3 Florida (26-7) has excellent guard play, but the SEC was so bad, it is hard to know exactly how good the Gators really are.
SLEEPER: No. 6 UCLA (25-9). We know -- it's tough to call the most storied program in the field, a traditional powerhouse, a sleeper. But the Bruins are not a top-four seed and are off the radar a bit, and they can play. Ben Howland is letting them play and they feature a legitimate go-to guy, Shabazz Muhammad.
BEST SECOND-ROUND GAME: No. 5 VCU (26-8) against No. 12 Akron (26-6). VCU has the "hot young coach," the crazy style of defense and everything else that makes it a favorite. But Akron is a much better team than people know and probably deserved better than a No. 12 seed.
UPSET SPECIAL: No. 14 Northwestern State against No. 3 Florida. This is not an easy game for the Gators, as the Demons are freakishly athletic and are the highest-scoring team in Division I (81 ppg).
NOTEWORTHY: An intriguing second-round game is No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Villanova. If the Wildcats' guards get hot, it will be fun to watch. ... No. 4 Michigan has a legit player of the year candidate in Trey Burke (19.2 ppg, 6.7 apg). ... No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast was the first team to "punch its ticket" to the tournament this season.
FAVORITE: Louisville (29-5). Nobody in the country is playing better basketball than the Cardinals right now, and frankly, this may be the most complete team and favorite to win it all. They can run and gun, they can shoot, they can play physical, they can score in a hurry and they have a coach in Rick Pitino who knows how to win in the NCAA tournament.
NEXT IN LINE: No. 2 Duke (27-5). A key injury hurt Duke for a stretch in the regular season but the Blue Devils are healthy and looked like the best team in the ACC down the stretch -- until they were upset by Maryland in the ACC tournament. No. 3 Michigan State (25-8). OK, it is March and so it is time to find Tom Izzo's team and call it one of the favorites to get out of the region because, well, his teams often do.
SLEEPER: No. 7 Creighton (27-7). The Blue Jays have one of the best players in the country in 6-foot-8 Doug McDermott (23 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and they are one of the highest-scoring teams in the field (75 ppg). They don't exactly lock teams down on defense, but there is no question they can score.
BEST SECOND-ROUND GAME: No. 5 Oklahoma State (24-8) vs. No. 12 Oregon (26-8). The Ducks won the Pac-12 tournament and got rewarded with a low seed and a tough first-round opponent.
UPSET SPECIAL: No. 13 New Mexico State against No. 4 Saint Louis. The Billikens won the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament and are one of those darling picks of every national expert because they are somewhat under the radar. They play great defense, but their inability to score has hurt them against lesser opponents.
NOTEWORTHY: Louisville's first opponent will be the winner of the first-round game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty. ... Saint Louis coach Jim Crews took over in August when former coach Rick Majerus stepped down due to health concerns. Majerus died in December. ... No. 6 Memphis is in the field for the seventh consecutive season.
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