Southeast: If you believe success in the NCAA Tournament is dependent on guard play, coaching and the poise of upperclassmen, then “St. John’s” is a name you write into those blank lines on your bracket. Throw in a favorable draw and some intangibles like a chip on the shoulder and you may have the Red Storm going as deep as the Elite Eight, maybe even the Final Four. Temper that enthusiasm with sobering facts such as a loss to Fordham, an injury to the team’s third-leading scorer and lack of tournament experience, and you have a lot to mull over about the Red Storm.
Eventually, you should have the Southeast Region’s sixth seed winning somewhere between one and four games in its first tournament appearance in nine years. I’ve got them reaching the Final Four, mostly because of their draw in a wide-open region full of pretenders. Before Selection Sunday, everyone wondered what team would be lucky to find BYU in its bracket. Turns out it’s the Red Storm. If they beat No. 11 Gonzaga, they would likely face No. 3 BYU, who should still get past No. 14 Wofford even without Brandon Davies.
Top-seeded Pitt is inconsistent and Jamie Dixon isn’t a good game coach — a key reason why the Panthers haven’t gone as far as they should in Madnesses past. I’ve got them losing in the second round to No. 9 Old Dominion, a veteran team playing in back-to-back tournaments. Tom Izzo’s 10th-seeded Spartans have a good shot at taking out No. 2 Florida in round two, setting the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight up for a dark horse like St. John’s.
Steve Lavin has learned his lessons since being driven out of UCLA and has assembled one of the best coaching staffs in the college ranks. With D.J. Kennedy out because of a torn ACL, the Red Storm have to turn to their bench. They’ve got a deep one and although Kennedy was valuable his injury isn’t nearly as devastating to his team as Chris Wright’s is to Georgetown. Dwight Hardy is the Red Storm’s leader and he’s got the talent to move this team deep into the tournament.
Don’t be surprised if …: No. 13 Belmont (vs. Wisconsin), No. 12 Utah State (vs. Kansas State) and No. 14 Wofford (vs. BYU) all win their first games. Belmont gets the anemic Badgers and the savvy Aggies face an up-and-down K-State team. Although it’s a long shot, Wofford could be the latest team to take advantage of the Cougars, who are clearly lost without Davies, even as Pistol Jimmer fills it up more often than a Dublin bartender on St. Patrick’s Day.
Southwest: JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore deserve a reward for sticking it out in Purdue, and so does coach Matt Painter for keeping the Boilermakers motivated despite adversity. When Purdue lost Robbie Hummel to yet another season-ending injury, their chances of a Final Four in the last year for the heralded senior class seemed quashed. Johnson, though, has turned into a Player of the Year candidate, and Moore remains an All Big Ten scoring threat and NBA-level talent. They’re going to be a tough out and I see them handling Marcus Morris and Kansas come the Elite Eight.
Don’t be surprised if …: No. 13 Morehead State upsets in-state rival and fourth-seeded Louisville on Thursday. Kenneth Faried leads the nation in rebounding with a 14.5 average, and Rick Pitino calls him “the greatest rebounder in the history of the game.”
Faried surpassed Tim Duncan’s record for the most career rebounds in the NCAA in the modern era (1973 and beyond) earlier this year and will give the Cardinals fits.
East: Ohio State can be beat. Just not by anyone in the East Region. At some point, Jared Sullinger’s lack of a vertical jump is going to get him in foul trouble and hurt the Buckeyes on the glass. The freshman’s stamina could also be tested by a Kentucky team that likes to run. The Wildcats figure to be a Sweet Sixteen challenge for the Buckeyes. Still, with senior guard Jon Diebler and versatile David Lighty, the No. 1 team in the country has enough depth and composure to reach a probable showdown with second-seeded North Carolina in Newark, N.J. The Tar Heels may have the most talent in the country, but the Buckeyes’ discipline and Diebler’s clutch shooting gets them to Houston.
Don’t be surprised if …: No. 15 LIU gives North Carolina fits in their opening game. The Blackbirds can run and shoot, and will test the Tar Heels. Young teams tend to be caught off-guard by the intensity of the tournament — and Carolina is a team that’s been stung by overconfidence this season. I don’t think LIU will pull the upset; just make it a very interesting game.
West: Kemba Walker is an awesome collegiate player. The kind of Allen Iverson-esque scoring machine who keeps you riveted for his next smooth move. If Nolan Smith wasn’t in his bracket, I’d have UConn going through to the Final Four and maybe winning the whole thing. Smith, though, is the perfect point guard for Duke: A team-first player who understands each opponent poses a different challenge. The way Smith harnessed Carolina freshman Kendall Marshall in the ACC title game demonstrated his ability to lock down on opposing guards. Throw in Kyle Singler, the Plumlee boys, the emerging Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly, and a healthy Kyrie Irving, and the Blue Devils look more and more like repeat champs everyday.
Don’t be surprised if …: No. 13 Oakland upsets No. 4 Texas. The Grizzlies, led by 6-11, 225-pound Keith Benson, are an ornery bunch who’ve played a strong non-conference schedule and will give the Longhorns a brutal test in their opening game in Tulsa.
Final Four picks: No. 3 Purdue (Southwest) over No. 6 St. John’s (Southeast); No. 1 Duke (West) over No. 1 Ohio State (East).
Duke to win it all again over Purdue in a rematch of a 2010 Sweet Sixteen contest also played in Houston.