Monday, March 16, 2009

NCAA Tournament: East Bracket Breakdown

1 Pittsburgh vs. 16 East Tennessee State - No contest here. The Buccaneers are 20 point underdogs to the Panthers, one of the teams favored to win it all (current odds anywhere from 7-1 to 9-2), so the appropriate question is whether or not Pitt can cover the spread. To get an idea how unfair this matchup is, consider that the Bucs are 23-10, haven't played a top 25 team all season, have an RPI rating of 116, and gained entry to the tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun conference tourney. Right. Atlantic Sun. Meanwhile, Pitt went 28-4 in arguably the best conference in the country, the Big East, finishing second by a game to Louisville. Pitt's RPI is 2. They should win by 20, maybe 30. Look for Pitt sub Brad Wanamaker to get plenty of court time and DeJuan Blair to have a double-double before exiting with more than 10 minutes left in the game. With a week off after an early Big East tourney exit, Pitt will be ready to rumble.

8 Oklahoma State vs. 9 Tennessee - Probably the toughest call of all the 8-9 games in this field. Neither team has any reason to be here except that they need 64 teams to fill out the brackets. Tennessee can get up on the boards when they want to, but they're mighty inconsistent in almost all other aspects of the game. The Vols are athletic and have tourney experience, which should help, but they're one player away from a Sweet 16 style team. Unfortunately, that player is Chris Lofton, who graduated last year. His replacements in the backcourt - Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze - aren't the answer though J.P. Prince should provide a lift. Wayne Chism has NBA talent and he'll be virtually unopposed in the low post against the undersized Cowboys. For more beef, the Vols can bring in 6'10" sophomore Brian Williams, who is a developing load.

Oklahoma State will go up-tempo from the opening tip to the final buzzer, especially at the guard spots. Their goal on defense will be to deny entry passes into the post, because they're vulnerable inside, but they'll even it out with 3-pointers from Keiton Page and heady play at point from Byron Eaton and all-around excellence in James Anderson, who can slash and burn on the wings. If any game is too close to call, this is it. Currnetly, Tennessee is a 2-point favorite. If OK. St. is cold from the perimeter, the Vols will win it inside. Somebody's making an early exit here. Personally, I'll take Tennessee in a luke-warm way due to the experience of Chism.

5 Florida St. vs. 12 Wisconsin - This game will prove two things: 1. Wisconsin should be playing in the NIT, and, 2. Toney Douglas should be in the NBA next season. FSU's Douglas is one of the most unstoppable forces in college hoops and his supporting cast is solid, if not special. The Seminoles made their way through the ACC with Douglas and defense as one of the best in the ACC in field-goal percentage and scoring defense, which should come in handy against lumbering Wisconisn.

The Badgers are very disciplined, but not very talented. Their points will come mostly from the wings, with Joe Krabbenhoft and Jason Bohannon responsible for most of the scoring. Together, they might match Douglas, but in the end, the Seminoles have too much talent and desire to do anything other than win and move on.

4 Xavier vs. 13 Portland St. - If you're looking for an upset or just a little extra loot, this game may provide one or both. The Musketeers are favored by 11 1/2, but Portland State is a very cohesive unit which can stroke it with deadly accuracy from the perimeter. Should the Vikings get hot early, this could turn into a real challenge for Xavier, a team which was probably a little overseeded at a 4. Still, Xavier has a huge height advantage at just about every position, so the undersized Vikings will have to be on their game.

Most people expect Xavier to move on easily here, but this could be a lot closer than expected. An upset special? Well, that's for the tournament gods to decide.

6 UCLA vs. 11 VCU - Is anyone not calling for an upset of UCLA here? There's reason for optimism at Virginia Commonwealth, and it comes in the form of one Eric Maynor, one of the top college talents in the nation, at point guard. Maynor can dribble-drive, dish or shoot the three, plus he's a more than adequate defender. His play against UCLA's Darren Collison, another proven commodity will be key if VCU is to live up to their promise.

Additionally, VCU has 6;10" Larry Sanders inside, who is developing into a force underneath. The Bruins haven't had an answer for an inside presence all season, and Sanders could be a huge factor. UCLA is not as deep as teams from the last two years, both of which went deep in the tournament. Plus, the Bruins have to travel East, while VCU makes the short trip to Philly. UCLA's out of conference losses to Michigan and Texas don't look good, but is VCU good enough to beat them? The oddsmakers say no, installing the Bruins as 7-point favorites, but with no inside force and a possible overmatch at point, a VCU win would not be a surprise.

3 Villanova vs. 14 American - Congrats to American for winning the Patriot League, but getting a game against Villanova - in Philadelphia - isn't exactly a gift-wrapped present. The Wildcats are deep, talented and have tournament experience. They're also 17-point favorites to win this game. American's backcourt of Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer are undersized at 5'11" and 5'9", respectively, and that's not going to help against 6'2" Scottie Reynolds and 6'5" Reggie Redding. Matching up with Dante Cunningham underneath will also be a difficult task for American. Too much to do. Mark Villanova into the second round.

7 Texas vs. 10 Minnesota - The Golden Gophers and Texas Longhorns are two teams going in opposite directions. Minnesota lost 6 of their last 9 games in a very soft Big Ten, then lost in the second round of the conference tourney to Michigan State. Texas won 5 of their last 8 and won two tournament games before being ousted by a very motivated Baylor squad in the Big 12 tournament. Despite the divergence down the stretch, these two do have one thing very much in common: neither can generate offense consistently. A.J. Abrams is the most dangerous shooter for the Longhorns, but he has little supporting cast. Minnesota can dominate inside but their bigs - Ralph Sampson III and Coulton Iverson - are both freshmen and very raw. Texas is favored by four, but this one could end up a 47-46 driller (a combination of dull and thriller) in which the last basket is scored with 3 minutes left in the game. Really, the shooting percentages are that poor.

2 Duke vs. 15 Binghamton - Uh, sorry to say, but winning the America East conference doesn't even get you into the conversation with any team in the ACC, let alone the Blue Devils. This half of the bracket seems destined for a Duke-Villanova regional matchup, and the Bearcaats aren't going to stand in Coach K's way. Besides, this Blue Devil team has a special player: Gerald Henderson, who does everything but mop the floor after the game. He's the ultimate team player and leader. Look for him to be at or near the top of the scoring charts in this region.

Next: South Region Breakdown

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