As I type, Van Halen's "Jump" plays in the background. As you can imagine, I'm getting hyped up. But as I assess the West Region, something tells me the that when (spoiler alert!) Syracuse cuts down the nets in Salt Lake City, it will have been done in a controlled manner. A possible UTEP run to the second weekend aside, don't try and get fancy with this quadrant of the bracket. Keep It Simple, Stupid, and save the classic rock music for another region.
(1) Syracuse Orange vs. (16) Vermont Catamounts – Don’t even think about unearthing those images and YouTube videos from 2005. Marqus Blakely is a great weapon for the Catamounts, but the ‘Cuse will cruise in their first-round game.
(8) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (9) Florida St. Seminoles – There wasn’t much talk about the Seminoles to close out the season, and that’s probably because they were safely in the field of 65 but not really racking up important or highlight-worthy victories. The Bulldogs are probably the most complete eight-seed with good-looking (in basketball speak) guards, and bigs that have improved over the course of the season. Should be fun to see FSU's Solomon Alabi assert himself on D.
(5) Butler Bulldogs vs. (12) UTEP Miners – As a 12-seed who did not win their conference tournament, UTEP and the Utah State Aggies were the last two teams to make the field. That said, the Miners have a clear athleticism advantage and are more than capable of advancing past Butler. One argument I can’t seem to figure out, though: Derrick Caracter will neutralize Matt Howard. Why can’t Howard, assuming he stays out of foul trouble, be the enforcer here and limit Caracter’s production? Regardless, how these two perform could be the difference.
(4) Vanderbilt Commodores vs. (13) Murray State Racers – Ugh. This is a precarious situation for the Commodores. Low-seeded teams that can shoot from all over the floor are always feared, and the Racers are just that with a 59 true-shooting percentage. Vandy will have to defend well for the entire game, as six Murray State players average 9.5 points or more.
(6) Xavier Musketeers vs. (11) Minnesota Golden Gophers – Got to gush a bit here… it’s great to say that my alma-matter has a legitimate shot to earn their third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. The Golden Gophers snuck in to the field, but it’s highly attributable to getting wins over injury-riddled Michigan St. and Purdue in the Big 10 Tournament. The Musketeers’ Jordan Crawford, Dante Jackson and Brad Redford all shoot at or above 40 percent from behind the arc. Minnesota allowed a whopping 714 deep balls this season. I vote for CBS to make that their "Key to the Game."
(3) Pittsburgh Panthers vs. (14) Oakland Golden Grizzlies – The Golden Grizzlies have a few nice pieces, but because they’re from the feeble Summit League and can really only win by scoring in bunches, they just don’t match-up well against the defensive minded Panthers. Expect Jamie Dixon’s kids to control the tempo in this game, which ESPN’s Dana O’Neil tweeted as "self-cannibalization" in reference to Pitt’s Oakland Zoo.
(7) Brigham Young Cougars vs. (10) Florida Gators – The Cougars were one of those trendy teams during the season, but suddenly they get shafted with a seven seed that makes their road to the second weekend of the tournament fairly difficult. Florida is a team with some nice pieces, but they've been inconsistent and reliable on shots that send people in to hysterics. With Chandler Parsons' penchant for the dramatics (here and here), and the small cult following of Jimmer Fredette, this game should be all things fun.
(2) Kansas St. Wildcats vs. (15) North Texas Mean Green – No, Kansas St. wasn't mistakenly paired with a Lonestar State AAU powerhouse, North Texas is a real college basketball team! Forgive the Mean Green if they're completely overwhelmed by the length and versatility of KSU, they only played five games against the RPI top 150 this season.
Best Opening Round Game: BYU vs. Florida. Aside from Georgia Tech, I think these two teams have more to prove to their fans than any other seven or 10 seed.
Best Chance At A First Round Upset: UTEP over Butler. I would expect everyone to be in full agreement of this.
Dream Game We Hope To See: Perhaps I am mis-interpreting, but Syracuse and Kansas St. are the best teams here, correct? Then by golly they better meet for a trip to the Final Four.
Final Analysis: Syracuse should advance, as all season their 2-3 zone has lured teams into firing away early and making them feel gitty because they have a lead against one of the top teams in the country. The problem with that approach is that hucking three-point shots for 40 minutes rarely earns you a W. Conversely, the potential absence of Arinze Onuaku could doom the Orange if paired with Gonzaga in the second round. Both the Bulldogs’ Elias Harris and Robert Sacre could be future pros, and probably can’t be guarded by only Rick Jackson.