It's never a shock to see Mike Krzyzewski's squad as one of the top seeds in the tournament, and the 2010 Duke Blue Devils -- winners of both the regular season and ACC Tournament titles -- are the No. 1 seed in this year's South Regional. The high seed is no surprise, but Duke enters this year's tournament having failed to reach the regional finals in each of the past five tournaments. And which No. 2 seed do the Blue Devils find themselves paired with this year? None other than the same Scotty Reynolds Villanova team that destroyed them by 23 points in last year's Sweet 16.
Of course, it's not like both teams have cakewalks to the Elite Eight. The South Regional features arguably the deepest pool of teams in the bracket this year; at least by one measure (Ken Pomeroy's advanced ratings), the South Regional's Top 14 seeds are the best of the bunch. Those who followed the Big 12 closely this year won't hesitate to assert the Baylor Bears, at their best, capable of beating any team in the country.
The winner of Richmond and St. Mary's opening round game won't be an easy out going forward. Notre Dame finished the year on fire, but they might struggle to get past a fearless Old Dominion, who dispatched of Georgetown on the road earlier in the year. Either Mike Montgomery (Cal) or Rick Pitino (Louisville) will stand in Mike Krzyzewski's path in the second round. And a Robbie Hummel-less Purdue team might be the least threatening among the superb bracket trio of Texas A&M, Utah State, and Siena.
In a year defined by the relative lack of strength of the overall pool of teams, many of the most dangerous and interesting squads in the field wound up together in the South Regional. Fans attending virtually any of the 15 games that will be played should be treated to a compelling battle.
FIRST ROUND MATCH UPS
(1) Duke Blue Devils vs (16) Arkansas Pine-Bluff/Wintrhop Winner
SB Nation sites: Duke Basketball Report
I go back and forth and whether or not I think the two teams that find themselves paired in the play-in game should feel pleased with the draw. On the one hand, they get the national spotlight to themselves for one night and one of the two picks up a win in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, there's something insulting about being forced to play for the right to join the other 63 teams in the regular bracket. And especially in a year with a weak group of teams on the bubble, it's easy to see it as preferable the tournament leave out one more at-large team, to allow each of the conference representatives their chance to battle in the full field of 64.
(It should be mentioned that this year's play-in contest features an undeniably compelling mascot battle: the Eagles of Winthrop versus the Golden Lions of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. It's difficult ever to bet against eagles, the most fearsome predators of the skies, one type of which -- the muscular bald eagle -- serves as our national mascot. Except that here we're not just talking about any old lion -- Winthrop's not up against Loyola Marymount or Penn State, for crying out loud -- but about Arkansas State-Pine Bluff... the golden lions. Among those who outperform most of the rest of us by picking brackets based on the mascots, this year's play-in game will cause as much consternation for them as the 8-9 games do for everyone else.)
Though neither squad has anywhere near enough offensive skill to give Duke trouble, this year's play-in game (Tuesday at 7:30 PM ET) will feature two interesting, defensively-strong squads. Winthrop, who Madness fans may remember from their first round upset over Notre Dame in the 2007 NCAA Tournament -- won the Big South Conference Tournament with a very athletic squad that smothered opponents defensively, consistently forcing turnovers and clearing the defensive glass.
Though the Eagles will be the slight favorites, there are three reasons I'll be rooting for Arkansas-Pine Bluff to win. First, though the Golden Lions were edged out by Southern (a team they beat twice) for the regular season title, in pulling together to win the SWAC Conference Tournament, the 2010 Arkansas-Pine Bluff basketball team became the first in school history to make the NCAA Tournament.
Second, not only did the conference tournament championship secure the school's first ticket to the Dance, but this was the last best shot for most of the kids on this year's team, which includes an incredible six seniors among the eight who regularly play.
Third, and most impressively, this group of seniors did it the right way, giving themselves the best chance to achieve their post-season goals by scheduling the third-toughest non-conference schedule of any team in the country. Eleven games, all on the road, including 8 teams that would finish the year in Ken Pomeroy's Top 100. Though the Golden Lions would lose all 11 of their non-conference contests, by an average of nearly 15 points, there's no doubt the Golden Lions early-season games against UTEP, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, and Kansas State are a big reason they join each of those schools in this year's NCAA Tournament field.
Neither team put it together all season, but both were better than most realized. Cal has been deemed by many guilty by association -- with the Pac 10, that is, which struggled to get two teams into the NCAA Tournament field, in an atypical down year. Meanwhile, were it not for the Cards' unforgettable Freedom Hall closer over Syracuse, Louisville fans would have been nervously watching on Selection Sunday, while regretting a season of close calls and near-misses. The key for Cal will be taking care of defensive rebounds, something they've struggled with all year, and which an average shooting Louisville team needs to score consistently.
(5) Texas A&M Aggies vs (12) Utah State Aggies
SB Nation sites: I Am The 12th Man
Though for this Longhorns fan, one set is usually one too many, I'll be tuning in attentively to this festival of Aggie. Though Texas A&M finally managed to avoid BYU in the first round, they once again draw a tricky team from Utah -- in this case, one that beat BYU in the regular season. One of the last four teams in after being upset by New Mexico State in the WAC Tournament, Utah State had won 17 straight before that thanks to one of the nation's very best offenses. Sharpshooting guards Jared Quayle and Tyler Newbold (both better than 42% from downtown) anchor a backcourt that rarely turns the ball over, passes exceptionally well, and shoots the ball brilliantly, both inside and out. The deciding factor in the game may be whether Utah State can keep Texas A&M from getting to the line, which they do better than almost everybody, and on which their offensive efficiency depends. Staying out of foul trouble, and in front of the outstanding Donal Sloan, will be critical for Utah State to advance.
SB Nation sites: Hammer And Rails
With Robbie Hummel, Purdue's not only a clear favorite over Siena, but perhaps the favorite to have closed out the season as Big 10 champs. It wasn't long ago that the Boilermakers were being discussed for a No. 1 seed. As it happens, they'll face one of the toughest 13-seed draws possible, facing an athletic, aggressive, and confident Siena squad that won't be happy just to be there. They'll believe they can win, and very well might if Purdue is uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball. If there's a silver lining here, it's that Purdue is disciplined and controlled in a way that may frustrate the Saints from getting into the high-intensity, turnover-fueled mayhem they rather enjoy.
SB Nation sites: Rakes of Mallow
It's difficult for me to say which I loathe more -- Mike Brey's wardrobe or the annual embarrassment that is his panty-waist non-conference scheduling.
Mike Brey dresses like he schedules: unspeakably bad.
Indeed, so bad was Mike Brey's non-conference slate that the Fighting Irish receiving a No. 6 seed strongly suggests the Committee cared a whole lot more about how teams finished the year than they did how they scheduled or performed in the non-con season. Notre Dame limped through a pitiful slate of opponents that included just one Ken Pomeroy Top 100 team (#77 Northwestern, to whom the Irish lost) as well as a terrible home loss to lowly Loyola Marymount. As recently as late February, Notre Dame was 6-8 in the Big East and very much on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble.
To their credit, the Irish closed as strong as anyone, winning six of their final seven games, including victories over Marquette, Georgetown, Connecticut, Seton Hall, and Pittsburgh (twice). Though my personal preference is to punish weak non-conference scheduling with lower NCAA seeds, the Committee apparently decided that this year's rash of teams fading down the stretch justified disproportionately rewarding teams that closed out the year well.
All that said, whatever favors the Committee gave Notre Dame with a No. 6 seed, they most certainly didn't by pairing them with Old Dominion, a long, athletic squad that combines tough, hard-nose defense with impeccable rebounding. In what I view as one of the tournament's most compelling first-round match ups, I'm eager to see how well Notre Dame's experienced, execution-oriented team fares against an Old Dominion team whose skill and athleticism will surprise those who haven't seen them play. The Monarchs dispatched of Georgetown at McDonough earlier this year with excellent defense, superb rebounding, and minimal fouling -- three factors which, if replicated in the first round match up, lead me to believe Notre Dame would struggle. How much and well All-Big East forward Luke Harangody plays is more pivotal against ODU than many other opponents the Irish might have drawn.
(3) Baylor Bears vs (14) Sam Houston State Bearkats
This one's pretty simple: So long as Baylor doesn't implode, they will roll. The Bears recently finished a torturous (for me) three game sweep of the Texas Longhorns in the span of five weeks, squeaking out an overtime win in Austin before easily disposing of the Longhorns both in Waco and the Big XII Tournament. You've probably heard of the dynamic backcourt duo of LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter, but Baylor's most important asset -- and the reason they've so drastically improved since last year -- is the interior eraser Ekpe Udoh. The junior transfer from Michigan rebounds and blocks shots as well or better than anyone in the country and is being eyed by NBA scouts as a potential high first round pick. When Baylor's defensive focus and intensity on the perimeter matches what they get from Udoh on the interior, the fluid, explosive offense more than takes care of the rest.
(7) Richmond Spiders vs (10) St. Mary's Gaels
A terrific match-up of contrasts, with St. Mary's elite size and skill on the interior pitted against the lethal perimeter play of Richmond's terrific guards. The Spiders aren't exactly a small ball club, but they don't do a great job on the boards, where the Gaels' Omar Samhan makes his living. Your guess is as good as mine how this one plays out, but it's yet another first round match up I'm eagerly looking forward to watching.
Similar to the skeptical treatment I mentioned giving Sherron Collins in my Big 12 Tournament preview, I've been tough on Villanova, if only to combat what I perceived to be inflated evaluations; at the beginning of February, for instance, I challenged the conventional wisdom that the Wildcats had proven themselves a dominant team when they not only had yet to get into the meat of the difficult portion of their Big East schedule, but most of the teams in the Big East (Nova included) weren't playing any defense. The very next day Villanova lost to Georgetown, and the Wildcats closed out the season losing 6 of their final 10, including a home loss to UCONN.
There's not much about Robert Morris that suggests Villanova will have any trouble in the opening round, but neither has there been much about Villanova to suggest they couldn't be beat by the winner of Richmond-St. Mary's. The fascinating thing about Villanova is that neither would I call anyone crazy who picked them through the South Regional to the Final Four. When Scotty Reynolds and his pals are playing their A-game, they will run teams -- no matter the caliber of opponent -- right out of the gym. If you can't envision Scotty Reynolds as the MVP of the South Regional after an eye-popping four-game run, you've probably not seen him play more than once, if at all.
ODDS AND ENDS
Before making the obligatory predictions, a few quick hitters to wrap the South Regional preview:
Best First Round Game: (6) Notre Dame vs (11) Old Dominion. As discussed already, this is a terrific, evenly-matched contest that I might go so far as to say likely to produce a seeding upset, except that Notre Dame enters the tournament playing as cohesively as any team in the country. All we know for sure is that Mike Brey will be dressed poorly. The rest is up for grabs.
Best Chance At A First Round Shocker: (13) Siena over (4) Purdue. Though I think Utah State could knock off Texas A&M and Old Dominion could advance past Notre Dame, the second-most intriguing opening round game of the South Regional provides the biggest potential upset by spread between seeds. Purdue stumbles into the tournament shorthanded and trending down, to face a fearless Saints team that believes it will win.
Dream Game Fans Should Hope Materializes: (3) Baylor vs (1) Duke. No one will complain if Duke and Villanova meet in the Regional Finals for a rematch of last year's Sweet 16 battle, but much as it pains me to think about being excited for anything positive related to Scott Drew, his basketball team is as dynamic and exciting as any in the country when the Bears are hitting on all cylinders.
A CHANCE FOR ME TO LOOK STUPID
Last, but not least, my obligatory picks of the winners. Given the deep pool of strong teams and competitive games, my first prediction is that I miss the mark badly. My second prediction is that I'll be too busy enjoying the games to care.
FIRST ROUND GAMES
(1) Duke over (16) Arkansas-Pine Bluff
(8) California over (9) Louisville
(5) Texas A&M over (12) Utah State
(13) Siena over (4) Purdue
(11) Old Dominion over Notre Dame
(3) Baylor over Sam Houston St.
(10) St. Mary's over (7) Richmond
(2) Villanova over (15) Robert Morris
ON TO THE SWEET 16
(1) Duke over (8) Cal
(13) Siena over (5) Texas A&M
(3) Baylor over (11) Old Dominion
(10) St. Mary's over (2) Villanova
HEADED TO THE REGIONAL FINALS
(1) Duke over (13) Siena
(3) Baylor over (10) St. Mary's
SOUTH REGIONAL CHAMPION
(1) Duke over (3) Baylor