While the South Regional is overflowing with first-round picks, the West Regional is the most wide-open bracket in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. And while the other three No. 1 seeds had long since clinched their spots in the field of 68, Michigan State needed a win on the final day of the season to secure the No. 1 out West.
It reminds me of the Southeast Regional last year, whose top four seeds were well-coached but not particularly talented veteran (Pittsburgh and Wisconsin), crippled by a suspension (BYU) or had underperformed expectations (Florida). Butler, the No. 8 seed, ended up advancing out of the region after beating No. 9 Old Dominion on a broken play buzzer-beater in the first round, defeating No. 1 Pittsburgh in one of the wildest endings in NCAA Tournament history and surviving No. 2 Florida in an OT game in the Elite Eight.
The Bulldogs' improbable run boosted junior guard Shelvin Mack's draft stock all the way to the No. 34 spot in the second round. And while he didn't get a guaranteed first-round deal, as a high second-round pick, he was basically handed the backup PG position on the Washington Wizards.
Point guards are the most replaceable position in basketball, and the difference between a 10-year NBA career and playing in Europe is often the very opportunity Mack has gotten this year in Washington. After all, where would Jeremy Lin be right now if the New York Knicks hadn't had a perfect storm of injuries over the first two months of the season?
1. Will Barton, Memphis
Who he is: A McDonald's All-American whose strong sophomore campaign has slipped under the national radar in Conference USA, Barton is averaging 18.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists on 51% shooting this season. If he's consistently knocking down perimeter jumpers, the Tigers can beat anyone in the country in a one-game scenario. However, at only 6'6 and 175 pounds, he'll need to add weight to survive in the NBA.
What he is playing for: With Michigan State freshman Branden Dawson out with an ACL injury, the Spartans no longer have a long, athletic wing to match up with Barton. If he can carry Memphis to the Sweet 16, he'll secure a spot in the middle of the first-round.
2. Bradley Beal, Florida
Who he is: One of the best athletes in the country, Beal is a 6'4, 210 lb. combo guard with a 6'7 wingspan who projects as an All-Defensive team player on the next level. He's a good slasher and a streaky outside shooter, but his offensive game has been hidden by Florida's ball-dominant back-court duo of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. Nevertheless, he's been a stat-stuffer in his freshman season, averaging 14.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals a game.
What he is playing for: His freshman season hasn't quite lived up to the considerably hype that accompanied him to Gainesville, but it shouldn't be held against him given the construction of the Gators roster. If Florida can get past Virginia, they're set up to play an undersized No. 2 seed (Missouri), and if Beal can dominate the Tigers guards, he could be a lottery pick in 2012.
The Gators were featured in the "NBA Draft Toolbox" earlier in the year.
3. Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Who he is: A long and athletic 6'10, 240 lb. sophomore center, Payne has progressed rapidly in his second year under Tom Izzo. While he's only playing 17 minutes a game, his numbers have risen dramatically across the board, as he's averaging 6.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game on 57% shooting from the floor. Most impressively, he's boosted his free-throw percentage to 69%, which suggests he could develop into a pick-and-pop player out to 15 feet.
What he is playing for: Payne's probably a year away from serious NBA draft discussion, but that might change if he can help get the Spartans to the Final Four. If he can continue growing as a player, he could easily be a high first-round pick in 2013.
4. Patric Young, Florida
Who he is: One of the most impressive athletes in the country, Young already has an NBA-caliber body at 6'9, 250 lbs. with a 7'1 wingspan. His offensive game is still very much a work in progress, but he has the athleticism to dominate smaller teams on both sides of the ball and is averaging 10.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 0.9 blocks on 61% shooting this year.
What he is playing for: The bracket couldn't have been set up better for Young: he'll have a match-up against 6'8 Mike Scott of Virginia in the first-round and a possible second-round game with an undersized Missouri front-line. If he's on his game against the Tigers, they could be going home and he could sneak into the back end of the lottery.
5. Drew Gordon, New Mexico
Who he is: A skilled and athletic 6'9, 245 lb. power forward, Gordon hasn't received much publicity since transferring to New Mexico from UCLA. However, he has all the skills to be a 10-year NBA veteran: averaging a double/double as well as more than one assist, block and steal a game.
What he is playing for: As a senior, Gordon is the most well-rounded big man in the South Regional. The Lobos will go as far as he can carry them, and if they can move deep into the Tournament's second weekend, he'll likely position himself as a first-round pick.
6. Phil Pressey, Missouri
Who he is: A lightning-quick 5'10, 175 lb. sophomore PG, he's the son of Paul Pressey, who was the NBA's original "point forward" under Don Nelson in the 1980's. New coach Frank Haith has given the younger Pressey, whose older brother Matt is a senior on Missouri, the keys to the Tigers offense. He's responded with a dominant season, averaging 6.3 assists to only 2.4 turnovers while leading Missouri to a 30-4 record.
What he is playing for: At his size, he'll need to be a nearly perfect player before considering making the jump to the next level. To ensure a first-round selection in 2012, Pressey will need to increase his offensive efficiency in the Tournament, as he's shooting only 42% from the floor this season.
The Tigers were one of several Big 12 teams featured in the "NBA Draft Toolbox" earlier in the season.
7. Kim English, Missouri
Who he is: An athletic 6'6, 200 lb. senior swingman who has shined playing out of position as a small-ball power forward for Frank Haith this season. He's got the size, athleticism and defensive IQ to be an elite defender at multiple positions on the next level. English isn't a threat to create his own shot offensively, but he's an absolutely lethal long-range shooter (47.3% from beyond the arc this year) who thrives playing off Missouri's penetration.
What he is playing for: English will need to do yeoman's work defensively for a Tigers squad that features only two scholarship players above 6'7. If they face Florida in the second round, he'll likely be asked to defend the 6'10 Erik Murphy as well as one of the Gators litany of guards if they go small. Like most defensive-minded perimeter players, he probably won't be a first-round pick, but a deep Missouri run could be the difference between a high second-round selection and a summer-league invitation.
8. Kenny Boynton, Florida
Who he is: An incredibly athletic 6'2, 190 lb. junior PG, Boynton's draft stock has been hurt by his erratic offensive game. While he's averaged 16.2 points, he's done it by taking 7.5 three-pointers a game, far too many for a lead guard on a Florida team stocked with draft prospects. Next season, with Erving Walker graduated, Boynton will need to improve an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 1:1 if he wants to get into first-round discussion.
What he is playing for: Boynton first made a name for himself defensively when Florida knocked off Jimmer Fredette and BYU in the first round in 2010. If he can put on a similar performance against Missouri, he'll boost his stock significantly going into the 2013 draft.
9. Draymond Green, Michigan State
Who he is: A versatile 6'7, 230 lb. combo forward whose game has grown tremendously in his time in East Lansing, Green averaged 16.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists as a senior. He could carve out a career as a Ryan Gomes like player in the NBA, but he'll need to overcome doubts that he's a "3.5" defensively: too slow to guard small forwards and to shoot to defend power forwards at the next level.
What he is playing for: As a senior with marginal athletic ability, Green needs every opportunity to showcase his game in front of NBA decision-makers over the next three weeks. An early exit could be disastrous for his draft hopes.
10. Marcus Denmon, Missouri
Who he is: An athletic 6'3, 185 lb. senior combo guard, Denmon has been an excellent defender an outside shooter as well as an extremely streaky scorer for Frank Haith this season. An excellent finisher whose not as comfortable running an offense or creating his own shot, Missouri's uptempo offense is a great fit for his game. This year, he's averaging 17.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 45.8% shooting.
What he is playing for: An off-ball point guard at the next level, "fit" is going to be extremely important for Denmon. He could easily slide into the role Mario Chalmers has in Miami or Derek Fisher had (many, many, many years ago) in LA, playing aggressive perimeter defense and spotting up along the perimeter next to a ball-dominant wing. However, he wouldn't be nearly as valuable on a team who needs playmaking from the point guard position. He'll need a team to fall in love with his game in order to stick in the NBA, so any extra exposure will be helpful over the next few weeks.
Isaiah Canaan, PG, Murray State
An athletic 6'0, 190 lb. junior PG, Canaan is the engine for Murray State's high-octane offense. The Racers play an entertaining up-tempo style where they spread the floor for Canaan and let him attack the basket; this year he is averaging 19.2 points on 48% shooting as well as 3.7 assists on 2.3 turnovers. However, he's done that primarily against Ohio Valley Conference competition, and the NCAA Tournament will be Canaan's first chance to show what he can do on a national stage.