Thursday, March 15, 2012

East Preview


When the brackets were announced, Syracuse, the top seed in the East, was my national champion (and had been since December. Truth be told, though, I was a bit worried about the potential Sweet 16 matchup with Vanderbilt, a team that I had been high on at the start of the year and that came on strong to upset Kentucky in the SEC final. So when the news came down that Fab Melo, the vastly improved sophomore center who anchors Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone, it was enough to make me re-consider my pick. There are a bunch of teams that could win the region -- I've gone back and forth quite a bit on this one. Let's get to it.

First-round upset
#13 Montana over #4 Wisconsin -- All I really know about Montana as a team is that they have a reputation for being good. I'm making this pick because as a general rule, I don't like to pick favorites who slow the pace way down. Number 4 seeds usually beat number 13 seeds, and a big part of the reason is that they generally have better players. Slowing the game down takes away that advantage. Wisconsin really struggles to score, and Montana can fill it up, so I like the Grizzlies.

Other interesting first-round games
#7 Gonzaga vs. #10 West Virginia -- A lot of people are taking the Mountaineers in this game because it's being played in Pittsburgh, really close to Morgantown and really far away from Spokane. Those familiar with the Backyard Brawl have to find the idea of West Virginia playing a "home: game in Pittsburgh more than a little ironic. For me, this game is a tossup, and I'm going with the Bulldogs because I don't have a lot of confidence in Bob Huggins' club. WVU has played a lot of close games this season, but they've lost a lot of close games, too. In horse racing, many people won't pick a horse that has finished second too many times without breaking through -- they fear the horse doesn't know how to win. I get the feeling that West Virginia hasn't figured out how to win.

#3 Florida State vs. #14 St. Bonaventure -- Only worth noting so that you check out St. Bonaventure center Andrew Nicholson, a NBA prospect who had a huge game in the A-10 final to give the Bonnies the auto-bid they needed to get back in the tournament.

#5 Vanderbilt -- Honestly, from the time I heard about Melo's suspension to the time I sat down to write this post, I had Vanderbilt penciled in to represent the East region in the Final Four in New Orleans. I really liked them at the start of the year, and thought they had a decent chance to beat out Kentucky for the SEC regular season. Injuries to and a suspension for center Festus Ezeli derailed the early part of their season, and the Commodores seemed headed for another decent but ultimately disappointing season. But then the SEC tournament happened, Vandy knocked off Kentucky, and suddenly they're a trendy pick to reach the Final Four. I am generally wary of teams that get hot at the end of the regular season and are therefore probably a bit over-seeded, but this run hasn't come out of nowhere. Vanderbilt is a good defensive team and has three-point shooters all over the floor, which is why I think I still like them to pick off Syracuse. But I think they'll come up just short of the Big Easy.

The challengers
#1 Syracuse -- Look, even without Melo, the Orange still have the talent to win this whole thing. Melo isn't anywhere near the best player on the team, and my love for Missouri illustrates that I don't think you need a lot of size to be successful in this tournament. But when you play a zone, rebounding is a problem, and when you take away your biggest guy, rebounding becomes a huge problem. Vandy is just a bad draw for Syracuse, as they have the shooters to exploit the zone, the rebounders to clean up the misses, and the defenders to hang with Syracuse's individual skill on offense. Even if they get past the round of 16, a date with either Florida State or Ohio State looms, two teams that pose similar problems.

#3 Florida State -- Like Vanderbilt, Florida State was a surprise winner of its conference tournament. The Seminoles knocked off Duke in the ACC semis and Carolina in the championship game. However, Florida State had enjoyed a breakthrough year already -- they beat the Devils and Heels in the regular season, too. I think they have a pretty open path to the Sweet 16, and should give Ohio State a very good game.

The winner
#2 Ohio State -- Right before I picked Syracuse as my national champion back in December, I was leaning toward Ohio State, the team I had tabbed as the best in the country the year before. Like so many of the teams in this region, they defend and score, only they do it a little bit better than everyone else. I love sophomore Aaron Craft's poise and decision-making. I know Jared Sullinger has maybe regressed a little bit from his freshman campaign, but he came back to school for one purpose. That kind of motivation goes a long way in the college game. With Syracuse short-handed, I like the Buckeyes to come out of the East.

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