This is probably my favorite region, on paper. But will probably be my least favorite region when the Final Four comes around. This region is setup to ruin your brackets. Michigan State has the #1 seed, while Missouri, Marquette, and Louisville round out the top four. But teams like Saint Louis, Memphis, Long Beach State, Murray State, Colorado State, and Davidson are looking to knock-off the big dogs. Let’s break it down!
*Round of 64*
Memphis v. Saint Louis – This might be the second toughest, if not the toughest, 8/9 match-up in this tournament. Memphis started slow but picked it up at the end of the season. They had early losses to Michigan and Georgetown (twice) (both teams turned out to be pretty good) along with losses to Murray State, Louisville, and Southern Mississippi. Despite those losses, Memphis has won their last seven games and none of those wins were even close. They are blowing people out! Will Barton and Joe Jackson are two of the most under-rated guards in the country. They are lightning-quick and pressure opposing offenses into making a lot of mistakes. But this Saint Louis team is no joke. Coach Rick Majerus always teaches his kids to play hard-nosed defense and has been pretty successful when the tournament comes around (his record is 18-11) and Saint Louis is playing at a high level, despite losing to Xavier in their conference tournament. The Bilikiens are led by Brian Conklin, Kwamain Mitchell, and Cody Ellis (players are averaging double-figures in points per game). They give up 57.5 ppg (8th in the country) while scoring 69.2 ppg. This is a tough one for me, but I am taking the Bilikiens because of the coaching experience-factor. Majerus over [Josh] Pastner
Long Beach State v. New Mexico – This is the most interesting first round game in this region. Long Beach State is a team that beat Pittsburgh and Xavier, but lost to North Carolina (no slouch), Kansas State (by 17), Kansas, Louisville, and San Diego State. But I give them credit because they played all those teams (excluding Kansas State and Xavier) on the road and didn’t get blown out. This is a team that scores 74 ppg and is led by T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson (both are seniors). This team played a hard schedule, took care of their conference and is poised for a possible Sweet 16 run. But it’s not going to happen on Steve Alford’s watch. The Lobos can score just as well as LBS (73.2 ppg) and play better defense (59.1 ppg 15th in the nation). Drew Gordon is a beast inside (13.9 and 10 a game) and Tony Snell holds it down on the perimeter (39.9% from three). A lot of people are thinking that LBS can pull off the upset, but I like the Lobos also won their conference tournament. Give me the Lobos in a barn-burner.
Murray State v. Colorado State – I am going to start by giving props to Murray State. They went 30-1 this season, but ended up getting a 6-seed. Not fair in my opinion. Colorado State can stroke the three (40.5%) and shoot a high percentage from the field in general (47%). But they shouldn’t be any match for Murray State. CSU’s defense is not that good (68 ppg) and even though Murray State plays in a lesser conference, I like Murray State to win this game. Isaiah Canaan will be too much for the Rams to handle. Give me Murray State by 10.
Florida v. Virginia – Don’t sleep on Virginia! Their best player, Mike Scott, is no joke and I could see him winning one game for the Cavaliers on his own. Florida has great guard play with Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal. Patric Young is their main guy inside. This game will come down to the coaching battle. Tony Bennett v. Billy Donovan. Both coaches have had past success in the tournament, but Donovan has two championships. Oh wait; this isn’t the same Florida team that had three lottery picks on it. Virginia’s defense is too good. I like Virginia.
*Round of 32*
New Mexico v. Louisville – By far the best game in the second round. Rick Pitino has his group playing amazing defense and they are doing just enough to win games. As I said earlier about New Mexico, they have one guy inside (Gordon) and one guy on the perimeter (Snell). I don’t think that will be enough against Pitino’s pressure defense. I like Louisville to keep it going. Louisville advances, but this game will be close! Louisville by six.
Michigan State v. Louisville – MSU has the most momentum of any team in this tournament. They have too much size for Louisville, but that’s not the reason they will win. Draymond Green is not the reason they will win. Keith Appling is not the reason they will win. Austin Thornton IS the reason they will win. I expect him to have a big game against Louisville, especially if they are content to sit back in that 2-3 zone. Thornton is a senior (you always expect seniors to step up in the tournament) and can stroke the three. If Sparty advances, it will be because of Thornton. I got Michigan State by five points.
Missouri v. Marquette – This should be some game! Missouri is quick, talented, and efficient. They have the best guard play in the nation and Ricardo Ratliffe is the anchor in the middle. Marquette is led by Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Vander Blue will have the responsibility of slowing down Mike Dixon and the Pressey brothers (Matt and Phil). Kim English and Marcus Denmon play on the wings and they can stroke it. Missouri has every ingredient to make it to the Final Four and they are the “sexy” pick. Forget sexy, I have Marquette moving on.
Michigan State v. Marquette – I don’t think Michigan State has anyone that can guard Crowder or Johnson-Odom (both NBA prospects), but one thing that Michigan State does better than any other team in the country is rebound the basketball. They are big and physical, Appling is playing extremely well and Thornton stepped up against Louisville in the Sweet 16. Now it’s time for Brandon Wood to step up in the Elite Eight against Marquette. MSU will keep Marquette off the glass and will play good enough defense to get past the Golden Eagles (and no one thought that the Spartans would be any good this season). Michigan State goes back to the Final Four!