The more I think about this region, the more interesting I find it. I still believe two things that are central to this region – that Kansas is the best team in this region, and one of the two best teams in this tournament. The challenges that Kansas faces in this tough group, though, significantly reduce their margin for error. This is probably the toughest bracket that any No. 1 team faces. In fact, it definitely is. The first round is obviously not a concern, but every game after that has a potential pitfall or two in it. UNLV is a decent team with wins over squads like Louisville, BYU (twice), and New Mexico. They could be dangerous. They may not even get out of the first round, though – Northern Iowa is an incredibly tough defensive team who controls the pace very effectively. Kansas will be challenged by either of those teams, though they should be able to win. After that, Kansas would face either probably the best No. 4 seed in the tournament in Maryland, who has the stone cold Greivis Vasquez leading the way, or the best No. 5 in the tourney, Michigan State, which has one of the very best coaches on the planet. Either of those teams will have five days to get ready for Kansas, and they will be ready for the challenge.
On the bottom half, Georgetown faces a tough second round game against either a Tennessee team that is dangerous not just because Bruce Pearl is at the helm or a San Diego State team that definitely has the potential for two or more wins in them. Ohio State faces a much easier task in getting out of Milwaukee, but their potential game against Georgetown in the Sweet Sixteen is one of the highlights of the first half of the tournament if it happens. Either Georgetown or Ohio State could be very tough for Kansas.
That’s all a long way of saying this – Kansas is the best team in this region by quite a bit, and I expect them to win it, but they will have worked harder than any other team top-12 team if they make the Final Four, and that could have implications for them on the final weekend. The x-factor(s) that could throw a wrench into what most people seem to view as destiny for Kansas are arguably the best player in the tournament and the most clutch one. John Wall might have more upside, but in terms of what he can do right now I’d probably take Evan Turner, and his presence gives Ohio State a real edge. So does Greivis Vasquez, a guy who seems to be at his very best when the stakes are the highest. If Kansas doesn’t win the group then one of those guys is going to be the story.
This isn’t an opinion shared by most people, but I think that this is the best region there is. That doesn’t mean that it has all the best teams, or that it is going to produce a winner or even a finalist. I expect it, however, to produce some of the best games and most intriguing matchups. There’s a good recipe for intrigue here – vulnerability at the top and ridiculous depth below. I like Syracuse a lot, and I was very high on them until recently, but two bad losses in a row to end the season and some troubling injury issues have downgraded them significantly. Kansas State is another team that has struggled down the stretch. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I don’t see them as a Sweet Sixteen team, and certainly don’t see them going further. Pitt’s another team that I am not at all sold on. They are very vulnerable. This is the bracket where the Cinderella is going to emerge. But which Cinderella?
There seem to be quite a few people who are excited about Vanderbilt. I respect their toughness, but they are definitely going to have their hands full with Murray State. I saw the Racers play once this year and was blown away. A team doesn’t fluke into 30 wins, and I think they are built for an upset win. Butler is a team I really like, and I love the fact that they are in a region that they believe they can be competitive in given that the prospect of a home Final Four looms for them if they pulled off a miracle. They could win this region, but they could also be upset in the first round by a tough, impressive UTEP team, or beaten in the second round by the Vandy-Murray State winner. Xavier is well positioned in their pod, and have the real potential to make it to the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth time in six years (an absolutely stunning accomplishment, by the way). They could trip up against a Minnesota team that is flawed and inconsistent, but obviously dangerous when they are on task. In the bottom pod BYU looms as a monster. They are an extremely tough team in decent form, and I really like their chances of going a long way. They match up very well against Kansas State, and have at least Elite Eight potential if all goes well. That’s a lot of fun, interesting teams and we haven’t even talked about good old Gonzaga, or their first round opponent, Florida State – a team that a lot of people like a lot more than I do. This one is wide, wide open. It’s going to be brilliant.