BACKCOURT: Lawson, possibly the fastest player in college basketball, is the catalyst for the Tar Heels' high-scoring offense. Hampered by a sprained ankle that led to a six-game absence in February, he should be close to 100 percent by the start of the first round. Ellington has emerged as a steady scoring threat who can be counted to knock down outside shots. Ginyard is a defensive specialist who always matches up with the opponents' top perimeter player. Thomas, who excelled when Lawson was out, has become a quality backup.
FRONTCOURT: One of the nation's top big men, Hansbrough has made improvements this season, becoming a better rebounder and extending his shooting range. But his strength remains drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line, which he does better than anyone else. The versatile Green is one of the nation's top sixth men, adding offense and contributing in several areas. Thompson is a solid rebounder who can score around the basket.
X-FACTOR: The Tar Heels lack another reliable outside shooter, putting pressure on Ellington to stay hot throughout the tournament. When the former five-star recruit goes cold, the Tar Heels are vulnerable. He was 2-of-11 from the field in the Tar Heels' overtime loss to Georgetown in the regional finals last season.
THE BUZZ: The Tar Heels are one of the favorites to reach the Final Four. Hansbrough is the kind of leader who can carry his team on a deep run, and the Tar Heels have too much offensive firepower for anyone they face in the early rounds.
BACKCOURT: Goode and Vann make the Mountaineers go. Goode is a good distributor who can be pressed into mistakes; he also is a good on-ball defender and doesn't seem to wear down despite playing a lot of minutes. Vann has good range and is an excellent free-throw shooter. Holland can hit the 3-pointer, but he has struggled with his shot all season. Cajou is a good defender who has the ability to become a productive offensive player.
FRONTCOURT: Sam Atupem is the only big man who can be counted on to produce offensively; he's also a solid defender. His younger brother can be productive off the bench at times. Mitchell is strictly a low-post plugger who works hard. He is the team's best rebounder, but his offense has a long way to go. He's also a foul machine (he has fouled out eight times). Beidler is an athletic wing player who has played well down the stretch; he does most of his damage from 12 feet in.
X-FACTOR: Vann one of only two seniors on the roster has to be on fire for the Mountaineers to win a game over a legit opponent. He's the team's most consistent offensive player, but he's also going to be the focal point of opposing defenses.
THE BUZZ: The Mount was a surprise winner in the Northeast Conference tourney. They're a scrappy bunch that plays good defense, but they're not going to beat anybody of note in this tourney.
No. 8 INDIANA vs. No. 9 ARKANSAS; Friday 9:40 p.m.
BACKCOURT: Bassett is a solid decision-maker and an improved shooter with range who had some big scoring games down the stretch. Gordon, a Rivals.com five-star prospect, arrived with much fanfare and did nothing to disappoint, leading the Big Ten in scoring. He'll be interesting to watch on this stage because he's capable of taking over games, although he struggled shooting the ball down the stretch. Crawford, the little brother of Kentucky's Joe Crawford, is a capable scorer who will see plenty of time.
FRONTCOURT: White was the Big Ten Player of the Year, and he's a dominant force. He doesn't get enough credit nationally for the improvement he has shown this season. He's a beast on the boards and a real go-to guy in the paint. Stemler lends size and experience up front, and he's a capable shooter from 3-point range.
X-FACTOR: Dakich. The Hoosiers' interim coach never made the NCAA Tournament in 10 years as the coach at Bowling Green. His current team hasn't played especially well since he took over. The Hoosiers have plenty of talent, but can they adjust enough to Dakich to make a run?
THE BUZZ: The Hoosiers have enough talent in their starting five to be an Elite Eight team. In White and Gordon, they have a potent inside-outside duo. But they played so poorly at the end of the regular season, including a 29-point loss to Michigan State and a shocking upset at the hands of Penn State, that it wouldn't be a total shock to see them bounced early, either.
BACKCOURT: Ervin is a mostly steady point guard who gets the ball to the right guy in the right spots. He had 24 assists in Arkansas' final four regular-season games. Beverley's numbers were down from his freshman season except for rebounding, where somehow on a team with a 7-footer and two 6-10 guys, he led the team. He picked up his offense down the stretch, and he'll need to for Arkansas to hang around.
FRONTCOURT: The Hogs are deep and talented up front with a variety of weapons. Weems is the leading scorer and can carry the Hogs offensively. Townes rounded into a steady contributor over the final month. Hill is a major defensive force, and Thomas has had his moments.
X-FACTOR: The bench. More than one-third of Arkansas' points this season came from the bench. Eight players average more than 14 minutes per game. That gives Pelphrey a lot of options, not only to find a hot hand but to tinker defensively.
THE BUZZ: The Hogs are frontrunners. During the regular season they went 18-0 when leading at the half, but were only 2-10 when trailing at the half. If they get down, they stay down. If they get up, they're gone.
No. 5 NOTRE DAME vs. No. 12 GEORGE MASON; Thursday 9:50 p.m.
BACKCOURT: Notre Dame always has loved to shoot 3-pointers under Brey, and this season is no exception. McAlarney is streaky, but he remains the Big East's most prolific 3-point shooter. Jackson provides toughness and leadership, though he's a poor free-throw shooter. The Irish occasionally have turnover problems against aggressive backcourts.
FRONTCOURT: Harangody arguably is the nation's most improved player and unquestionably is the Big East's most dominant player this season. His emergence as an elite scorer and rebounder has given the Irish the inside toughness they've lacked in previous seasons. Kurz gives the Irish another banger in the paint, while Zellers and Ayers can shoot from long range.
X-FACTOR: Ayers and Zeller started heating up from 3-point range late in the regular season. If they can stay hot from beyond the arc, it could go a long way toward helping the Irish succeed - even when McAlarney isn't shooting well.
THE BUZZ: Notre Dame's reliance on the 3-point shot always makes the Irish a candidate for an upset win or an upset loss. If the Irish have a poor shooting performance, they might need a huge effort from Harangody to avoid an early exit. But if they get to the second week, they're talented enough to throw a scare into just about anyone as long as they're taking care of the ball and making their outside shots.
BACKCOURT: Campbell leads the team in scoring and assists but isn't close to being a true point guard. He has 3-point ability and is a solid rebounder. Smith has struggled with his consistency. He's not much of a distributor but can get mighty hot from the outside. Vaughan, who missed George Mason's miracle 2005-06 season with a knee injury, is a solid complementary player who's a little too in love with his 3-point shot. Carter's role has lessened this season, but he's a good defender off the bench. Long adds size and good passing ability off the bench.
FRONTCOURT: Thomas averages a double-double and is a solid low-post presence. He can play with his back to the basket and has become a good passer; he's also a solid defender. Birdsong has some skills and eventually could become a double-figure scorer. This season, though, he's a role player whose biggest value comes on defense. Fleming, a bruiser in the paint, has seen his minutes increase of late.
X-FACTOR: The Patriots made a memorable Final Four run two seasons ago, and Larranaga can call on that to motivate this team. Campbell and Thomas have Final Four experience and are the two best players on the team. Thomas is a crafty guy down low and has to produce offensively if the Patriots are to make any noise.
THE BUZZ: The Patriots generally play good defense and rebound well. But to expect another miracle Final Four run is asking too much from this crew. One win would be a notable achievement.
No. 4 WASHINGTON STATE vs. No. 13 WINTHROP; Thursday 7:20 p.m.
BACKCOURT: The Cougars' guards lack athleticism and size, but have plenty of experience and savvy. Rochestie is a patient point guard who knows how to attack the weak spots in a defense. Low, a four-year starter, moves well without the ball, often weaving his way through a number of screens to get free for jumpers.
FRONTCOURT: Much of the offense is run through the versatile Weaver, who has great vision and a penchant for making passes that lead to easy baskets. The powerful Baynes is a true post player who does most of his damage around the basket. Cowgill is a solid rebounder, and Harmeling's strength is outside shooting.
X-FACTOR: The Cougars may have more experience than any other team in the field. Their top six scorers are either juniors or seniors, and they've played together for at least two years. Consequently, they have great chemistry and a great feel for one another's games, which should pay off in the final minutes of close games.
THE BUZZ: The Cougars lack the offensive firepower and depth to reach the Final Four, but a run to the Sweet 16 is a reasonable goal. This is virtually the same team that lost in double-overtime to Vanderbilt in a second-round matchup that may have been the best game of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
BACKCOURT: Gaynor is a solid point guard with a nice 3-point stroke and an assist-turnover ratio of almost 3-1. He's quick, but he can be overpowered by more physical guards. Jenkins is a great athlete who can hit the 3-pointer and also get to the rim. Robinson has the potential to be a big-time defensive stopper. The starters are a mighty athletic trio. Faison is a 3-point specialist off the bench.
FRONTCOURT: McCullough wasn't quite as effective as expected this season. He's an athletic big guy who spends too much time on the perimeter on offense. Corbin can be effective in the lost post but isn't asked to do much offensively. Buechert is a JC transfer and his offense never came around this season. Valentine is a good defensive player with no offensive skills yet. Peele can throw some big bodies at opponents, but those big bodies aren't going to do much scoring.
X-FACTOR: Gaynor is a pesky player on both ends of the court (he averages almost three steals per game). He does a nice job getting the ball to the right guy at the right time on offense, and he can hit the 3-pointer. He has to be at his best if the Eagles are going to stay close in the first round.
THE BUZZ: The Eagles beat Notre Dame in the first round as a No. 11 seed last season, but that was a vastly different team than this one. The Eagles lost three starters and their coach (Gregg Marshall, now at Wichita State). If Winthrop wins a first-round game this season, it truly will be an upset.
No. 6 OKLAHOMA vs. No. 11 SAINT JOSEPH'S; Friday 7:10 p.m.
BACKCOURT: The backcourt is made up of three guards who take the bulk of the minutes. Crocker is the leading scorer among the guards and best 3-point shooter, but Johnson might be the most skilled with his abilities as a playmaker.
FRONTCOURT: Oklahoma is led by Blake Griffin, who can carry the team with his scoring and rebounding. Longar provides leadership and an inside presence, but he slumped following a leg injury at the end of the season. Taylor Griffin, Blake's older brother, is more of a role player, but came up big when Blake was out of the lineup with injuries.
X-FACTOR: Oklahoma's top two scorers and rebounders, Blake Griffin and Longar, missed time during the second half of the season because of injuries. Griffin had minor knee surgery at the end of the regular season. Longar struggled in his return from a broken bone in his leg. Their health will determine the Sooners' staying power in the tournament.
THE BUZZ: Oklahoma is an intriguing team with the potential to win a game or two. The Sooners' ability to do so will depend on Blake Griffin.
BACKCOURT: Carr, a transfer from Iowa State, is a nice-sized point guard who is a solid all-around player. His 3-point shooting is spotty, but he has an OK mid-range game and can get into the lane. Govens has point guard size, but sometimes struggles running the team. He is a good 3-point shooter, and like Carr, he can be a pesky defender. Williamson provides good size and some offense off the bench; he is another good ballhandler.
FRONTCOURT: Calathes, the older brother of Florida standout Nick Calathes, is the Hawks' leading scorer and does a lot of his damage on the perimeter. He has good range and a nice 3-point stroke. He has become more physical during his career and also is the Hawks' leading rebounder. But make no mistake: He can be leaned on and pushed around because of his lack of bulk. Ferguson, like Calathes a Florida native, also is a perimeter threat. Like Calathes, he is good from the line, but he doesn't get there enough. Nivins is the Hawks only true low-post threat and he works hard in the paint; he is adept at drawing fouls and converting once he gets to the line. His defense remains a work in progress.
X-FACTOR: The lack of depth up front could hurt in the NCAA tourney. The frontcourt starters play a lot of minutes, mainly because there's no one that good behind them. Each also has fouled out of at least four games, so foul difficulty could become an issue for the Hawks.
THE BUZZ: The Hawks have a talented frontcourt and a backcourt that's adequate. Is that enough to win an NCAA game? If the Hawks can hit from the perimeter, they have a shot to win once. Expecting two wins is too much, though.
BACKCOURT: McGee and Smith form one of the most anonymous backcourts of any legitimate title contender, but they have performed well enough to help make Louisville one of the nation's hottest teams in the second half of the season. Both are solid 3-point shooters. Sosa is the biggest scoring threat in Louisville's backcourt, but he typically comes off the bench.
FRONTCOURT: Padgett's quicker-than-expected recovery from a knee injury has been one of the feel-good stories of the season. Louisville's late-season surge coincided with the return of Padgett, a big man with passing, rebounding and scoring skills. Clark provides rebounding and shot-blocking ability, and Williams is an able distributor who provides plenty of inside scoring punch. Palacios was a starter on Louisville's last Final Four team.
X-FACTOR: Sosa might not start, but his scoring ability gives him the opportunity to be a difference-maker. Sosa scored a career-high 31 points in an NCAA Tournament second-round loss to Texas A&M last season, though he missed two free throws in the final minute with the Cardinals trailing by one point. Sosa now gets his shot at redemption.
THE BUZZ: Louisville is similar to Georgetown in that both teams play outstanding defense and don't have any elite scorers. That strategy didn't stop Georgetown from reaching the Final Four last season. Louisville's late-season surge and Pitino's championship experience should make the Cardinals a popular Final Four pick.
BACKCOURT: Thomas was the WAC freshman of the year in 2007 despite playing as a reserve, and he has adjusted nicely to a starting role this season. He's strong and can get into the lane, but his 3-point shooting is mediocre. His strength is an asset on defense. Bauscher is a good 3-point shooter and an excellent passer. Greene provides minutes off the bench but not much else.
FRONTCOURT: This is a rare mid-major that gets its points from its big guys. The Broncos have three double-figure scorers, and they are the three frontcourt starters. All three shoot better than 52 percent on the floor, and Larry and Tiedeman both hit better than 42 percent of their 3-pointers; indeed, Tiedeman strokes it at 48 percent. Larry is a good athlete and the team's best rebounder and defender. Nelson is a good board man, as well. Noon is another perimeter threat off the bench.
X-FACTOR: This is a veteran team -- four senior starters -- that shouldn't be intimidated. And while the Broncos usually rely on their frontcourt for most of their scoring, their chances for pulling an upset increase greatly if Bauscher can get hot from the outside. He hits 44 percent of his 3-pointers.
THE BUZZ: The Broncos finished in a four-way tie for first in the WAC, then won the league tourney as the No. 4 seed -- winning at New Mexico State in triple-overtime. Five of the seven key players are transfers either from junior colleges or other four-year schools, and Graham deserves credit for getting them to play well together, especially considering his best player from last season, Cody Karl, graduated. The Broncos are athletic and good from the perimeter, but an NCAA win would be a surprise.
No. 7 BUTLER vs. No. 10 SOUTH ALABAMA; Friday 2:45 p.m.
BACKCOURT: Graves and Green form one of the nation's best backcourts. Graves seems to hit every big shot he takes, while Green is the leading scorer and rebounder. Graves is more athletic than he looks and is unbelievably basketball-savvy. Green is a handful on both ends of the court. Graves' 3-point percentage has dropped a bit this season, but he has good range and isn't afraid to shoot. He's also great from the free-throw line.
FRONTCOURT: The Bulldogs lack athletes and bulk up front, but make up for it with solid fundamentals. Howard has the potential to be an excellent low-post scorer, but he's a bit foul-prone. Campbell is a tremendous 3-point weapon off the bench, hitting 44.2 percent from beyond the arc. Betko and Streicher are nice complementary players, but neither is an offensive threat.
X-FACTOR: Keep an eye on Campbell, who can absolutely light it up from outside when he's hot. It's hard to play zone against Butler, especially when Campbell is hitting his shots. When you play man-to-man against them, the Bulldogs can backdoor you to death.
THE BUZZ: You look at Butler and you see a team that is small and un-athletic. But the Bulldogs are experienced, well-coached, fundamentally sound and above all else they don't beat themselves. They're good from 3-point range and from the free-throw line. This is the last go-round for the Graves-Green backcourt, and it would be a disappointment if the Bulldogs whose three losses came by 12 total points don't get to at least the Sweet 16.
BACKCOURT: The Jags prefer a fast pace, and Merritt is at home with an up-tempo attack. Actually, all three guards are good passers and adept at finding the open man. You can't blame Tilford and Merritt for looking first for Bennett, who has great range (41.1 percent from beyond the arc) and also the strength and quickness to get into the lane and finish. Tilford also is an effective outside shooter, and he and Bennett are deadly from the line. At times, Merritt gets too love with the 3-pointer; he's at his best when he's driving and dishing.
FRONTCOURT: The four frontcourt players who see time do their work in the paint. Davis can be an effective scorer, but he's not the offensive focal point by any means. He jumps well and is a good shot-blocker. Coleman uses his bulk to be an effective rebounder. Douglas is a good rebounder but he fouls too much. Hayles has played more as the season has progressed. None of the four big guys is that good from the line.
X-FACTOR: South Alabama's upset hopes depend on how well Bennett plays. The guy is a good player, and when he is hot from the outside, he can carry the Jags. Plus, when that happens, the big guys get some easy looks in the paint, and Davis and Douglas know how to finish.
THE BUZZ: Just call the Jaguars the "we all started somewhere else team"; of the seven guys likely to see key minutes, only Davis didn't transfer in from a junior college or another four-year school. Arrow (and predecessor John Pelphrey) deserve credit for getting all these guys to play well together. And despite the Jags' surprise early loss in the Sun Belt tourney, they have the shooting ability and the athletes to pull a first-round upset.
No. 2 TENNESSEE vs. No. 15 AMERICAN; Friday 12:15 p.m.
BACKCOURT: The Vols will look to get out in transition at every opportunity. Pearl has been critical of his team's point-guard play in recent weeks, and it is a major area of concern. Scoring, though, is not. When Lofton and JaJuan Smith are on, they can shoot from deep as well as any tandem in the country.
FRONTCOURT: Tyler Smith has been the glue guy; he gives the Vols a little bit of everything at a high level. Chism is a capable outside shooter on occasion, but he can get too enamored with playing behind the 3-point line. The Vols are at a size disadvantage against most opponents and can get hurt on the boards.
X-FACTOR: The Vols are a better defensive team than they get credit for, and they've gotten better down the stretch. They'll pressure the ball for 94 feet, and they're at their best when they force turnovers and get out in transition. They're also deep enough to keep sending waves of fresh defenders.
THE BUZZ: The Vols spent a week at No. 1, so this is a team with high expectations. UT is explosive offensively, and because of that, it's never out of a game. It's capable of a run to the Final Four if it gets decent point-guard play and doesn't take bad shots when it's forced to play offense in the halfcourt.
BACKCOURT: It's a small but productive starting backcourt. Carr and Mercer are the team's leading scorers. Mercer has good quickness and is an effective point man. Carr has good range and shoots a sizzling 45.4 percent from 3-point range; more than half his shot attempts are from beyond the arc. He also is a tremendous free-throw shooter (89 percent on 100 attempts). Borden is a big-time athlete off the bench, but his offensive game is limited.
FRONTCOURT: Despite coming off the bench, Gilmore is the best offensive threat among the big men; he can hit the occasional 3-pointer. Simon, one of two JC transfers who sees a lot of time (Borden is the other), does most of his work on the perimeter; he's also the leading rebounder. Guibunda, from Mozambique, is strictly a role player in the paint; he has no offensive game. Lay and Nichols also play for their rebounding and defensive ability. Nichols is a good shot-blocker.
X-FACTOR: Controlling the tempo is vital if the Eagles want to keep it close. This team has 54 more turnovers than assists and is going to get beaten up on the boards. American wants a game in the 60s.
THE BUZZ: The Eagles were supposed to be in rebuilding mode; instead, they won the Patriot League tourney and are making their first NCAA appearance. Jones is making his sixth appearance; the others were at Virginia. He'll tell his team to enjoy the surroundings and soak it all in because they'll be going home after the first round.