March 15, 2012

Michigan State, North Carolina headline staff predictions

Ben Jones, staff writer

REGIONAL CHAMPS
South: Kentucky
The Wildcats are too good to not make it back to New Orleans, and they drew the easiest No. 2 seed in the field. Connecticut is loaded as well and could make things interesting for the top overall seed on the first weekend, but the Huskies are more likely to fall to Iowa State than to beat UK.
East: Ohio State
Jared Sullinger didn't come back to school to miss out on the Final Four once again. The big man has plenty of help, as the Buckeyes have three players averaging more than 14 points per game. Syracuse will cruise until the Elite Eight without Fab Melo, but the Orange will miss his defense when they match up against Ohio State.
West: Michigan State
Don't bet against Tom Izzo in the tournament. He has six Final Fours on his resume, and his teams rarely underachieve in March. Losing Branden Dawson is a big blow, but the Spartans have a fairly easy road until a potential date with Missouri in the Elite Eight.
Midwest: Kansas
Consider it a season of missed opportunity for North Carolina, which never figured things out despite having one of the most talented rosters in college basketball. Losing John Henson will also hurt the Tar Heels as Bill Self rolls to another Final Four.

GAMECHANGER
South:Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Teammate Anthony Davis gets more credit, and rightfully so. But Kidd-Gilchrist is Kentucky's motor. He's the kind of player who could have six points in a game and still be the best player on the floor. His confidence and aggressiveness spark the Wildcats whether he's scoring or not.
East:Sean Kilpatrick
Sullinger is a bigger name, but Kilpatrick and Cincinnati have the potential to get things rolling. The Bearcats haven't advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2001, and Kilpatrick will have to lead the way if they're going to pull an upset or two. Beating Florida State in the second round would set Cincy up in a battle for Ohio with the Buckeyes.
West:Will Barton
Barton led Conference USA with 18.1 points per game, and the 6-foot-6 guard also led the Tigers with 8.1 rebounds per game. He can be the best player on the floor on any given night, and those guys always give their team a chance to win. He'll have to catch fire for Memphis to push Michigan State to the edge.
Midwest:Tyshawn Taylor
As with Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, it's Thomas Robinson that gets most of the attention. But Taylor is a senior averaging 17.3 points per game, and no other Jayhawk averages double figures. He also shoots better than 43 percent from outside. To keep defenses from sagging on Robinson, Taylor will have to be ready.

CINDERELLA
South: UNLV
The Runnin' Rebels have what it takes to knock off elite teams - remember North Carolina? Baylor isn't as talented as the Tar Heels and they aren't coached as well. UNLV can hang with the Bears and Duke could be even more vulnerable.
East: Gonzaga
Mark Few's squad is in the tournament for the thirteenth consecutive year. But even with four Sweet Sixteen appearances, the Zags have never made it past the third round. That has to change eventually, right? Maybe?
West: Murray State
The Racers have the best record of any team entering the tournament and a star in Isaiah Canaan. They don't have a win over a single high major opponent, but they did beat four NCAA tournament teams by a combined 38 points. They can make some noise.
Midwest: N.C. State
The Wolfpack sneaked into the tournament as a No. 11 seed, but did so by playing their best basketball of the season. Mid-major San Diego State could easily end that run, but N.C. State could also advance past the first weekend of the tournament.

RIPE FOR AN UPSET:
South:Duke
The Blue Devils have been widely pegged as a weak link at the top of the field. After Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Michigan State, Kansas, Ohio State and Missouri, there's a noticeable drop off. Notre Dame could present a big problem in the second round, and it gets tougher from there for Duke.
East: Syracuse
The Orange had the inside track to the top overall seed for most of the year before Kentucky surpassed them late in the season. Jim Boeheim has a great team, but he's only gotten to the Final Four twice while coaching the Orange. The loss of Melo hurts, and Syracuse will have to claw its way through the field starting in the second round, where they could face a tough Kansas State team.
West: Louisville
The Cardinals have been up and down all season. They could make it to the Sweet Sixteen, or they could fall flat on their faces. They've been impossible to predict all year and though they're coming off a Big East Tournament championship, they're too unreliable to count on for anything.
Midwest: Georgetown
A first round matchup against Georgetown looks intimidating for Belmont, but the Bruins can hold their own. According to Ken Pomeroy's rankings, Belmont is the No. 23 team in the country. By seedings alone, this would be a huge upset. But advanced statistics give Belmont nearly a 50-50 shot of upsetting the Hoyas.

Bold NCAA Tournament prediction: Chalk will rule the tournament
There may be some early upsets, sure. But every No. 1 and No. 2 seed will advance to the Elite Eight. The feeling here is that there are seven clearly elite teams, and Duke will be disciplined enough to not bow out too early. A year after Butler and VCU crashed the Final Four, there will be stability (and predictability) in New Orleans in April.

National championship: Michigan State
Izzo gets his second championship while denying Self his. Draymond Green struggles against Kentucky in the Final Four, but wins MVP honors thanks to a dominant title game. The Spartans mash their way past the Wildcats, then wear down Kansas in the second half.

T.J. Walker, staff writer

REGIONAL CHAMPS
South: Duke
Just like in 2010, the Blue Devils aren't the most talented team in the field of 68 but they have a plethora of scorers. This year's group is led by one of the best in the country in Austin Rivers. He's shown he has a killer instinct and expect him to be this years Kemba Walker. Duke has an easy path to the Sweet 16, then it will face an athletic Baylor team. Duke will win a close one thanks to experience, putting them in an Elite Eight showdown with Indiana. Both teams are similar but again, experience pushes Duke back to the Final Four.
West: Michigan State
The Spartans are one one of the hottest teams in the country but few teams will have a tougher road to New Orleans than Michigan State. Memphis in the round of 32 will be a challenge but the Tigers won't be able to body up Draymond Green. Louisville won't be able to score against the Spartans' suffocating defense. Michigan State will face surging Florida in the Elite Eight but again, defense will push Tom Izzo back to another Final Four.
East: Ohio State
Despite Syracuse losing center Fab Melo to NCAA eligibility issues, Ohio State is the team to beat in Boston. The Buckeyes will have to overcome a pro-West Virginia crowd in the round of 32, if Ohio State can advance talent and defensive discipline will overwhelm Florida State to put Ohio State up against a now smaller Syracuse.
Midwest: North Carolina
The Tar Heels might have landed the toughest No.2 seed in the country but the rest of the region should be fairly easy. Talent alone will get UNC to the Sweet 16, where the Tar Heels' length will be too much for Michigan. In the Elite Eight game against the Jayhawks, Thomas Robinson won't be able to overcome the strongest, and deepest, front court in America.

GAMECHANGER
South: No player in the country changes a game like Anthony Davis from Kentucky. When he's on the court defenses change their offensive game plan. He leads the nation in blocked shots and his offensive game is starting to catch up to his defense. If he stays out of foul trouble UK will be an extremely tough out.
West: Izzo is one of the best coaches in the nation. He constantly goes under the radar in the regular season, only to take the country by storm come March. It's been awhile since he's had this much talent and despite having a tough draw, he should be able to concoct gameplans to help his Spartans advance.
East: The East region doesn't have the star power you find in other regions but no player can change a game like West Virginia forward Kevin Jones. If he's playing to his potential, the Mountaineers will be extremely tough to beat regardless of its' opponent.
Midwest: Kansas would be lucky to make the tournament without Robinson, now they are a No.2 seed. That's how dominant he has been this season and he can't take a night off or else the Jayhawks will be upset.

CINDERELLA
South: UNLV
The Runnin' Rebels have shown they can beat anyone. Scoring won't be the problem for UNLV, but getting important defensive stops late in games will determine just how far the Rebs run.
West: Memphis
Few teams are hotter than the Tigers and if Memphis can match Michigan States' physical play in the round of 32, expect a Final Four run.
East: West Virginia
Mountaineers have had an up-and-down season but never count out Bob Huggins. The Mountaineers will play just hours from Morgantown and will have a home crowd atmosphere against the Buckeyes.
Midwest: South Florida
The Bulls play great lock down defense and can slow down any team in the country. If the offense clicks on any given night, the Bulls can beat just about anyone.

RIPE FOR AN UPSET
South: UK could face an extremely difficult game in the round of 32 against UConn, one of two teams that can match UK in NBA talent. The Cats didn't play with the same fire we saw all season during the Southeastern Conference Tournament in New Orleans and if UK comes out flat, the Huskies will pounce.
West: Missouri ran through its' final Big XII Tournament and made a strong case for a No.1 seed, but all season we have seen the Tigers handle success by imminent disappointment. If Missouri comes out flat in the round of 32 against Florida, the more experience, better coached Florida team will have its way with Missouri.
East: Obviously Syracuse is on upset watch since losing Melo. The Orange could let this be a rallying point, or its' dream season could be over before it begun. Syracuse looked extremely vulnerable in its latest loss, mix in more bad news and Syracuse could be waiting to be picked off.
Midwest: Kansas is one of the most confusing teams in the country. It has the talent to win it all, but also relies so much on Robinson that if he has an off night, the Jayhawks could be beaten by any team. Expect Robinson to have a game where he isn't playing well or is in foul trouble, will Kansas be able to make plays in the closing minutes?

BOLD PREDICTION
If you aren't a No.1 or No.2 seed, don't make plans for New Orleans. Conference tournament week proved that maybe the powerhouse teams are vulnerable, but more so it proved those teams were geared for the real tournament. All season we have seen a gap from the top eight teams and the rest of the field and that will show in March. A two or a one might be upset in a region, but not both. Get out that chalk and send Cinderella back home.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
North Carolina 86, Duke 73
No matter how clichéd it may seem, be ready for round three of North Carolina vs. Duke. The all-ACC final will feature two of the best scoring teams in the tournament but expect another North Carolina win. Rivers will have led the Blue Devils as far as they could go, but North Carolina's talent is overwhelming. Harrison Barnes leaves college by silencing his critics with a huge offensive performance, dropping 30 on the Blue Devils. They can beat Duke at every position and the Tar Heels' determination pays off.


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