Oklahoma opens its quest for a return visit to the Final Four in Oklahoma City. South Carolina State gets its one-game ticket punched by virtue of a conference tournament title upset of Hampton. However, from there Oklahoma will have to earn its stripes. The 8 vs 9 matchup features Cal and NC State. California has surpassed the 20-win plateau the last three seasons and brings a trio of stars to the Big Dance.
Joe Shipp led the Pac-10 in scoring, while Amit Tamir and Brian Wethers are more than typical complementary parts. North Carolina State is likely a part of the Field of 65 by virtue of its strong performance in the ACC tournament. The Wolfpack probably should have won the whole thing, but squandered a double-digit second-half lead to Duke in the finals. Paced by Julius Hodge, NC State is one of the nation's hottest teams.
Another conference tournament finalist, No. 5 seed Mississippi State, might have its hands full in its first round matchup with Butler, a team that pounded Wake Forest from a similar position in the tournament a year ago.
The 5 vs. 12 matchup is the most dangerous spot for upsets, and Butler will be a handful.
No. 4 seed Louisville appears to have a favorable matchup with 13 seed Austin Peay. Rick Pitino's team has plateaued since its 18-game win streak that culminated much of January and February, but it rebounded to claim the Conference USA tournament crown.
In the 6 vs 11 encounter in Boston, Oklahoma State battles Ivy League representative Penn in a game that might be a first-to-30 Sominex Special. OSU would appear to have the upper hand based on tourney experience and competition against one of the nation's toughest conferences.
Also in that pod, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 14 Manhattan. Manhattan dominated its conference, but will likely be outclassed against the team most feel is Oklahoma's greatest challenge. Syracuse has been consistently tough. It boasts the bracket's standout superstar in Carmelo Anthony and a zone defense that has given the opposition fits. Additionally, Syracuse will remain close to home throughout the course of its regional run.
The No. 7 vs 10 matchup is Atlantic 10 representative St. Joseph's and SEC at-large Auburn. St. Joe's played very well for much of the season, sliding just under the top 25 radar. Auburn was quietly consistent in the SEC, but had to hold its breath to see whether the Selection Committee would bestow a berth.
No.2 seed Wake Forest draws a pretty good No. 15 in East Tennessee State. Wake is the nation's best rebounding team, and that could be a significant factor in its opening round encounter.
An Oklahoma/Syracuse clash for the right to dance in New Orleans could be in the cards, but Louisville might be a spoiler. Guard Reece Gaines is the most clutch player in the region (even above Hollis Price) and Pitino is among the nation's most successful tournament coaches.
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