West Virginia's opening round game against Morgan State is probably the best of the 2-15 games. The Bears are a solid team that won at Arkansas and played a competitive game at Louisville before losing by nine early in the season. Admittedly, the Razorbacks weren't great (14-17) but winning on the road at an SEC venue is a good achievement for a MEAC squad. Baylor and Minnesota both handed the Bears fairly easily, but following the Baylor loss they got on a roll. Morgan State won 16 of its final 18 games, and swept to the MEAC championship with a win over South Carolina State, which handed it its first home loss in more than a year on Feb. 15. WVU's penchant for keeping things close is a bit of a concern, but it should be able to advance, especially with the lessons of last year's first round NCAA loss still fresh in its mind.
A second round game with either Clemson or Missouri has some interesting tie-ins on either side. WVU is 3-1 against Clemson, with the most recent win coming in the NIT championship game in 2007. The sole loss was a second round NIT decision to the Tigers in Morgantown in 1994. The Mountaineers are 0-1 against Mizzou, with that loss coming in the opening round of the 1992 NCAA tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Which foe provides the better opportunity for the Mountaineers? The records and rankings are fairly even, but Mizzou played a tougher league slate than Clemson, and might be the more battled-tested of the identically-nicknamed teams. Missouri knocked off Kansas State and enigmatic, yet talented Texas, while Clemson's best win was against Maryland. Coaching might also come into play, as Clemson mentor Oliver Purnell has never won an NCAA game, while Mizzou's Mike Anderson is 6-4 and coming off an Elite Eight appearance a year ago. Neither team is a great rebounding squad, which would bode well for the relentless Mountaineers. Pressed to pick, Missouri might be ready for the mild upset, but West Virginia should be just as prepared for either, and should earn a return trip to upstate New York for the Sweet 16 in Syracuse.
In the San Jose pod, #6 Marquette squares off against #11 Washington while New Mexico battles Montana. The Golden Eagles are undersized against just about every foe they face, but Washington, which snuck in as the champion of a depleted Pac10, might not have enough of an advantage there to make it matter. Marquette's guard-oriented style figures to be tough for a team that allowed almost 70 points per game, and it's not a homer pick that has us seeing the Big East squad through to the second round.
There, Marquette will face #3 New Mexico, which figures to have little problem with #14 Montana. No disrespect to the Grizz, who won the Big Sky conference title, but the Lobos have several solid wins this year, and are hopeful of advancing further than their school best second round finishes. The mention of Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle gives us a giggle, but his first tournament appearance probably won't last more than one game.
In the upper half of the bracket, it's hard to pick against Kentucky, although underdog favorite Cornell and deliberate Wisconsin could write their Cinderella stories. There's also been a lot of noise about Kentucky's youth and its effect on the Wildcats' play, but is that one negative enough to offset the scads of talent that John Calipari has at his disposal? We didn't see freshman Carmelo Anthony freaking out in his freshman NCAA tournament run, when he lead Syracuse to a national title, and it doesn't figure to happen here either. We'd pencil UK all the way to the regional finals a week from Saturday.
Back on the Mountaineer side of the bracket, a WVU – New Mexico contest would be very interesting. Swingman Darington Hobson vs. Da'Sean Butler would be a "under-the-radar" marquee match-up, and it's just this sort of game that often turns into one of the classics of a tournament. The feeling holds that West Virginia would have just enough strength and defensive intensity to throw New Mexico off its game and move on to a regional title game and a potential trip to the Final Four.
I'm sure everyone is waiting for that prediction, but it's there that the old crystal ball gets cloudy. A WVU-UK game could turn out any of a number of different ways, and even though we've violated the "one game at a time" rule repeatedly, this one is just a step too far. Could West Virginia knock off Kentucky? Certainly. It plays good enough defense to hang with anyone in the nation. But it could it hold the Wildcats in the upper 50s or low 60s? There, as my Magic 8-ball app says, "Outlook is cloudy". For that result, we'll probably just need to tune in live.
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