It doesn't always work out this way, but the 8/9 game just happens to also be the best first round matchup of the region.
Butler is well-balanced on offense and defense once again this season and lost just one game out of conference — by three to Ohio State in Columbus. The Bulldogs are led in scoring and rebounding by sophomore Matt Howard, the Horizon League Player of the Year. Howard will have his hands full with LSU's Tas Mitchell, a junior holdover from the 2006 Tiger team that went to the Final Four who averages 16 points and seven boards a game.
But while LSU won the SEC regular season crown, the Tigers have just two wins over tournament teams, one fewer than their mid-major counterpart. This should be not just a good game, but the best matchup of the South.
- Ben Voelkel
Most Underrated Team: Gonzaga (26-5, 14-0 WAC)
They're back! You know, that team from way up there yonder in the Pacific Northwest? A lot of people forgot about the Zags after they lost back-to-back games against Portland State and Utah … very un-Gonzaga-like. Those people that didn't write them off them wrote them off after losing by 18 against Memphis in Spokane.
Even so, Gonzaga stormed through the WAC once again to earn the automatic bid and have six scorers that average over nine points per game. Even better, Gonzaga plays its first two rounds in Portland, which means there is a huge home contingent following GU. Gonzaga as a four seed? You can see why with some of its losses. Not putting Gonzaga in the sweet sixteen? Your bracket will suffer if you don't.
- Benjamin Worgull
Who is Cinderella?
Non-BCS - Western Kentucky (24-8, 15-3 Sun Belt)
When is it time to run from the ball to avoid getting exposed? Sweet Sixteen
Can the Hilltoppers repeat last years run? It'll be tough without Courtney Lee (now with the Orlando Magic) and 2007-2008 head coach Darrin Horn (South Carolina), but current coach Ken McDonald has nine upperclassmen and only one freshman, so the majority of the team has some NCAA experience. The 12/13 seeds usually have the easiest route of the double digit seeds to make it to the sweet sixteen, so that bodes in WKU's favor as well.
BCS - Arizona State (24-9, 11-7 Pac 10)
What Cinderella reference am I going to use this time? Insert your own here!
President Obama has them losing in the first round to Temple. I can see that as a possibility. I also can see them playing North Carolina in the regional final. If there is one common thread for most of the teams that ride upsets deep into the tournament, it's a superstar go-to player. Davidson had Stephen Curry, West Virginia had Pittsnogle, Arizona State has James Harden. Arizona State also has the decent supporting cast to surprise some of the better teams in the tournament.
- Brad Fedie
Best Bet for an Upset: No. 12 Western Kentucky over No. 5 Illinois (24-9, 11-7 Big Ten)
This pick sort of comes with an asterisk: I would love to know what's going on with Illini senior point guard Chester Frazier, who basically makes that team tick. With Frazier sitting on the bench with a cast on his shooting hand, Illinois flexed its muscles anyway against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, but then looked lost against Purdue in the next round. If Frazier is gone for the NCAAs, then the Hilltoppers have an excellent opportunity to dismiss the Illini in Portland.
Western Kentucky won the Sun Belt Conference this season, a year after crashing the Sweet 16 with victories over Drake (a top-15 team in 2008) and San Diego. The Hilltoppers are playing with confidence and experience; Illinois is without either, as its top three scorers (Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale) are all sophomores and have combined for zero NCAA games before. Senior Trent Meachem seems like a nice kid, but not the right man for the task of filling Frazier's shoes and directing his team on a deep run if Chester can't go.
However, should Frazier be available this weekend, another upset possibility to point out also involves the Big Ten, in a happier manner. Michigan has shown the ability to play above its head, and as a ten seed drew Clemson, which won its first 16 games but is playing sub-.500 ball since. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are as good an inside-outside combo in the country, and Michigan is one of those quirky teams who might turn out a royal stinker in the first round and exit quietly … or might flex its muscles all the way to the Elite Eight or even beyond. That makes for an interesting Tigers-Wolverines matchup in Kansas City.
- Aaron Brenner
Region Winner: North Carolina (28-4, 13-3 ACC)
There's just no contest. North Carolina is a team of destiny, which was caused by senior Tyler Hansbrough skipping the NBA to win a national championship. Well then, the road to Detroit is set up perfectly for the Heels, playing their opening round games in Greensboro and the regional semifinals and final in Memphis. Come on! Might as well just have the games in the Dean Dome.
Ty Lawson's toe is the only thing stopping this team from cutting down the nets in Detroit. The Heels even know the surroundings they'll be playing at, as the Heels throttled 12th-ranked Michigan State by 33 in Ford Field. UNC is the pick, not just to win the region, but win the whole thing.
- Benjamin Worgull