- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
How will the West be won? Let's take a look with our breakdown of the region.
Ten first impressions
1. First things first: If you like up-tempo basketball, this is the region for you. This is noticeable at first glance, but it was confirmed by ESPN Stats and Info on Sunday night. Six of the top 12 teams in tempo (possessions per game) in the NCAA tournament reside in the West Region. What's more, seven teams that led their conference in transition points per game -- Michigan State, Missouri, Marquette, Murray State, Memphis and Iona -- are in the mix, and that statistic doesn't include the likes of Long Beach State, which thrives in up-tempo styles, or Davidson, which averages 68 possessions per game, or Louisville, which just reinvented itself as a full-court pressing team, or Florida, which prefers a half-court pace but creates much of its offense on long rebounds and secondary-break 3s.
Every NCAA tournament region is entertaining. That's the unified theory of March. But this one might be the best. At the very least, it will certainly be the fastest.
2. Missouri fans were upset they didn't receive a No. 1 seed after the Tigers clinched the Big 12 tournament title, but that was always an unlikely outcome. (It's hard to argue with Michigan State's case for that final No. 1, especially after the Spartans topped off their already-excellent season with a Big Ten tournament title and yet another win over Ohio State.) But Missouri fans have a legitimate beef with the selection committee on at least one issue: Committee chair Jeff Hathaway said the Tigers were the fourth No. 2 seed behind the Buckeyes, Duke and Kansas. Sure, the Tigers' nonconference schedule didn't match that of those teams, but come on. Duke? Really?
The good news? In spite of itself, the committee still treated Missouri pretty well. Being a No. 2 seed that opens tourney play in Omaha, Neb. -- a five-hour drive from Columbia, Mo., and a three-hour jaunt up I-29 from alumni hotbed Kansas City, all in the heart of Big 12 country -- works out awfully well. In a perfect world, the Tigers would have received Kansas' No. 2 seed, where they could have played in Omaha and then Saint Louis. Alas, their road takes them west instead. But hey, Phoenix is lovely this time of year! Even more important? Missouri's half of the bracket -- frankly, its whole region, less MSU -- is absolutely ripe for the taking.
3. There are two non-Michigan State teams that might rightly strike fear into the hearts of Tigers fans. The first is Florida, a seemingly underseeded No. 7 that, like Missouri, prefers an up-tempo game and a guard-dominated offensive attack. The other is the No. 3 seed, Marquette. Not only do the Golden Eagles play fast and loose perimeter hoops, but coach Buzz Williams -- as he proved during 2011's Sweet 16 run -- is one of the nation's most meticulous and stats-oriented scouting forces. If these two teams meet in the second weekend of the tournament, Williams will have had at least a week to dive into Synergy scouting data and prepare his team for Missouri's attack accordingly. Even so, from a strict matchup standpoint, there isn't a team in this bracket like Kansas State, a big, bruising team with enough athleticism to guard the Tigers straight up on the perimeter. If seeds hold, the Tigers will be playing on their terms all the way to the Elite Eight.
4. What about Michigan State? The Spartans have a bevy of dangerous teams on their side of the bracket, including a No. 4-seeded Louisville team that just got healthy -- and found its long-dormant offense -- in time to take the Big East tournament by storm. Before Tom Izzo starts worrying about Rick Pitino (and what a coaching matchup that will be), he'll have his sights set on Memphis' talented, athletic group, arguably the most dangerous No. 8 seed in the field. And if Memphis goes down to Saint Louis, well, a Rick Majerus team in the tournament is never a welcome sight, either. Even so, the only No. 1 seed with an arguably easier road to the Elite Eight is North Carolina. If I'm Izzo, I'm not trading places with Kentucky (which has Iowa State, UConn, Wichita State, VCU and Indiana to think about) or Syracuse (which has a really tough potential second-round matchup with the aforementioned Kansas State). No thanks. (Then again, that second-round game is scary; see impression No. 9 for more.)
5. If I were King of the Committee (that's Jason's turf, but a guy can dream), I'd add a steadfast rule to the already dizzying strictures currently in place: No non-power-six matchups in the first round. They don't mean to do it, of course. At the end of the day, teams are seeded individually, not by opponent (excepting qualifiers like rematches). But even so, the committee ensured that four of the nation's most intriguing non-BCS teams will meet in the first round. The West's edition -- No. 5 New Mexico versus No. 12 Long Beach State -- isn't quite as egregious as the South's (where we'll lose either Wichita State or VCU on the first day of the tourney), but it's unfortunate nonetheless. LBSU is a legitimate Sweet 16 Cinderella candidate, but it will have to get past one of the nation's hottest teams, and best defenses, in the Lobos.
6. There's one more non-BCS first-round matchup: No. 6 Murray State versus No. 11 Colorado State. But it's hard to complain. Why? Because this game is going to be great. Murray State is all about guard Isaiah Canaan, while Colorado State's rotation doesn't include a single player taller than 6-foot-6. This is going to be small ball at its finest. Mark it down.
7. Virginia may be the most intriguing No. 10 seed in the bracket. UVa has plenty of flaws, especially on the offensive end, but its slow-down style and that tricky defense are anathema to the majority of teams in this bracket.
8. BYU-Iona is going to be a fascinating play-in game. Iona is a legitimate threat to make a run, but it has to get past a speedy Cougars group and get in the field first. In any case, these are some of the lowest at-large bids ever awarded by the committee, which has to do with two factors: Iona was one of the last at-large teams in the field, and BYU's religious exemption (the Cougars don't play on Sundays) likely forced them into the latter Dayton fixture.
9. Is there a better No. 8 versus No. 9 game in the bracket? From an adjusted efficiency standpoint, I can't find it. Per KenPom.com -- which tracks and projects (among other things) how many points per possession teams score and allow against an average team -- Memphis and Saint Louis rank No. 9 and No. 15 overall as of Sunday night. For as scary as Memphis as a No. 8 seed might be, Saint Louis is hardly less frightening on the No. 9 line. Put them together, and it seems clear that whomever Michigan State meets in the second round, it will have a legitimate early test on its hands.
10. Speaking of which, New Mexico warrants mention here, too. The Lobos may not be quite as good as their KenPom mark (and we can probably argue the same of Memphis and Saint Louis, too), but even so, Steve Alford's team ranks No. 13 in the nation in overall adjusted efficiency. By comparison, Louisville ranks No. 20, Marquette ranks No. 18, and Florida ranks No. 19. Virginia is more impressive than you think at No. 26. Simple rankings aren't the be-all end-all for your bracket, of course. More in-depth research is needed. But, you know, just a heads up.
Five Players To Watch
Draymond Green, Michigan State: You know the drill here: Green is one of the nation's best and most versatile players, but he's also Izzo's coach on the court. The Spartans need varied contributions to be successful, but Green is by far their most important cog -- both tangibly and emotionally.
Scott Machado, Iona: The nation's assists leader is a maestro with the rock in his hands, and he has targets in the form of Michael Glover, a potential NBA draft pick, and MoMo Jones, who you last saw in March as part of the Arizona team that destroyed Duke in the Sweet 16. But Machado is most worth the price of admission. If the committee admitted their sole reason for including Iona in the field was "because we want to watch Scott Machado ball out," I'd have zero problem with that.
Flip Pressey, Missouri: The Tigers have too many good guards to do justice to in this space. Kim English is the team's leader and a lights-out catch-and-shooter weapon. Marcus Denmon is no less deadly, and as quick as any guard in the country. Forward Ricardo Ratliffe is one of the nation's most efficient players; he plays his role perfectly. And Michael Dixon and Matt Pressey are exactly what Frank Haith needs in glue spots. But the younger Pressey's game -- his tireless penetration, his ruthless on-ball defense, and above all, his incredible court vision and assist skills -- is what really, really makes the Tigers go.
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: If the Racers are going to do tournament damage proportionate to their incredible 30-1 season, Canaan will lead the way. The 6-2 guard combines a big-time usage rate (26.5 percent) with incredible shooting efficiency (percentage splits: 49.7 from 2, 47.3 from 3, 84.0 percent from the line) and an assist rate of 25.2 percent. He is Murray State's offense, and boy is he fun to watch.
Peyton Siva, Louisville: With all due respect to Marquette stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, the last nod here had to go to Siva, who just dropped 55 points, 25 rebounds, 23 assists and 11 steals in four games in Louisville's Big East tournament title run. If Siva keeps this up, Louisville has Final Four potential. If not, the Cardinals' offense will struggle.
Three Second-Round Games To Watch
No. 2 Missouri versus No. 7 Florida/No. 10 Virginia: Florida may well come out of its first-round matchup with Virginia, and if it does, the guard matchups could be fascinating. But even if Florida falters, Virginia's brutally slow style will provide a fascinating contrast with Missouri's attack. Either way, it's going to be interesting.
No. 1 Michigan State versus No. 8 Memphis/No. 9 Saint Louis: As above, both Memphis and Saint Louis are very efficient teams. Memphis especially could provide Michigan State with a challenge. The Tigers are very talented, with forward Will Barton morphing into a bona fide star, and their total team athleticism could be a whole new challenge for Michigan State coming out of the more ground-bound Big Ten.
No. 4 Louisville versus No. 5 New Mexico: New Mexico arrived in the tournament fresh off a Mountain West conference title run, which included a win over UNLV in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Louisville arrived fresh off a Big East championship. These might be the two hottest teams in the country, and both have their sights set on deep March runs.
Possible Future Matchups
No. 1 Michigan State versus No. 2 Missouri: It's the game any unbiased observer can't help but crave. Enough said.
No. 1 Michigan State versus No. 4 Louisville: But if the Spartans want to get to an Elite Eight matchup with Missouri, they have to get past Louisville first. That will require a cool performance from point guard Keith Appling, who will have to captain the Spartans against Siva and the Cardinals' tricky pressure defense. Plus, Tom Izzo versus Rick Pitino in the tournament? Yes please.
No. 2 Missouri versus No. 3 Marquette: Missouri's likely Sweet 16 matchup with Marquette will be the Tigers' biggest roadblock to the Elite Eight, and also one of the most stylistically challenging. Marquette can do something to Missouri most teams can't: It can match up well. Whatever happens, it's going to be one of the best watches in the tournament.
Two candidates: Long Beach State and Iona. Both teams feature NBA talent, both teams are double-digit seeds, and if both teams can get past their early tests -- LBSU has a tough matchup in New Mexico, while Iona will have to beat BYU and find a way to get past No. 3-seed Marquette -- both teams have classic slipper-fit style.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail email@example.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).