1 Syracuse: Despite being unranked to start the year the Orangemen have been one of the top teams all season in college basketball. They had just four losses against them, which is pretty impressive considering the strength of the Big East. They did almost lose their number 1 seed due to their quarterfinals game in the Big East Tournament. Not only did they lose the game to the eventual runner up Georgetown, but their star center Arinze Onuaku went down with an injury. Syracuse won’t need Onuaku in the first couple rounds, but they will need him healthy by the Sweet 16 if they are to advance in the tournament. Syracuse will need to rely more heavily on their unproven bench until Onuaku gets healthy. Luckily the Orangemen have plenty of other weapons to get them by. Forward Wes Johnson has been in the player of the year discussion all season. He led Syracuse in both scoring and rebounding, and was the number one option all season.
Syracuse dropping to the fourth number 1 seed, sent them packing out West, but in reality their first two games are in Buffalo making them pretty favorable. When they do head out West Syracuse will try to stay focused but the road ahead of them isn’t an easy one. In the lower part of their bracket Pittsburgh (who was one of the 3 teams to beat them) looms large. They were the first team to knock off Syracuse this season and did so at the Carrier Dome. If they survive to the Elite Eight Pitt is a dangerous team to play at a neutral site. The two biggest things to watch out for with Syracuse are their free throw shooting and turnover rate. Both of which are pretty low and could comeback to haunt them.
2 Kansas State: Most teams use a 7-9 man rotation in college basketball, and only go deeper to the bench in blowout situations or serve foul/injury trouble. Kansas State literally plays their entire squad. Of their 13 players, no one played in fewer than 19 games, and no one averaged less than 6 minutes a game. That is unheard of in basketball today. Also it’s not as though K-State was in some inferior conference that could rest their starters. They were runner up in the Big 12 conference arguably the 2nd toughest conference in the nation. Their deep bench should be a benefit for a long run in the tournament. They can be more aggressive without worrying about foul trouble the way some teams do, as well as give some of their starters rest to keep them fresh for the next game. Keeping fresh legs in the game, allows Kansas State to do what they do best, and that is run the floor. They like scoring in transition and before the defense gets set. In addition to their deep bench the Wildcats have an all upperclassman starting lineup. Their veteran leadership combined, with the young deep bench gives K-State a winning formula.
Kansas State should have no issue in round 1 against North Texas. The 2nd round presents a potential stumbling block against BYU, but the Wildcats depth should help them through. The Sweet 16 could get tricky for Kansas State if they face Pitt, as they don’t match up too well against the Panthers. While K-State can attack the rim some, they don’t control the paint. While they have more depth and experience than Pitt, they lack the defense to control the Panthers. If they do get by the Panthers, K-State’s lack of size will likely be their downfall at some point down the stretch.
Rest of the First round:
3 Pittsburgh over 14 Oakland: Pitt is notorious to play down to opponents sometimes, and are also an inexperienced team so the potential for an upset exists. That being said, they have too much talent and are too well coached to lose this game. The Panthers have the talent to win this region if they play their best basketball, they just need to remain focused.
13 Murray St. over 4 Vanderbilt: Vandy looked like a dangerous tournament team a month ago, as they were one of the top teams in the SEC, but they look like an early round upset here. Murray St. is a pretty veteran team, with quick guards that will give Vandy plenty of trouble.
12 UTEP over 5 Butler: UTEP is a very underrated team. They have great guard play as well as one of the better big men in the country right now in Derrick Caracter. In addition to Caracter they have additional size that allows them to control the paint, and should match up well against Butler’s big men. Even if Butler wins the battle of the bigs, they don’t really have the guards to match up with UTEP. The one weakness for UTEP is their bench which is not very deep. Foul trouble could be devastating for them.
6 Xavier over 11 Minnesota: Minnesota might have some fans because of what they did in the first couple rounds of the Big Ten tournament, but you need to remember they got beat by about 30 in the finals. Xavier is a pretty good team, that shouldn’t have much trouble with the Golden Gophers.
7 BYU over 10 Florida: Florida somehow squeaked into the tournament, but I wouldn’t count on them being there too long. BYU should have little problem getting past the Gators in Round 1. I think Florida is pretty overrated and doesn’t have the talent level to compete in this game.
9 Florida State over 8 Gonzaga: Gonzaga has been a tournament favorite for almost 10 years now, but I think they don’t make it out of the first round this year. This is a rebuilding year for them and I don’t think they can match up with FSU, particularly on the inside.