This is by far the worst of the four regions. Outside of Pitt, the top teams are an over-seeded No. 2 Florida, No. 3 BYU which has not been the same without suspended forward Brandon Davies, No. 4 Wisconsin who is coming off a 33-point outing in the Big Ten Tournament against Penn State, and No. 6 St. John's who is without senior starter D.J. Kennedy, who tore his ACL in the Big East Tournament. In other words, no team stands out in this bracket and it is up for grabs.
Best First Round Game: #8 Butler vs. #9 Old Dominion
Old Dominion is another team that I felt was underseeded as they could have reasonably been a seven-seed. Instead they get a classic 8-9 matchup pitting two quality mid-major opponents. The Bulldogs have some inexplicable losses this season but have pulled things together down the stretch winning nine straight. I like the Monarchs' scappiness and expect this to be one of the best games of the opening round.
Early Exit: #5 Kansas State
The Wildcats have overcome their share of adversity to end the season on a positive note despite falling to Colorado in the Big 12 Quarterfinals. My concern is how difficult Kansas State's bracket ended up being. They open with an experienced Utah State that I had as an eight seed in my final bracketology, but somehow were bumped down to a 12-seed. If they are able to escape out of the first round, a disciplined Wisconsin team or sleeping giant Belmont awaits in the second round. Their success may rest on whether or not Jacob Pullen can play as well as he did in the tourney last year. More than likely, they will not be playing after the first weekend.
Sleeper: #11 Gonzaga
Despite being screwed a bit by receiving an 11 seed, Gonzaga actually drew a fairly favorable spot in the brackets. They get St. John's team in the second round that at times has been very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Their likely second-round matchup would be against BYU who is very beatable if Jimmer Fredette does not go nuts shooting the ball. The Zags have good size across the board, but their point guard play has been very shaky all season long. Still, they have the experience to make a run into the Sweet 16, possibly the Elite Eite.
Five Players to Watch: Jimmer Fredette, BYU
His days of lighting up the college basketball world are coming to an end. Now that he will actually be featured on national television, tune in.
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
Taylor made the leap from the Badgers sixth man to one of the top point guards in college basketball. Wisconsin is very patient and deliberate on the offensive end, and anytime the shot clock gets below 10 seconds, Taylor will be forced to make something happen. The Badgers have lost back-to-back games for the first time all season; a blowout loss at Ohio State and embarrassing offensive performance versus Penn State. They will come into the tourney with a chip on their shoulder as a lot of experts are picking them to be upset by 13-seeded Belmont in the opening round. Taylor has to be the catalyst to avoid an early exit.
Dwight Hardy, St. John's
Hardy went through a stretch during Big East play where he was unconscious from the field and worked his way into conference player of the year conversations. With Kennedy sidelined, even more of the scoring load will be put on his shoulders during the tourney.
Reeves Nelson, UCLA
Besides looking like a serial killer, Nelson is the stabilizing force for the Bruins who does the dirty work, is not afraid to dive all over the floor and mix it up down low. He has one of those annoying non-stop motors that analysts will surely praise.
Tai Wesley, Utah State
Wesley is a physical force for an under-seeded Aggie team that is poised to be the 12-seed that makes a run to the Sweet 16. He is only 6-7 but knows how to throw his body around in the paint.
Regional Final: #1 Pitt over #6 St. John's
I really hate this regional and feel as unoriginal as the Michael Bolton look-alike in Good Will Hunting by picking my fourth No. 1 seed to make the Final Four, but I just cannot see any team in the lower half of the bracket making a run and then knocking off Pitt unless they get ridiculously hot. I mean, Florida? Meh, not sold on their guard play. BYU? Not unless Jimmer scores 50 a night. Another Tom Izzo Michigan State miracle run? Not this year.
Pitt has the experience, toughness, and balance to win take this regional. I am rolling the dice a bit by picking St. John's without D.J. Kennedy especially since it is possible they could get bounced in the opening round by Gonzaga. I do like the Storm's versatility and ability to force turnovers and get transition buckets. If Hardy plays like he did in the latter half of Big East play, I think they make the run to the Elite Eight before falling to Pitt.