East: Kentucky's Best, but Watch Out for the Rest
The No. 1 seed, the second overall in the tournament, arguably has the toughest road to the Final Four. If the seeds hold, Kentucky might have to beat a program that was No. 1 in the country in January, eighth-seeded Texas, just to get out of the sub-regional.
Then it would need to beat either a Temple team ranked in the top 20 most of the season or a Wisconsin team that fought for the Big Ten lead most of the year -- and, last but not least, No. 2 seed Big East tournament champ West Virginia, as hot a team entering the tournament as there is. All with a team led by freshmen.
Also part of that gauntlet: New Mexico, the only mid-major to get a top-four seed; giant-killers Cornell and Wofford, and surprise Pac-10 champ Washington. John Calipari and his team were given no favors.
Storyline to Watch
The coaches of the top two seeds couldn't avoid the spotlight, and a harsh one, if they tried. If Calipari gets to the Final Four with Kentucky, he'll be followed by cracks about how much longer it will be before the trip is vacated, as his visits with his previous two teams were because of NCAA sanctions. Bob Huggins has been to a Final Four already as well, at a school, Cincinnati, that was hardly without controversy; a trip with his alma mater, West Virginia, will open a door that he might prefer to stay closed.
Best First-Round Matchup
No. 5 Temple vs. No. 12 Cornell. It could be the favorite 12-5 upset pick of the nation's bracket-pickers. No disrespect to the program, coached by Fran Dunphy, that won the regular-season and tournament titles of a strong A-10, but the three-time Ivy League champ scheduled well and opened the season with a win at Alabama -- then threw a scare into then-No. 1 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in early January, losing 71-66.
Most Likely Upset
Wofford over Wisconsin. The No. 13 Terriers, Southern Conference champ, won't be scared, not after playing well in non-conference losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan State -- and beating Georgia and South Carolina. No. 4 Wisconsin might have just had a letdown in the Big Ten tournament against Illinois, but its best win since the end of January came against Michigan State in the game in which Kalin Lucas got hurt.
Teams That'll Bust Your Bracket
Missouri, as usual, is never quite as good as its talent, nor as bad as its record or its performance from time to time. Seeded 10th, it's far from impossible for the Tigers to beat a seventh-seeded Clemson team that's typically fading late. Also, the winner between No. 6 Marquette and No. 11 Washington could catch fire on the bottom end of the bracket and make things rough on likely regional semifinalist West Virginia.
Texas can't be as bad as they've looked the last two months, maybe not as bad as their No. 8 seed indicates. The Longhorns are short on experienced guards because of injuries, but if somehow Avery Bradley and Jai Lucas play over their heads, Damion James plays like an All-American and Dexter Pittman stays out of foul trouble, they could throw a major scare into Kentucky in the second round and throw the whole tourney into chaos.
Wake Forest. The ninth seed, an early-season ACC contender thanks to an early Duke loss, has flatlined lately and arguably turned in the worst of its conference's first-round performances in Greensboro, N.C., in losing to last-place Miami. Again, the talent is better than the performance, with talent inside with Al-Farouq Aminu and outside with Ishmael Smith, but coach Dino Gaudio has been in over his head for a while, and Wake could go one and done.
Players to Watch
1. John Wall, Kentucky. More than even DeMarcus Cousins up front, because as always, guard play is paramount, and Wall continues to be up to the task.
2. Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia. How many players pull off two game-winners in the final seconds in the span of three games in the conference tournament? As long as the Mountaineers find ways to get him the ball, he's hard to stop right now.
3. Isaiah Thomas, Washington (pictured right). There won't be many better little guys in this tournament; at a generously-listed 5-9, he's a shooting, dribbling, slithering mismatch against everybody and a potential equalizer in a one-and-out situation.
Biggest question to answer
The top team has the most questions to answer, and they all are pinned to the backs of the three freshman starters: can Wall, Cousins and Eric Bledsoe keep playing above their years? They control the ball and the tempo, and as already mentioned, they could hit a more experienced team in Texas even before they get to the Carrier Dome for the Sweet 16.
How It Plays Out
They'll be lined up to go after Kentucky -- Texas, Temple (or Cornell), New Mexico, Marquette or Washington. West Virginia gets a chance to ride its momentum through a slightly lesser field, including one of a couple of perennial underachievers in Clemson and Missouri. Still, the Wildcats have been so good, they should handle the gauntlet on the way to a regional final against West Virginia.
Kentucky has met every challenge so far; it will meet this one, too, and reach Indianapolis.