As the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 quickly approaches with games tipping off tomorrow afternoon, let’s take a look at what will be a highly-contested West Region, featuring a number of teams that are capable of making a deep run in the tournament. This region appears at first glance to be the trouble maker for hoops fans filling out their brackets, as I myself have changed my mind on this region at least 10 times over the past few days, but nonetheless let’s take a look at the best possible match-ups that loom large within this West bracket, and who we think will be inevitably going toe-to-toe in the later rounds of what is certain to be an exciting, if not surprising regional showdown.
First Round action Top Match-up: #7 Florida vs. #10 Virginia
Here’s my first upset pick of the bracket, if you can truly call it that aside from the fact that Florida is seeded higher than Virginia. This goes with my theory that defense will win games more often than not during this 2012 NCAA Tournament, and the Florida Gators are lacking in that department, especially in the face of the Cavaliers, who have allowed an average of just 53.7 points per game this season. Florida is also atrocious on the road, so with little home support for the game in Omaha, Nebraska, they’ll be on their own and faced with a relatively strong road-performing Virginia squad. There is little question that Florida’s offense, led by Kenny Boynton (16.3 points/game) and featuring 5 players in double-digit scoring on the year, is capable of putting up points, but what has continued to be a question mark for Billy Donovan’s team is how they cope with teams that are able to slow the pace of the game down, and eliminate the effectiveness of quick transition offense. Florida also has lost 4 of their last 5 coming into this match-up, and while Virginia has also dropped 3 of their last 4 games, their losses have been by an average of just 3 points. While Virginia has to have a big game from their leading scorer Mike Scott (18.1 ppg, 8.4 rebounds/game), and doesn’t have a ton of scoring depth, I’m looking for the Cavs to frustrate the Gators enough to keep it close and edge out a win.
A great mid-major match-up for the first round is the clash between #5 New Mexico and #12 Long Beach State. The Lobos have played well down the stretch of the Mountain West Schedule, knocking off their biggest rivals UNLV and San Diego State twice apiece since February 15th, en route to the MWC title. Behind Drew Gordon, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, New Mexico shoots the ball well (46.3 percent from the floor), rebounds even better (38 boards/game), and distributes the rock better than all but 10 teams in the entire NCAA (16.4 assists/game). The 49ers on the other hand are led by a small but very talented senior guard in the 5’10″ Casper Ware (17.4 ppg), who leads a veteran offense consisting of seniors T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Larry Anderson (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Eugene Phelps (9.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and junior James Ennis (9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg). This is a scary match-up for New Mexico, who will be tested by a good 49ers team that has accrued a lot of time on the court together. However, the Lobos’ much tougher schedule will pay dividends for them in this match-up, and they should be able to squeak out a win with their bigger presence in the paint and a solid defensive effort.
Teams moving through the first round without too much trouble include #8 Memphis, who have been blowing out Conference USA opponents for the last month, and should be able to outscore #9 St. Louis to secure a win, #4 Louisville, Big East champions, will smother #13 Davidson and maintain momentum into a tough match-up with New Mexico in the second round, and both #5 Murray State and #3 Marquette shouldn’t have much trouble with #11 Colorado State and #14 BYU respectively.
#1 Michigan State and #2 Missouri are the teams to beat, without question. While many sports pundits and analysts don’t like Missouri’s long-term chances with a smaller offense that has to shoot the ball well from outside to win, I make no excuses in liking the Tigers chances, and have them through to the Final Four this year. They’ll certainly get a good test early on from either Virginia or Florida, as well as Marquette (who I’ve picked to squeak by Murray State), but I think the only real test for them comes with #1 Michigan State, who I have them meeting in the Elite 8. The depth of talent Mizzou has with Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Flip Pressey and Michael Dixon is what gets me excited. This team puts up 80 points per game, and shoots at above 50 percent from the floor and nearly 40 percent as a team from 3-point range. They simply destroyed Baylor in the Big 12 title game, have won 4 straight games by at least 13 points, and while they’ve been susceptible to good defensive efforts on a few occasions (losing twice to Kansas State most notably), which makes for a bit of a worry if they get Virginia in the second round, the depth of this team and their ability to call on any one of 5 players to lead the scoring effort has me taking them into the Final Four past #1 Michigan State. No doubt challenges will come along with the way, with high-scoring Marquette likely getting through to the Sweet 16 behind Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, however the Golden Eagles are extremely inconsistent away from home, and they can struggle against teams that shoot well with a lot of outside talent. Missouri has plenty of both, making them a perfect set-up for a #2 meets #1 match-up with Michigan State in the Elite 8.
I won’t doubt however that Michigan State, playing behind Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green (16.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg), is an extremely formidable opponent, especially with Tom Izzo calling the shots from the bench. The Spartans are certainly deserving of a #1 seed, knocking off #12 Wisconsin and #7 Ohio State on their way to the Big Ten title, but they are going to be tested twice in the early goings by a confident Memphis team, and most likely a #4 seed Louisville squad that is playing better than they have over the entire year. What is going to put Michigan State through to the Elite however is their composure in a tournament atmosphere, their ability to shoot the ball well around the court, and their strong inside presence with Draymond Green and Derrick Nix. Where I think they could struggle is against a solid defensive effort from the likes of Louisville, who dominated the Big East conference tournament, frustrating both Cincinnati and Notre Dame by holding them each to 50 points or less. If Michigan State is forced to take shots from the outside, their reliance on good games from Draymond Green and Brandon Wood (the team’s two top 3-pt shooters) puts them at risk of an early exit if either one of them fail to make shots. Also, when and if MSU can get into a match-up against Missouri, a good-shooting Missouri team that likes to run could have the ability to out-score Michigan State, regardless of whether the Spartans have a more dominant inside presence. While I think Michigan is a good pick to work its way into the Final Four, having to play through Memphis, Louisville, and Missouri to get there puts them in one of the tougher spots for a #1 seed in the 2012 Tournament.
Out of the West Region comes the Missouri Tigers for my pick to reach the Final Four. While there are a number potential road blocks for both the Tigers and the Michigan State Spartans on the way to an Elite 8 match-up, these two schools have shown the most consistency over the course of the season, and are set-up well to make deep runs in the tournament. It may come down to a gut call for your brackets when choosing between the Tigers or the Spartans in the West, but expect these two teams to be left standing at the end of the day with a great fight between them for the right to play in New Orleans on March 31st. Make sure to mark down some of the top match-ups in this highly contested region for online sports betting at one of the best online sportsbooks reviewed here, and expect some of the best, and possibly most surprising outcomes to make short work of a lot of people’s brackets here this year.