Three who can carry their teams:
• Kelly Olynyk, F, Gonzaga
• Deshaun Thomas, F, Ohio State
• Marshall Henderson, G, Ole Miss
Most intriguing opening round matchup: No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 11 Belmont
The past two seasons, Belmont has entered the NCAA tournament as a trendy opening-round upset pick only fall quietly at the hands of Wisconsin and Georgetown. The OVC champion Bruins are hoping to have more success this March against an Arizona team that limped into the NCAA tournament, going 5-5 in its last 10 games after a 20-2 start. What will be especially interesting about this game is seeing if Arizona limit Belmont's perimeter-heavy offense and if the Bruins can hold Arizona's frontcourt in check. The dribble penetration of Kerron Johnson and the outside shooting of Ian Clark should give Arizona problems, but Belmont may struggle to match up with the Wildcats' size inside.
Best potential round of 32 game: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 8 Pittsburgh
The two big questions about Gonzaga are whether the Zags can defend an opponent with elite athleticism on the perimeter and whether they can go toe-to-toe in the paint and on the glass with a physical, bruising power-conference team. Pittsburgh has the ability to test Gonzaga in both those areas if they meet in the Round of 32, especially with its offensive rebounding prowess. Kelly Olynyk is as talented and versatile a scorer as any big man in the nation, but Steven Adams is a physical match for him. And Tray Woodall, Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore will test the improved Gonzaga perimeter defense spearheaded by Mike Hart and Gary Bell Jr. In 2o11, Pittsburgh surrendered a favorable draw to Butler when the Panthers lost a hotly contested Round of 32 clash. They'll try to return the favor against Gonzaga in front of what should be a pro-Zags crowd in Salt Lake City.
Ripe for an upset: No. 4 Kansas State
Even playing in geographically friendly Kansas City, the Wildcats don't have an easy path to the Sweet 16. Either guard-oriented La Salle or 3-point-happy Boise State would be a dangerous opening-round opponent for Kansas State. And even if the Wildcats survive that game, their likely Round of 32 foe will be Wisconsin, which kept them from reaching the Sweet 16 both in 2008 and 2011. The Wildcats have pounded opponents on the offensive glass this season, an attribute that has helped them tie Kansas for the Big title and finish second to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. They'll potentially be able to exploit that advantage in their opening game, but it would be more difficult against Wisconsin.
Bound for the Final Four: No. 2 Ohio State
Gonzaga boasts an elite frontcourt, an improved defense and several dangerous three-point shooters. New Mexico has an elite defense, a deep, versatile backcourt, a 7-footer with the ability to score from the perimeter or the paint. Still, until the Zags and Lobos shed their reputations for underachieving in the NCAA tournament in recent years, it's Ohio State that carries the title of West Region favorite. The surging Buckeyes have won eight games in a row entering the NCAA tournament. They've defended on the perimeter as well as any team in the nation all season and they're starting to find some scoring help to complement Deshaun Thomas.
Possible Dark Horse: No. 3 New Mexico
With 19 top 100 RPI victories and a sweep of the regular season and tournament titles in the formidable Mountain West, New Mexico had the credentials to be a No. 2 seed ahead of either Georgetown or Ohio State. The Lobos don't have an explosive enough offense to rout most teams, yet they've been able to grind out victories against good competition all season thanks to good guard play, superior defense and the emergence of Alex Kirk as an interior scorer and rim protector. Two factors work in New Mexico's favor as the Lobos try to reach their first-ever Sweet 16 and perhaps go even further: Tony Snell's shooting is an X-factor for New Mexico and he gained confidence from the Mountain West tournament. And secondly, if this past week in Las Vegas is any indication, expect the Lobos to have the crowd on their side both in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles should they make it that far.
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