Teams, games and players to watch

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I've singled out some sleeper teams that could do some damage and some first-round matchups that should be great. Plus, take a peek at a special pre-NCAA tournament edition of my Platinum Performers – a group of players who might just carry their respective teams to glory.

Let's start with the Sleepers.

Chicago Region: No. 5 seed Alabama. Kennedy Winston and Earnest Shelton are two terrific perimeter players. Shelton is an outstanding three-point shooter; Winston does that as well but also scores off the dribble. Up front Alabama is pretty good with Chuck Davis and Jermario Davidson, and the Tide defend much better than they're given credit for.

If they rebound effectively, that will determine how far they can go.

Albuquerque Region: No. 13 seed Louisiana Lafayette is this year's East Tennessee State. I knew ETSU was capable last year, but the Bucs ran into a tough matchup with Cincinnati and fell just short. ULL is capable of doing the same thing to Louisville.

Austin Region: No. 6 seed Utah plays a deliberate style and has a guy in Andrew Bogut who will win some player of the year awards (he'd win mine). The Utes have struggled with the perimeter shot, but if they can play inside-out they can make a bit of a run.

Syracuse Region: No. 4 seed Florida now has awakened many people by the way it's beaten Kentucky twice this month. The Gators dominated the Wildcats on the boards in the SEC title game, and they're showing a grit and a tenacity that really has been missing from Florida teams the past couple of years. I see a real commitment to defense and rebounding, and we know they can score.

Can't-miss first-round games

  • (7)Southern Illinois-(10)Saint Mary's (Chicago Region; 2 p.m. ET Fri. in Oklahoma City)
    It's not often you get a matchup between pair of teams that everybody figured would make the tourney as at-larges from lower-profile conferences.

The Salukis have terrific guards. A lot of people aren't familiar with the Gaels, but Paul Marigney is an outstanding guard and Daniel Kickert is one of the best big-man perimeter shooters in the country.

  • (6)Utah-(11)UTEP (Austin Region; 12:15 p.m. ET Thurs. in Tucson)
    I'm very intrigued by Utah because of Andrew Bogut, my pick for player of the year. UTEP is an athletic, high-scoring team but not very big. The Utes like to control the pace and play through Bogut.

  • (4)Louisville-(13)UL Lafayette (Albuquerque Region; 7:10 p.m. ET Fri. in Tucson)
    I've had my eye on the Ragin' Cajuns since early in the year. They've got four really big, athletic, high-scoring guards. Louisville obviously doesn't mind playing a quick pace and has some terrific perimeter players, but the Cardinals aren't dominant inside.

If ULL takes care of the ball, they can give Louisville a nice matchup in that first round.

  • (3)Oklahoma-(14)Niagara (Austin Region; 12:45 p.m. ET Thurs. in Nashville)
    If you're looking for a huge first-round upset, think about this one.

I love Oklahoma, but I enjoyed watching Niagara win the Metro Atlantic tourney. The Purple Eagles are one of the top-five scoring teams in the country, with three terrific seniors. Juan Mendez, the MAAC player of the year, is a terrific low-post scorer, and David Brooks and Alvin Cruz can get shots on the perimeter.

Niagara primarily plays an active zone, and that will be a nice matchup with the Sooners' perimeter shooters and good team speed. I'll enjoy watching Mendez mix it up with Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray.

  • (5)Villanova-(12)New Mexico (Syracuse Region; 2:55 p.m. ET Fri. in Nashville)
    More often than not one No. 12 seed beats a 5. With that in mind I've been watching Old Dominion and I like their inside-outside punch of Alex Loughton and Isaiah Hunter (the Monarchs face Michigan State). But the one No. 12 seed I've really enjoyed watching for the last month and a half is New Mexico.

Five or six weeks ago it became obvious the Lobos would have to win the Mountain West tourney to get in. They didn't have enough going for them from a schedule-strength standpoint to get an at-large. But I told a number of people that if they did get in, they'd have a chance to pull an upset.

Now they face one of the hottest teams in the country in Villanova. But Danny Granger is one of the best wing men in college basketball. Alfred Neale is a phenomenal athlete at one of the other wing spots, and Mark Walters handles the ball and can make plays. They've won nine straight, and basically those all have been must-win games.

Platinum Performers

If a singular star puts his stamp on this tournament, I'd expect it to be one of the following:

Hakim Warrick, Syracuse

Wayne Simien, Kansas

Sean May, North Carolina

Raymond Felton, North Carolina

Salim Stoudamire, Arizona

Chris Paul, Wake Forest

Ronny Turiaf, Gonzaga

Brandon Bass, LSU