RECORD: 32-2 RPI: 2nd RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 16-2 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Big Ten tournament COACH: Thad Matta (14-8 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Jared Sullinger, 6-9/280, Fr. F Dallas Lauderdale, 6-8/255, Sr. F/G David Lighty, 6-5/220, Sr. G William Buford, 6-5/205, Jr. G Jon Diebler, 6-6/205, Sr. KEY RESERVES F DeShaun Thomas, 6-6/230, Fr. G Aaron Craft, 6-2/195, Fr. G Jordan Sibert, 6-4/180, Fr.
BACKCOURT: Ohio State is great at moving the ball until it gets an open shot. Its selfless play on the perimeter is one of the main reasons for its success. Not many teams in the country have as much depth, talent and experience in their backcourt as the Buckeyes. Diebler shoots 50 percent from 3-point range and Lighty is one of the nation's top defenders. Both have averaged more than 30 minutes per game as sophomores, juniors and seniors. Buford, who ranks second on the team in scoring, is one of the nation's most underrated players. Craft leads the Buckeyes in assists and steals. FRONTCOURT: Not many teams can lose the National Player of the Year and actually get better, but that's exactly what's happened in the wake of Evan Turner's departure from Ohio State. Sullinger's addition down low has given the Buckeyes a whole new look and makes them more well-rounded. Sure, Sullinger can score and rebound. But he's also a tremendous distributor, and his presence leads to more opportunities for his teammates. Sullinger is a sure-fire top-10 pick whenever he decides to enter the NBA draft. Sullinger and Lauderdale - who averages just 16 minutes per game - are the only true post players in Ohio State's rotation. Although his performance tapered off in Big Ten play, Thomas can be explosive off the bench. X-FACTOR: Having an immediate impact on a national championship-caliber team would be tough for any freshman - but it's especially hard for a freshman point guard. Not that anyone would know it by watching Craft, who has kept Ohio State rolling with his steady play at the game's most difficult position. Sullinger may be the Buckeyes' best player, but Craft may be their most important one. THE BUZZ: When playing at its highest level, Ohio State might be the best team in the country. There aren't many teams that can match the Buckeyes' chemistry and cohesiveness - and it also doesn't hurt to have a National Player of the Year candidate in the paint. Anything less than a Final Four appearance will be considered a disappointment for the Buckeyes, whose only national championship came in 1960.
RECORD: 19-13 RPI: 194th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 0-0 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Southland tourney COACH: Brooks Thompson (First NCAA appearance)
PROBABLE STARTERS F Stephen Franklin, 6-6/205, Jr. F Jeromie Hill, 6-8/230, Fr. F Larry Wilkins, 6-4/250, Jr. G Devin Gibson, 6-0/190, Sr. G Melvin Johnson, 6-5/165, Soph. KEY RESERVES F/C Alex Vouyoukas, 6-9/235, Jr. G Sei Paye, 6-3/170, Jr.
BACKCOURT: Gibson is the only returning starter for the Roadrunners from last season, and he was a first-team All-Southland performer. He's a smart offensive player who has a variety of ways to score, though he is not a good 3-point shooter. But he is incredibly savvy when it comes to getting to the line; he has attempted 286 free throws, which is the most in the nation, and has hit 224 of them (78.3 percent). He leads the team in assists and steals and is second in rebounds despite standing just 6 feet. Johnson is a talented offensive player, but doesn't really bring anything else to the table. He has hit 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers and is excellent from the line. Paye, a part-time starter who transferred from Louisiana-Monroe, is an able distributor. FRONTCOURT: Hill, from Australia, was the Southland's freshman of the year. He is the only real offensive threat up front, and while he can score in the paint, he also has perimeter skills. He's UTSA's leading rebounder. Franklin is an aggressive defender and a good passer, while the big-bodied Wilkins is a space-eater but not much of an offensive threat. Vouyoukas, a JC transfer originally from Greece, was a starter earlier in the season, but his minutes decreased as the season wore on. He could get some minutes in the NCAAs just to bang on opposing big men. X-FACTOR: Truthfully, it's their opponent's mindset. UTSA won the Southland tourney as the No. 7 seed. While Gibson is talented and Hill will be an all-league guy in the future, UTSA simply isn't that good. If a major-college opponent shows up to play, UTSA is going to get blasted. THE BUZZ: Coach Brooks Thompson, a former Texas A&M standout who was a first-round pick of the NBA's Orlando Magic in 1994, deserves kudos for getting UTSA into the NCAAs in a season in which he had just one returning starter. The Roadrunners should look at this NCAA trip as an experience-builder for next season. Plus, UTSA knows it will be in the Sweet 16 regardless - it is the host school for the Southwest Regional.
RECORD: 17-17 RPI: 257th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 0-1 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won SWAC tourney COACH: Lewis Jackson (0-1 NCAA tournament record).
PROBABLE STARTERS F Sharif Adamu, 6-7/200, Fr. F Chris Duncan, 6-9/210, Sr. G Tramaine Butler, 6-2/180, Jr. G Jeffery Middlebrooks, 6-0/170, Jr. G/F Kenderek Washington, 6-4/185, Jr. KEY RESERVES F Tremayne Moorer, 6-5/220, Sr. F Robert Sanders, 6-6/220, Sr. G Dwayne Harvey, 6-1/185, Fr. G/F Ivory White, 6-4/185, Jr.
BACKCOURT: Butler is the only starter who averages in double figures, and he's at 10.9 points per game. He can be a pest on defense and he leads the team in free-throw attempts; too bad he hits just 51.3 percent from the line. Middlebrooks leads the Hornets in assists. Washington, a JC transfer, has been a key addition; he rebounds well and has 3-point ability. Harvey's strength is his passing ability, while White is the second-leading rebounder and the team leader in steals. FRONTCOURT: Moorer averages barely 20 minutes per game off the bench, yet leads the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game. He's strong and can score down low; he's also the Hornets' leading rebounder. Duncan has some shot-blocking skills. Adamu and Sanders are two more role players. X-FACTOR: The Hornets are a scrappy defensive bunch, and their only hope for an NCAA win is to keep the game in the 50s or low 60s. They are horrible offensively and are going to have trouble scoring even against the type of opponent they will see in a play-in game. BUZZ: The Hornets were 6-16 entering February, then caught fire down the stretch. They make for a nice story, but they're not a good team. A play-in win would be a huge achievement. They won one non-conference game against a Division I foe, against seven-win Kennesaw State.
RECORD: 26-6 RPI: 24th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 2-3 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from Colonial Athletic Association COACH: Jim Larranaga (4-4 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS F Mike Morrison, 6-9/222, Jr. F Ryan Pearson, 6-6/230, Jr. G Andre Cornelius, 5-10/172, Jr. G/F Luke Hancock, 6-5/189, Soph. G Cam Long, 6-4/187, Sr. KEY RESERVES F Paris Bennett, 6-6/216, Jr. G Isaiah Tate, 6-4/214, Sr. G Vertrail Vaughns, 6-2/184, R-Fr.
BACKCOURT: Long is the Patriots' best player and a first-team All-CAA selection. He's a solid all-around player who can hit the 3-pointer; he leads the team in scoring and steals, is second in assists and third in rebounds. Hancock is a still-developing talent who leads the Patriots in assists and is a solid scorer, too. He and Cornelius are excellent from the line. Cornelius was the point man last season but has moved more into an off-guard role this season. He can be sloppy with the ball but he also can hit from beyond the arc. Tate is the only reserve who averages double-digit minutes. He's experienced and knows what the coaches want. His 3-point shooting gets him minutes. Vaughns is a deadly 3-point specialist off the bench; a bit more than 60 percent of his field-goal attempts come from beyond the arc, and he has hit better than 50 percent of his 3-pointers. FRONTCOURT: Morrison is a physical, aggressive, hard-working player who is a surprisingly good passer. He's a tough rebounder and defender, but his offense is strictly garbage-type baskets. He's also a brick-layer from the line. Pearson should be the go-to guy next season. He is Mason's second-leading scorer this season, has a nice mid-range game and occasionally can stick a 3-pointer. He's a good rebounder and knows how to get to the line. Bennett provides a physical presence off the bench, but any offense would be a shock. X-FACTOR: The lack of depth could hurt. Obviously, Mason is used to playing with a short bench. But if Morrison or Pearson gets in foul trouble, the Patriots will be in trouble up front. Again, just one reserve averages double-digit minutes, and that's a guard. THE BUZZ: There's a reason Mason is 26-6. The Patriots are efficient offensively, good from 3-point range and play solid defense. They take care of the ball and outrebound foes by almost three per game. They also have a well-respected coach. They made a miracle Final Four run in 2006, and while that's not going to happen this season, a Sweet 16 appearance wouldn't be a surprise at all. Their 3-point shooting and basketball IQ gives them a chance against any opponent.
RECORD: 21-11 RPI: 38th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 9-8 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from Big East COACH: Jay Wright (12-8 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS F Antonio Pena, 6-8/235, Sr. C/F Mouphtaou Yarou, 6-10/250, Soph. G Corey Fisher, 6-1/200, Sr. G Corey Stokes, 6-5/220, Sr. G Maalik Wayns, 6-2/185, Soph. KEY RESERVES F Isaiah Armwood, 6-7/205, Soph. F/C Maurice Sutton, 6-11/220, Soph. G Dominic Cheek, 6-6/185, Soph.
BACKCOURT: Usually, coaches would kill for a senior-dominated backcourt in March. But this backcourt hasn't really played all that well of late. Villanova has as talented a quartet of guards as there is, but consistency has been a problem. Stokes, who has been bothered in the second half of the season with a hamstring injury, shoots 43.4 percent from 3-point range and is deadly from the line. But he doesn't take advantage of his size as much as he should, and he also can be sloppy with the ball. Fisher is quick and is strong enough to finish at the rim. Too often, though, he settles for 3-pointers, and he has struggled from beyond the arc this season, hitting just 33.1 percent. Wayns also is quick and, like Fisher, he is a good distributor. But for some reason, he fancies himself as a 3-point shooter, and he has been brutal from long range, hitting just 27.0 percent. Cheek adds some size off the bench and is a willing rebounder, though he has struggled mightily with his shot. FRONTCOURT: Pena and Yarou strictly are low-post scorers, but they don't get as many touches as they should. They combine to average 14.1 rebounds per game, and Yarou has some shot-blocking ability, though he isn't the intimidating presence he one day could be. Pena is a hard worker on both ends and is a good rebounder. Armwood is athletic and a good defender, while Sutton provides a physical defensive presence off the bench. But any offense from those two is gravy. X-FACTOR: Villanova looks lost. Do the Wildcats care any more? It's mid-March, and the players don't necessarily seem set in their roles. This team is talented. After all, they were 17-2 at one point. But this team has issues. After all, they stumble in on a five-game losing streak and have lost nine of 13 since the hot start. THE BUZZ: Villanova is a guard-oriented team, but those guards haven't shot the ball all that well or always made the best decisions. The team that gets Villanova in the first round probably is going to be ecstatic because of the way the Wildcats have been playing. Villanova has the talent to make a Sweet 16 - or even Elite Eight - run. But the desire is the question.
RECORD: 20-11 RPI: 21st RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 8-8 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from the Big East COACH: Bob Huggins (26-18 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS F John Flowers, 6-7/215, Sr. F Kevin Jones, 6-8/260, Jr. F Cam Thoroughman, 6-7/235, Sr. G Darryl Bryant, 6-2/195, Jr. G Joe Mazzulla, 6-2/200, Sr. KEY RESERVES F Deniz Kilicli, 6-9/270, Soph. G Casey Mitchell, 6-4/220, Sr. G Dalton Pepper, 6-5/230, Soph.
BACKCOURT: It's March, which means it's Mazzulla time for the Mountaineers. He seems to play his best basketball during the NCAA tournament, including last season's memorable Elite Eight performance against Kentucky that sent WVU to the Final Four. Bryant, a three-year starter, suffered a broken right foot during last season's NCAA tournament. He's healthy now, and his experience is a plus. Mitchell, an excellent outside shooter, got off to a torrid start but saw his playing time diminish after a January suspension. Pepper also is a good shooter and has the ability to give WVU some key minutes off the bench. FRONTCOURT: Jones didn't quite live up to the hype this season. Expected to be the main man with the departures of Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith, Jones struggled to find his shot much of the season. But he's played well of late and is a force on the offensive boards. While Jones struggled a bit, Flowers blossomed this season with his scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking ability. Few players in the nation do more with less than Thoroughman. He doesn't score a lot, but he's a heady player and makes his teammates better. Kilicli has had a few glimpses of greatness, especially with his hook shots with either hand, but his inconsistency is an issue. X-FACTOR: Mitchell was West Virginia's leading scorer during the regular season and looked like a Big East Player of the Year candidate early, but he has struggled and lacked consistency since returning from a three-game suspension in January. Mitchell did hit two big late 3-pointers in WVU's stunning victory over Louisville in the regular-season finale. That may have been the spark he needed. Mitchell and Huggins don't always see eye to eye, especially when it comes to Mitchell's defense, but one thing is easy to see: If Mitchell can produce like he did early this season, the Mountaineers may have a chance to make a postseason run like they did last season. THE BUZZ: There were several names thrown around for Big East Coach of the Year. "Huggins" wasn't one of them, but perhaps it should have been. This WVU squad doesn't have the talent of last season's Final Four team, but Huggins found a way to lead the Mountaineers to 20 victories despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. There likely won't be a repeat Final Four performance this season, but with four NCAA tourney berths in the four seasons since he has returned to his alma mater, Huggins is building a program that should make repeat trips to the Big Dance for years to come.
RECORD: 22-8 RPI: 31st RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 1-4 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from Conference USA COACH: Mike Davis (7-4 NCAA tournament record).
PROBABLE STARTERS F Cameron Moore, 6-10/230, Jr. F Ovie Soko, 6-8/210, Soph. G Dexter Fields, 6-2/205, Soph. G Aaron Johnson, 5-8/185, Sr. G Jamarr Sanders, 6-5/210, Sr. KEY RESERVES F Anthony Criswell, 6-9/230, R-Fr. F/G Preston Purifoy, 6-5/215, Fr. G Quincy Taylor, 6-0/185, Fr. G Robert Williams, 6-4/210, R-Fr.
BACKCOURT: Sanders struggled at times last season, his first with the Blazers after transferring from a junior college, but there were no such issues this season. He was a first-team all-league performer and is the Blazers' leading scorer. He has a nice 3-point stroke, hits better than 80 percent from the line and also is a good rebounder. Johnson's offense lagged a bit this season, but he is one of the best assist men in the nation (7.7 per game) and is jet-quick with the ball. He can be a hounding defender, too. Fields' offense basically is 3-pointer or nothing, as 83 percent of his 179 field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. Taylor and Williams provide minutes - but not much else - off the bench. FRONTCOURT: Moore made huge strides this season, increasing his scoring average by almost 11 points per game, to 14.3. He also averages a team-leading 9.4 rebounds and was a second-team all-conference pick. He can hit the occasional 3-pointer but is at his best when working from 12 feet in. He also blocks 1.4 shots per game. But he broke his hand mid-February and is not back to 100 percent yet. Soko is a physical presence who plays tougher than his weight would indicate. He is foul-prone, though. Criswell is a good rebounder but provides no offense. Purifoy is athletic and physical, and has some outside pop. X-FACTOR: UAB is spotty offensively and needs to play lockdown defense if they're going to win a game in this tourney. The Blazers can bother teams with their athleticism defensively. UAB has allowed more than 70 points just seven times and lost five. BUZZ: Johnson is fun to watch, and Sanders and Moore are nice offensive players. But the Blazers aren't that consistent offensively, and they're not efficient from the perimeter. Tough defense is what could get them a win, but to expect them to be playing on the second weekend is a stretch.
RECORD: 21-11 RPI: 57th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 2-7 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from ACC COACH: Brad Brownell (0-3 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Jerai Grant, 6-8/230, Sr. F Devin Booker, 6-8/245, Soph. G Tanner Smith, 6-5/205, Jr. G Demontez Stitt, 6-2/180, Sr. G Andre Young, 5-9/175, Jr. KEY RESERVES F Milton Jennings, 6-9/225, Soph. F Bryan Narcisse, 6-6/220, Jr. G Cory Stanton, 5-10/175, Fr.
BACKCOURT: Clemson certainly doesn't lack experience here. Stitt is a four-year starter. Young had earned ample playing time as a reserve the past two seasons before moving into the starting lineup this season. Stitt, a third-team All-ACC selection, consistently has scored in double figures and stepped up his production in league competition. Young doesn't provide much height, but he's a quality 3-point shooter and a ballhawk on defense. Smith isn't much of a shooter, but his willingness to take a charge has helped give Clemson one of the ACC's top defenses. FRONTCOURT: There are some familiar names in this frontcourt. Grant is the son of former NBA player Harvey Grant and the nephew of former Clemson All-American and Chicago Bulls forward Horace Grant. Booker is the younger brother of former Clemson standout Trevor Booker. Grant is the Tigers' top rebounder and shot-blocker. He also was selected to the ACC's all-defensive team. Booker stepped up his production late in the season and scored in double figures in two of Clemson's last three regular-season games. Jennings provides plenty of offense and rebounds off the bench, while Narcisse gives the Tigers a shot-blocking presence. X-FACTOR: Just about every game comes down to which team shoots the ball better, but that's particularly true in Clemson's case. Clemson went 19-1 during the regular season when it had a better field-goal percentage than the opponent. When their opponents shot for a higher percentage, the Tigers were just 1-9. BUZZ: Clemson lost in the first round to a lower-seeded opponent in each of the past three seasons under former coach Oliver Purnell, now at DePaul. This season, the expectations aren't quite as high for Clemson and perhaps the results will be a little better. Clemson focuses more on defense and typically plays lower-scoring games under Brownell. Perhaps that style will prove to be better-suited for the postseason for the Tigers.
RECORD: 25-8 RPI: 7th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 10-5 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won SEC tournament. COACH: John Calipari (28-12 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS F Josh Harrellson, 6-10/275, Sr. F Terrence Jones, 6-8/244, Fr. F Darius Miller, 6-7/228, Jr. G Brandon Knight, 6-3/185, Fr. G Doron Lamb, 6-4/195, Fr. KEY RESERVES G DeAndre Liggins, 6-6/210, Jr. F Eloy Vargas, 6-11/250, Jr.
BACKCOURT: Knight lived up to his reputation as a great scorer in his first season at Kentucky. As of the end of the regular season, Knight was third in the SEC in scoring. He's still a work in progress as a point guard, but he has a good motor. Lamb began the season as one of the best bench players in the nation. He became a starter at the end of the season. Liggins is the line veteran in the backcourt, coming off the bench as one of the SEC's best defenders. FRONTCOURT: Between Knight and Jones, choosing Kentucky's best freshman is best decided by a coin flip. The SEC selected Jones as its top freshman. He's an athletic forward who can score a variety of ways while nearly averaging double-digit rebounds. Harrellson was something of a secret weapon this season. Seldom used for two years, he emerged as an excellent rebounder. In the right matchup, he can be a leader on the offensive end. Miller is the veteran of the group and has shown some occasional offensive pop. X-FACTOR: Youth will continue to be an issue for Calipari's teams as long as he continues to cycle through one-and-dones. Jones, Knight and Lamb are Kentucky's best players, but the key to UK's success will be the contributions of Harrellson, Miller and Liggins. All three are role players, but they have shown themselves capable of taking over at times. As Kentucky learned last season, youth can only take you so far. The veterans need to play at the top of their games for the Wildcats to make a long run. THE BUZZ: Kentucky spent most of the season fighting its youthfulness. The Wildcats struggled for most of the season on the road before gutting out the regular-season finale at Tennessee. Kentucky fans travel well enough that the Wildcats will have their supporters wherever they land in the tournament, so perhaps that final road win will be a confidence booster heading into the postseason. Still, if UK gets past the Sweet 16, this will have been an excellent season.
RECORD: 25-6 RPI: 40th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 1-1 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Ivy League title COACH: Sydney Johnson (First NCAA appearance)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Brendan Connolly, 6-11/252, Soph. F Ian Hummer, 6-7/226, Soph. F Patrick Saunders, 6-8/200, Jr. G Douglas Davis, 5-11/164, Jr. G Dan Mavraides, 6-4/210, Sr. KEY RESERVES C Will Barrett, 6-10/200, Soph. F Mack Darrow, 6-9/225, Soph. F Kareem Maddox, 6-8/230, Sr. G T.J. Bray, 6-6/207, Fr.
BACKCOURT: Davis and Mavraides each average in double figures and form a solid duo. Davis hit the buzzer-beater against Harvard that put Princeton in the field. Both are potent from 3-point range, with each hitting a bit above 39 percent; both also shoot a bit above 39 percent overall, so - truth be told - they should disdain the 2-point attempts and fire away from beyond the arc. They're OK defensive players; surprisingly, though, each basically has a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Mavraides' board work is important. Bray adds backcourt size off the bench, but any offense is a surprise. FRONTCOURT: Despite coming off the bench, Maddox is the leading scorer and the Tigers' only first-team all-league performer. He's athletic and knows how to get open in the Tigers' offense; he's a surprisingly deft passer. He can hit the occasional mid-range jumper, but he's most effective in the lane. He's also the leading rebounder and is an effective shot-blocker, one reason he was the Ivy's defensive player of the year. Hummer - whose dad was on the 1965 Tigers Final Four team that was led by Bill Bradley - is the second-leading scorer, and he does all his work down low. He's a good rebounder and a solid defender. Saunders has some 3-point ability but still is trying to regain his freshman-season form. Connolly is a big guy whose main attribute is that he's, well, a big guy who takes up space. Any offense would be a bonus. Darrow is another who has 3-point ability, and he is a good passer; Darrow is the only player who sees appreciable minutes who has a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Barrett is painfully thin but played more minutes as the season progressed. X-FACTOR: Turnovers bear watching. Maybe it's a cliché, but you'd expect an Ivy League champ to be fundamentally sound and take extremely good care of the ball. But the Tigers have almost as many turnovers as assists. That won't get it done against a talented power-conference opponent. They also don't force that many turnovers THE BUZZ: Princeton's motion offense can be tough to deal with on a short practice schedule. The Tigers are good from 3-point range (37 percent), and the ability to get open looks on the perimeter while running their offense is going to determine whether they pull a first-round upset. If the "3s" are falling, Maddox will have room inside, and that's how Princeton wins games.
RECORD: 24-7 RPI: 22nd RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 5-4 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from the Atlantic 10 COACH: Chris Mack (2-1 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Kenny Frease, 7-0/269, Jr. F Jamel McLean, 6-8/245, Sr. G Tu Holloway, 6-0/185, Jr. G Dante Jackson, 6-5/195, Sr. G Mark Lyons, 6-1/195, Soph. KEY RESERVES F Jeff Robinson, 6-9/219, Soph. F Andrew Taylor, 6-8/215, Sr. G/F Jay Canty, 6-6/203, Fr.
BACKCOURT: In October, the question was whether Xavier could replace star G Jordan Crawford. Tu Holloway - known as Terrell Holloway last season - erased any doubt early. He developed into one of the best players in the country. He had two triple-doubles and was one rebound away from a third - and remember that he's a 6-foot guard. On top of that, Holloway scored in double figures in the second half in 20 of 30 regular-season games. Lyons is a good complement to Holloway - in fact, he's a little like Holloway in that he can score, pass and rebound. Jackson ran hot and cold all season. Beyond those three, Xavier has little backcourt depth. FRONTCOURT: The play of Frease and McLean was a concern for Xavier going into the season, but the duo turned out to be a strength. Xavier was the most dominant rebounding team in the Atlantic 10 by a wide margin. The Musketeers seemingly could count on double-digit rebounds from one or the other. Frease, in particular, improved his conditioning and, for the most part, stayed out of foul trouble. Xavier has solid depth with Robinson and Taylor. X-FACTOR: One of the biggest factors in Xavier's turnaround during the season was improved free-throw shooting in the second half of the season. That's important considering how often Xavier gets to the line. Holloway and Lyons are good free throw shooters, and Frease shoots better than 70 percent. THE BUZZ: Xavier was undermanned to begin the season, and it showed. The Musketeers took some early lumps and started 8-5. Coach Chris Mack said the early schedule toughened his team for the A-10, and it's hard to argue with that assessment. Xavier now looks like a team that could reach its fourth consecutive Sweet 16.
RECORD: 20-14 RPI: 64th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 6-13 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from the Big East COACH: Buzz Williams (1-2 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Chris Otule, 6-10/260, Soph. F/G Jimmy Butler, 6-7/220, Sr. F Erik Williams, 6-7/210, Soph. G Dwight Buycks, 6-3/190, Sr. G Darius Johnson-Odom, 6-2/215, Jr. KEY RESERVES F Jae Crowder, 6-6/225, Jr. F Davante Gardner, 6-8/290, Fr. G Vander Blue, 6-4/190, Fr. G Junior Cadougan, 6-1/205, Soph.
BACKCOURT: Johnson-Odom is a talented lefthander who can score in a variety of ways. He has good range and can hit the 3-pointer, but he also has a nice mid-range game and can get to the basket and finish. Buycks leads the Golden Eagles in assists and has been more consistent than he was last season. Blue was a touted signee who started early in the season, then was moved to the bench. He has struggled with his offense. Cadougan is a pass-first backup point guard. He is not a good offensive player, his performance in the Big East tourney against West Virginia notwithstanding. FRONTCOURT: Butler is one of the better all-around players in the Big East. He has good range but is most effective from 15 feet in. He's deceptively strong and almost always seem to find a way to get his shot off when in the paint. He leads Marquette in points, and is second in rebounds and steals and fourth in assists. He's also used to playing about 37 minutes per game. Williams is a starter in name only. He averages barely seven minutes per game; he's athletic but remains raw on both ends. Otule is a big body who can score around the basket, and he provides a shot-blocking presence. Crowder was a touted JC transfer who has lived up to his billing. He wore down a bit as the season progressed, not surprising considering the tough Big East competition. He has perimeter skills but also hits the boards hard; he is Marquette's leading rebounder as well as a good passer. Gardner has some offensive skills, but needs to drop about 20 pounds before he truly can become effective. X-FACTOR: Marquette has had some trouble winning close games, with seven of their losses coming by five or fewer points and 11 by 10 or fewer. Outside of Butler and Johnson-Odom, this is not a good foul-shooting team. THE BUZZ: Yes, Marquette has a lot of losses, but all but one (to Seton Hall) came to teams in the NCAA tournament. This is a gifted offensive group, as Butler, Johnson-Odom and Crowder of capable of 20-point performances every time out. But the defense sometimes is lacking, and that ultimately is going to determine whether Marquette wins one or two in the tourney.
RECORD: 26-7 RPI: 18th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 10-6 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from the Big East COACH: Jim Boeheim (44-27 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Baye Moussa Keita, 6-10/213, Fr. F Rick Jackson, 6-9/240, Sr. F Kris Joseph, 6-7/210 Jr. G Scoop Jardine, 6-2/190, Jr. G Brandon Triche, 6-4.198, Soph. KEY RESERVES C Fab Melo, 7-0/244, Fr. F C.J. Fair 6-8/203, Fr. G Dion Waiters, 6-4/214, Fr.
BACKCOURT: Jardine came in as a highly touted recruit, but it took him until his fourth year (he redshirted in his second year on campus) to grow into his role. He's one of the best distributors in the Big East, feeding Jackson and Joseph. Triche became a more reliable scorer later in the season. That can't be overlooked as Syracuse struggled to find consistent scoring after its top four. Triche also carried a streak of 29 consecutive made free throws going into the Big East tournament, but the rest of the team struggled from the line. The Orange was last in the league in free-throw shooting. FRONTCOURT: Jackson was the only Big East player to average a double-double during the regular season, and he also led the league in blocks. He's a standout post player who gets most of his points on dunks and easy shots. Joseph stepped into the spot vacated by Wes Johnson and held his own, leading Syracuse in scoring. He's a solid all-around player who can pass and rebound. He also improved his outside game and is one of three Syracuse players with at least 40 3-pointers. Melo was a major recruit, but his playing time dwindled through the course of the season as Syracuse opted for a smaller lineup or the lanky Moussa Keita instead. X-FACTOR: Syracuse finished the regular season in the top three in the Big East in field-goal percentage defense in conference games, but the Orange had its defensive lapses. When the Orange were bad, they were awful during a losing streak to Pitt, Villanova, Seton Hall and Marquette. If Syracuse catches a hot shooting team, the Orange could be vulnerable. THE BUZZ: Syracuse is a wild-card team in the tournament. The Orange were good enough to win 12 Big East games and win on the road. Syracuse had its low points, too, most of which came in late January. If Syracuse is playing defense like it did later in the season and if Jardine and Triche are on top of their games, Syracuse can be a dangerous team in the tournament. If neither happens, Syracuse could be headed for an early exit.
RECORD: 20-13 RPI: 84th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 0-3 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Missouri Valley tourney COACH: Greg Lansing (first NCAA appearance)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Myles Walker, 6-8/250, Jr. F Carl Richard, 6-5/215, Jr. G Aaron Carter, 6-4/195, Sr. G Dwayne Lathan, 6-3/205, Jr. G Jake Odum, 6-4/170, R-Fr. KEY RESERVES F R.J. Mahurin, 6-8/210, R-Fr. F Isiah Martin, 6-8/220, Sr. G Jake Kelly, 6-6/185, Sr. G Jordan Printy, 6-4/185, Jr. G Steve McWhorter, 6-2/185, Fr.
BACKCOURT: Lathan, who began his career at Louisiana Tech, is the Sycamores' leading scorer. He averages 11.0 points and is the only Indiana State player in double figures. He's a good athlete who can get to the rim. He's a good rebounder but is careless with the ball. Odum has been a revelation as a redshirt freshman. He's a wiry guy who is a good passer and solid defender, though his offense remains a work-in-progress. Carter and Printy share time as the designated outside shooter; together they've made 99 3-pointers, which is 43.4 percent of the team's total. Carter is a more well-rounded offensive player and can get to the basket. He's excellent from the line. Printy has attempted 104 3-pointers - and four free throws. Printy has great range but is a one-dimensional player. Kelly began his career at Iowa and injury issues have curtailed his effectiveness. McWhorter isn't an offensive threat, but he is a good distributor and on-ball defender. FRONTCOURT: Richard is undersized but generally gets the job done. He's a tenacious rebounder and an excellent foul shooter. Walker is a JC transfer who is the only Sycamore to start every game. He's a big body who is asked to rebound and play defense. He has limited offensive skills and is atrocious (39.7 percent) from the line. Mahurin has a nice outside stroke, and Martin isn't afraid to bang in the paint. X-FACTOR: The Sycamores have more turnovers than assists, and any hope of a first-round upset is going to go by the boards unless they care good care of the ball. They're going to draw an athletic opponent in the first round, and they can't afford to give up cheap baskets off turnovers in transition. THE BUZZ: The Sycamores were the surprise winners of the Missouri Valley tourney. They are all about defense for coach Greg Lansing, who is in his first season; he was promoted from his job as an assistant when Kevin McKenna left to become an assistant to Dana Altman at Oregon. Indiana State allowed more than 70 points 10 times this season and lost eight of those games. The Sycamores need to control the tempo and keep the score in the high 50s/low 60s to have a shot at the first-round upset.
RECORD: 23-10 RPI: 32nd RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 5-5 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Pac-10 tourney COACH: Lorenzo Romar (7-6 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Aziz N'Diaye, 7-0/260, Soph. F Matthew Bryan-Amaning, 6-9/240, Sr. F Justin Holiday, 6-6/185, Sr. G Venoy Overton, 6-0/185, Sr. G Isaiah Thomas, 5-9/185, Jr. KEY RESERVES F Darnell Gant, 6-8/225, Jr. G Terrence Ross 6-6/190, Fr. G C.J. Wilcox, 6-5/190, Fr.
BACKCOURT: Since sophomore Abdul Gaddy's season-ending knee injury, Thomas has thrived as Washington's primary ballhandler. He averaged 16.6 points and 5.2 assists in the regular season, making better decisions on when to shoot and when to distribute than he had in the past. The rest of the guards fill a particular niche. Overton is a fierce on-ball defender who has battled injuries this season. Wilcox is a dangerous spot-up shooter. Ross is an athletic, slashing wing. FRONTCOURT: The primary low-post scoring threat is Bryan-Amaning, who won the Pac-10's most improved player award after almost doubling his scoring average to 16.0 points. He provides back-to-the-basket scoring, but his focus can drift at times and he has a frustrating habit of missing short shots around the rim. N'Diaye provides Washington with the size and shot-blocking it recently had lacked, though the junior college transfer is raw offensively, prone to foul trouble and scores most of his points on lobs or putbacks. The long-armed, athletic Holiday is the most versatile player on the team. He is a proven perimeter defender and made strides earlier this season as a shooter and scorer, but he tailed off at the end of the regular season. Gant adds a physical presence off the bench. X-FACTOR: Injuries and off-court distractions have prevented Overton from being the pesky on-ball defender or transition scorer that he'd been, but perhaps he can regain his previous form in the NCAA tournament. It would help because Washington is at its best when it forces turnovers and scores on the fast break rather than relying on its oft-wayward halfcourt offense. THE BUZZ: Instead of running away with the Pac-10 title, as they were expected to do, the Huskies lost seven conference games, finished a distant third and seemed to regress in the final month of the conference season. It's possible Washington delivers a lackluster performance in Round 1 and goes out with a whimper, but the Huskies could be a scary second-round opponent because they're athletic, experienced and capable of scoring in bunches.
RECORD: 21-11 RPI: 47th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 3-9 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from the SEC COACH: Mark Fox (1-3 NCAA tournament record).
PROBABLE STARTERS F Trey Thompkins, 6-10/245, Jr. F Jeremy Price, 6-8/264, Sr. G/F Travis Leslie, 6-4/202, Jr. G Gerald Robinson, 6-1/180, Jr. G Dustin Ware, 5-11/182, Jr. KEY RESERVES F Chris Barnes, 6-8/240, Sr. G Sherrard Brantley, 6-2/190, Soph.
BACKCOURT: Leslie might be the best athlete in college basketball. He can jump out of the gym, is a good rebounder and also is a surprisingly good passer. But most of his offensive damage comes from 12 feet in. While his outside shooting is highly suspect, he is good from the line, hitting 80.2 percent. Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State, has had a solid first season with the Bulldogs, though he wore down a bit in the final month. He's a solid defender with a nice mid-range game; his 3-point shooting is poor, though. Ware has a great assist-to-turnover ratio (3.1-to-1) and is - by far - the best 3-point shooter on the team; truthfully, he is the only Bulldog who should be allowed to shoot from beyond the arc. Ware is excellent from the line, too, though his lack of size can lead to some issues on defense. Brantley is a 3-point "specialist." But there's a problem: He barely hit 30 percent of his attempts. FRONTCOURT: Thompkins was the SEC's preseason player of the year but had a slightly disappointing season. He leads the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding, but didn't always flash the potential that is expected to make him an NBA lottery pick. He has a nice outside stroke, but he should worry about making 15-footers, not 23-footers. Price is a big body who isn't afraid to bump and grind. He is adept at drawing contact and getting to the lane, and has a surprisingly nice touch from the line (76.1 percent). Barnes is a big body off the bench who provides some rebounding ability; he is not an offensive factor. X-FACTOR: If Ware isn't hitting his 3-pointers, Georgia has trouble scoring from the perimeter. This is not a team that relies on 3-pointers (the Bulldogs make just 4.7 per game), but no one really is a perimeter weapon other than Ware. BUZZ: Georgia has some big-time athletes and those guys can play stifling defense at times. In Leslie and Thompkins, the Bulldogs have two legit college stars. But for whatever reason, the Bulldogs stumbled often down the stretch. They could win one tourney game, but expecting them to get to the second weekend is too much.
RECORD: 26-7 RPI: 6th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 8-5 HOW THEY GOT HERE: At-large selection from the ACC COACH: Roy Williams (55-18 NCAA tournament record)
PROBABLE STARTERS C Tyler Zeller, 7-0/250, Jr. F Harrison Barnes, 6-8/210, Fr. F John Henson, 6-10/210, Soph. G Kendall Marshall, 6-3/186, Fr. G Dexter Strickland, 6-3/180, Soph. KEY RESERVES F Justin Knox, 6-9/240, Sr. F Justin Watts, 6-4/210, Jr. G Reggie Bullock, 6-7/190, Fr. G Leslie McDonald, 6-4/215, Soph.
BACKCOURT: North Carolina has been a different team since Marshall took over at point guard. A deft passer, Marshall knows how to get his teammates involved. He led the ACC in assists per game during the regular season, when the Tar Heels won 12 of the 13 games he started (by an average of 10.5 points). Strickland is primarily a two-guard, but he also will spell Marshall at the point and is a solid defender. McDonald showed good shooting touch down the stretch and is UNC's leading scorer off the bench. Bullock arrived with the reputation as a scorer, but has struggled with his shot. FRONTCOURT: There haven't been many - if any - freshmen in recent memory who had as much pressure to deliver as Barnes, who was selected to the Preseason AP All-America first team before ever playing a game. While Barnes didn't live up to the hype - who could? - he did lead all ACC freshmen in scoring and started to find his range down the stretch, including a 40-point effort against Clemson in the ACC tournament. Henson was voted Yahoo! Sports' Defensive Player of the Year; he's a force inside, blocking an ACC-high 94 shots (second in UNC history) during the regular season. He's also averaged a double-double in points and rebounds. Zeller led UNC in scoring and the ACC in field-goal percentage. He's athletic and a standout defender. Knox, a transfer from Alabama who received a waiver from the NCAA to play this season, gives the Tar Heels key minutes off the bench. Watts is undersized for a forward but is excellent on the offensive boards and is a solid defender. X-FACTOR: Marshall has been a difference-maker for the Tar Heels, but he's still just a freshman playing in his first NCAA tournament. And he's playing a lot, in the neighborhood of 35 minutes per game since taking over full-time at point guard. No freshman point guard before Marshall had ever played 35 minutes in a regulation game during the Roy Williams era. Will Marshall wear down? Will he be able to handle the pressures of March Madness? He'll have to if these Tar Heels are going to make a long run. THE BUZZ: After an embarrassing 20-point loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 16, North Carolina was 12-5 and thoughts of missing a second consecutive NCAA tournament looked like a real possibility. But the Tar Heels closed strong, and Williams' team has a real chance to end the season at the Final Four. Marshall deserves credit, as do Barnes, Henson and Zeller. But Williams deserves the most credit. The offseason losses (especially the Wear twins transferring) and Larry Drew II's decision to leave in midseason could have sent the Heels into a funk. Instead, it had the opposite effect - and that's coaching.
RECORD: 27-5 RPI: 75th RECORD VS. NCAA FIELD: 0-1 HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Northeast Conference tourney COACH: Jim Ferry (first NCAA appearance)
PROBABLE STARTERS F Julian Boyd, 6-7/220, Soph. F Jamal Olasewere, 6-7/210, Soph. G C.J. Garner, 5-10/160, Jr. G David Hicks, 6-1/195, Sr. G Kyle Johnson, 6-5/210, Sr. KEY RESERVES F Kenny Onyechi, 6-7/225, Soph. G Jason Brickman, 5-10/165, Fr. G Michael Culpo, 6-1/180, Jr.
BACKCOURT: All five guards listed play key roles for the Blackbirds, who prefer an up-tempo pace and average 82.6 points per game. All the guards except Garner are proficient from 3-point range, with Brickman, Culpo and Johnson all hitting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc. Brickman and Hicks are good free-throw shooters, but the other three are just so-so. Brickman, one of three Texans who plays a key role, has an almost 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and is an excellent distributor; he plays starter's minutes off the bench. Garner is the best defender among the group, and Johnson is a solid rebounder, especially on the offensive end. FRONTCOURT: Olasewere and Boyd are the Blackbirds' top two scorers and both do their work in the paint, leaving the perimeter for LIU's guards. Olasewere has the athleticism to be a big-time defender, but he commits way too many silly fouls as a result of over-aggressiveness. He also can be sloppy with the ball and can be forced into turnovers. Boyd, who missed last season with a heart problem, is physical and averages 8.8 rebounds per game. Onyechi is athletic and provides a defensive presence. X-FACTOR: LIU's schedule wasn't that tough and the Blackbirds played just one Big Six opponent, losing by 16 at Northwestern. LIU is athletic by Northeast Conference standards, but what happens when they run into a good team from a power conference? THE BUZZ: LIU has to have a fast pace. LIU's big guys can run the court, but they're not bulky and can be overpowered in the halfcourt. The Blackbirds' lack of bulk is going to hurt in the tourney. LIU has been able to force the pace all season, but when the Blackbirds are slowed down, they struggle. They were held under 70 points just four times all season, and lost three of those games; in addition, they averaged 69.8 points in their five losses, almost 13 points under their season average. If they are allowed to play at their pace, LIU can make things interesting against a "major" opponent, though, especially if the 3-pointers are falling.
- MIKE HUGUENIN
THE FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS
1. Ohio State vs. 16. TBD 2. N. Carolina vs. 15. LIU 3. Syracuse vs. 14. Indiana St. 4. Kentucky vs. 13. Princeton
5. W. Virginia vs. 12. TBD 6. Xavier vs. 11. Marquette 7. Washington vs. 10. Georgia 8. Geo. Mason vs. 9. 'Nova