The Field of 65: Wildcats, Cougars and Orange, Oh My!
Welcome to the second of four preliminary Field of 65 blogs. This is not meant to be a predictor, but a primer. Trust me, you don't want to take prediction advice from me.
What do you want to see from Going Into Overtime this postseason? Do these previews have any glaring omissions? Let your e-voice be heard in the comments section below.
Today, the West Region:
The West Region of the 2010 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament does not match the overall talent level of the Midwest, the parity between top seeds of the South or the strong low seeds of the East. But it does include the nation's best mid-major in Butler, a hip upset pick in Murray State over Vanderbilt, and a potentially epic matchup between Kansas State and BYU.
Most Compelling Matchup
Vanderbilt-Murray State has 13-over-4 upset written all over it, but the 5-against-12 Butler-UTEP matchup is more intriguing. Butler has solidified its standing as the best mid-major in the country and found a place in KenPom.com's top 30 by winning 20 straight games and posting a 28-4 overall record this season.
Versatile forward Gordon Hayward would have posted some of the nation's best offensive statistics had his three-point percentage not fallen from 44.8 percent in 2009 to 29.5 percent in 2010. On the plus side, the 6-foot-9 sophomore improved in almost every other measurable category from his freshman year. Forward Matt Howard is not the All-American some thought him to be at the beginning of the season, but he leads a host of solid role players for the Bulldogs. Butler's problem lies in the fact that it has only faced one good team since late December. In fairness, the Bulldogs defeated a solid Siena squad in that Feb. 20 Bracket Busters tilt, but a conference slate headlined by Wright State (KenPom No. 71) is cause for concern. Butler went 2-3 this season against teams ranked better than UTEP's No. 34 KenPom mark, but all of those games came in the first month-plus of the campaign.
http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2010/Mar/16/butler.jpg Butler forward Gordon Hayward splits the Siena defense — AP Photo
Despite a Conference USA Tournament slip-up against Houston, UTEP is no slouch. The Miners went on a 16-game conference winning streak of their own, in the process defeating Memphis (No. 51), Marshall (No. 68), UAB twice (No. 67) and Tulsa thrice (No. 79). Look out for diminutive guard Randy Culpepper, who has converted 58.9 percent of his two-point attempts despite his 165-pound frame. The Miners play fast and the Bulldogs play slow so this one could look interesting on the court and the scoreboard.
Most Compelling POTENTIAL Matchup
No. 2-seed Kansas State against No. 7-seed BYU, second round.
BYU outscored its conference competition at a better per-possession rate than any other team in the nation's top 11 conferences (more info on that at Basketball Prospectus). The Cougars dominated the Mountain West Conference thoroughly enough to stay in KenPom's Top 10 for most of the season and end up at No. 7. KU fans know a lot about Kansas State, an exceptionally tough team stocked with great rebounders and a veteran backcourt. At face value, the Big 12 runner-up would seem an easy favorite against the Mountain West runner-up. But keep in mind, BYU has been a statistical juggernaut in a conference that sends four teams to the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Thirteenth-seeded Murray State played a weak schedule but finished 30-4 and lost only one game by more than six points. The Racers went 17-1 in Ohio Valley Conference play and toppled a solid Morehead State squad in the conference championship. Of the eight Racers to play at least 35 percent of the team's minutes, none created less than 1 point per possession this season. Murray State is balanced (five players use between 20 and 23 percent of team possessions), accurate from inside the arc (55.3 percent on two-point attempts) and tenacious on defense (nation's 6th best Steal Rate).
Fourth-seeded Vanderbilt is overrated. The Commodores rank 37th in KenPom's standings, bogged down by losing two of their past three games. Aside from its two losses against Kentucky, Vanderbilt has lost only to teams ranked 41st or worse by KenPom. Posts A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor are solid, but the Commodores do not force turnovers or play defense at elite levels.
The Region's Best...
The West Region boasts an especially strong complement of guards and small forwards, the best of which is Syracuse's Wesley Johnson. Johnson fits nicely as a cog in a fairly balanced Orange offense, but he's a sure bet for several standout plays per game. The wing is a delight to watch: A very good three-point shooter with athleticism and dunking ability to spare. Butler's Hayward, Kansas State point guard Jacob Pullen and BYU point guard Jimmer Fredette also deserve mention.
http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2010/Mar/16/wes.jpg Wesley Johnson showing why he's the region's best player — AP Photo
Syracuse Orange — Color? Fruit? Ambiguity abounds.
Vanderbilt Commodores — Just take a look at this list of neat stuff to which the word 'Commodore' refers.
Minnesota Golden Gophers/Oakland Golden Grizzlies - Odd that these two groups of alliterative critters would end up in the same region.
North Texas Mean Green — This wins because a) meanness b) rhymability.
The Selection Committee got this one correct: Top-seeded Syracuse is the best team in the region. If center Arinze Onuaku is indeed missing due to injury this weekend, forward Rick Jackson should pick up the slack while Johnson and Andy Rautins handle the perimeter. Don't count out either Kansas State or BYU, depending on which emerges from the bottom of the bracket.