The West Region: Can UConn Survive?

jonathan staub@JStaubSportTalkCorrespondent IMarch 18, 2009

If you are looking for poetic justice, look no further than the West Region.

Memphis was lobbying for a No. 1 seed since they wrapped up yet another Conference USA Tournament. After UConn, the region’s No. 1, fell to Syracuse in six overtimes, the whispers began across the nation that the Huskies lost their handle on a top seed.

Based on the overall body of work, experts across the nation agree that UConn was deserving of a No. 1 seed.

That is, of course, excluding experts in the state of Tennessee.

If there could have been a fifth No. 1 seed, it would be safe to say that it would have been Memphis. Where people will argue over who was more deserving, UConn or Memphis, the committee got it right by putting them in the same region.

A potential Elite Eight matchup looms for the Huskies and Tigers in what should one of the harder regions to figure out.

UConn (27-4, 15-3) has been hurting since the loss of Jerome Dyson, but A.J. Price has filled in admirably in his absence. Price has stepped up his game, and having the Co-Big East Player of the Year in Hasheem Thabeet blocking 4.5 shots a game certainly helps.

UConn holds strong victories over Louisville and Villanova, but two losses to Pittsburgh laid the foundation of the blueprint for attacking the big man in the middle. Against elite competition, such as Pitt, Price has shown that he is not enough. The Huskies are a championship caliber team with, or without, Dyson. It is up to the rest of the Connecticut squad to step up their game.

Memphis(31-3, 16-0) stampeded through yet another Conference USA season. They have won 3,403 consecutive conference games—OK maybe not that much—but they are clearly the class of the mid-major conferences. Memphis is a hard team to judge, as they are not as battle tested as some, but one can’t argue with their depth of talent.

Memphis fell early in the season to Syracuse, but holds wins over Gonzaga and Tennessee. The Tigers haven’t lost since Christmas, and show no signs of slowing down since freshman point guard Tyreke Evans took over.

Memphis boasts the nation’s best field goal percentage defense, and with better foul shooting this year, should be a Final Four threat again.

There are several teams to watch in this bracket. There are at least three teams capable of making deep runs, despite the intimidation of UConn and Memphis lurking.

Missouri (28-6, 12-4) won their first Big XII Conference Tournament this season. They are the region’s No. 3 seed, and matchup well with UConn and Memphis. The Tigers are big, deep, and quick. They have two solid seniors in Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll.

Mizzou is going virtually unnoticed by a lot of people across the nation. With Blake Griffin and a surprising Kansas team stealing most of the publicity out of the Big XII, Missouri has put together one of the best seasons of any team in the country.

Missouri holds victories over Oklahoma, Kansas, and Oklahoma St. (twice). If they can keep their focus on the defensive end, they have a strong chance to make a deep run.

There are three potential upset alerts in this bracket that are worth keeping an eye on.

Utah State (30-4, 14-2) is a legit threat to upset Marquette (24-9, 12-6) in the first round. Utah State is the region’s No. 11 seed, Marquette the No. 6, and they are catching the Golden Eagles in an absolute free fall.

Marquette has not been the same since Dominic James broke his foot. Utah State is a fundamentally sound basketball team that limits mistakes. Gary Wilkinson of Utah State is one of the better interior players in the country. Wilkinson matches up well against a small Marquette squad, and should have a big game if the Aggies can find him underneath.

Another game to keep an eye on involves a hot team from down south that just won the SEC Tournament.

Mississippi State (23-12, 9-7) played their way into the tournament by winning their conference tournament. The Bulldogs were the SEC’s top three-point shooting team this season.

They are hot at the right time, and if their big man Jarvis Varnado, who led the SEC in blocks, is on, this team is hard to beat.

Washington (25-8, 14-4) is the region’s No. 4 seed. The Pac 10’s highest scoring offense will rely heavily on Justin Dentmon and Isaiah Thomas to lead them past Miss. State.

One of the nation’s top 10 rebounders, Jon Brockman, will look to isolate Jarvis Varnado down low.

The Huskies allow very few second chance points. The Bulldogs are easily playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. This game will be a good one to watch as it has upset written all over it.

The last upset alert to turn your attention to involves another conference champion, the Big Ten Champion, only they are the team that could be on the wrong end of the upset.

Purdue (25-9, 11-7), the region’s No. 5, has a tough draw in Northern Iowa (23-10, 14-4). The Panthers have a lot of weapons in Ali Farokhmanesh, Adam Koch, and Kwadzo Ahelegbe. They also have a formidable force inside with 7’1” shot-blocker Jordan Eglseder.

The Boilermakers underachieved this year, but are rounding into shape at the right time. Robbie Hummel appears to be getting healthier by the day, and JaJuan Johnson should provide the answer to Jordan Eglseder down low.

Purdue is a well-rounded team, with balance all over, but it could prove to be the weapons of Northern Iowa, topped off with their outstanding free-throw shooting, that dooms the Big Ten Champs.

The winners of the No. 8-No. 9, BYU and Texas A&M, and No.7-No.10, California and Maryland, will have daunting tasks awaiting them in UConn and Memphis.

BYU (25-7, 12-4) gets most of their scoring from the outside. Lee Cummard, Jinner Fredette, and Jonathan Tavernari lead the BYU charge. The Cougars are typically a solid outside shooting team, they will have their troubles against a team with athletic men on the perimeter.

Texas A&M (23-9, 9-7) has the size to matchup with anyone in the country. They made their season by playing tough half-court defense and banging for rebounds down low. They could pose a tough match-up for UConn in the second round, whether or not they have the athleticism to hang with BYU is yet to be seen.

Cal (22-10, 11-7) led the nation in three-point shooting. Their trio of Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson, and Patrick Christopher are as good as any three in the country. Without any senior leadership it is hard seeing this team make a deep run. The Golden Bears are also spotty on defense at times which could pose problems against their first round opponent.

Maryland(20-13, 7-9) is led by Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez has turned in some of the best performances of 2009. He led the Terps to an upset of North Carolina and Michigan State. He was outstanding in both games, especially the North Carolina game, where he turned in only the third triple-double in school history.

Maryland will go as far as Vasquez takes them. If he plays like he did against the Heels and Spartans, Maryland could wind up being the most dangerous double-digit seeded team in the tourney. Vasquez also has been known to disappear at times. When this happens the Terps are doomed to failure. Maryland lost to Duke three times, as well as several other ACC bottom-feeders.

The No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, and No. 13 seeded teams in this bracket all have a chance to advance to the second round, and perhaps even further. This will be the most exciting bracket to watch as it is completely up for grabs. I would not be surprised to find a double digit seed enter the Elite Eight out of this bracket.

The committee nailed it by putting UConn and Memphis together. Where they succeeded in creating this potential matchup, they also failed. It seems almost too perfect that these two would have a chance to battle it out for a trip to Detroit.

Keep an eye on Missouri, this team has been flying under the radar all season. They are the best team in the country that no one is talking about.


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