Team to Beat: Top-seed, Pittsburgh Panthers
The Southeast is the most wide open region in the 2011 NCAA Tournament and that’s because it features a little bit of everything.
There are a few over-seeded teams (Florida, Butler), under-seeded teams (Wisconsin), overachievers (St. John’s, UCLA), underachievers (Kansas State, Michigan State), and one wild card (BYU minus Brandon Davies).
But standing atop a bracket of instability is Jamie Dixon’s Pitt Panthers, a model of consistency throughout the season. The Panthers started off 19-1 before finishing 27-5 and outright champions of the Big East.
This group has been through its share of battles, as Dixon’s top five players are juniors and seniors looking to shed their label as tournament chokers. Pitt has been a force the past three seasons, but has failed to make it out of the first weekend twice.
Sandwiched in between was a heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the final seconds of the 2009 Elite 8, a game it was favored to win.
The Panthers couldn’t have been rewarded a better draw than the one they’re in, and it’s time Dixon, Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, and Co. deliver. They have all the goods necessary. Pittsburgh is a great shooting team (47 percent from the field, 39 percent from three), a dominant rebounding team, and very physical defensively.
Its average margin of victory is currently a comfortable plus-13, which is impressive considering the competition the Panthers have endured.
With this being the last hurrah for program staples Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee, it’s now or never for Dixon and the Panthers to reach a Final Four.
Bracketbuster (6-16 seed that could wreak havoc): 10-seed, Michigan State Spartans
There are a number of possibilities here, but it has to be the Spartans. Six months ago, Tom Izzo’s empire was No. 1 or No. 2 in the country depending on what publication you were reading.
But multiple injuries to key players, a grueling schedule, and two starter expulsions later, MSU is forced to settle for being a bracketbuster.
This could be a good thing after a year of not living up to heavy expectations. The pressure is off, and for once, no one is expecting much from the Spartans in March. However, looking at their draw, a deep run is in the realm of possibility.
UCLA is a young, overachieving team that has to fly across the country to face this tournament’s most experienced group. The senior class of Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Mike Kebler have an 11-3 record in the NCAA Tournament, which includes two trips to the Final Four. No one in the field can claim the same.
If the Spartans can get past the Bruins, they would likely play the No. 2 seed, Florida, for the right to play in a fourth consecutive Sweet 16. Michigan State isn’t a world beater this season, but the Gators are arguably the most over-seeded team in the tournament. They can be had, and the physical Spartans matchup well with finesse Florida.
Michigan State has the best coach in Izzo, one of the nation’s most versatile players in Draymond Green, and the second best player in the Southeast region (behind Jimmer) in Kalin Lucas. If it can get Summers, who averaged 19 points per game during last year’s run to the Final Four, rolling, another deep run isn’t out of the question.
Most Likely to be Upset (1-5 seed sent home in first weekend): 2-seed, Florida Gators
The Gators don’t have the resume or the look of your average No. 2 seed. They had early season losses to Central Florida and Jacksonville, and just three wins against teams ranked in the top-20.
Florida’s best win came in a Feb. 5 home game against Kentucky, by the score of 70-68. The problem with that is the Wildcats beat Florida twice over the next five weeks, which makes you wonder just how ready for elite competition the Gators are.
They have two solid guards in Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, and Chandler Parsons is a stud. But coach Billy Donovan has a thin rotation, playing only seven guys on most nights.
The Gators aren’t great in any one area. They rank 98th nationally in scoring, 49th in rebounding, 51st in field goal percentage, and shoot poorly from the foul line (67 percent) and from range (35 percent). That Florida finished 26-7 and ran away with the SEC is either a testament to the job Donovan has done this season, or an indictment of the SEC.
I’m going with the latter, and I expect the Gators to be extinct by the end of the first weekend.
Best Player: Jimmer Fredette, BYU Cougars
This one really isn’t up for debate. Fredette has dominated college basketball this year to the point where he has become his own entity.
There are a number of viable candidates for National Player of the Year, but none stands a chance against Jimmer. Fredette’s averaging a nation-best 28.5 points, 4.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and is shooting 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from three despite constantly being hounded by two defenders.
He has scored under 20 points just four times, all double digit wins for BYU, while going over 30 points 13 times. He scored 40-plus three times in a stretch of four January games, and maxed out with a high of 52 against New Mexico on March 11.
All of his efforts helped lead BYU to one of the greatest seasons in school history—a 30-4 finish, a Mountain West Conference championship, and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA’s. Unfortunately, his run is likely going to be cut short thanks to the odd suspension of Davies.
Let’s hope for the game’s sake that Jimmer has an extended stay.
Best Coach: Tom Izzo, Michigan State Spartans
Overall record: 383-160
NCAA Tournament record: 35-12
Final Fours: 6 (1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010)
National Championships: 1 (2000)
The Pick: Pittsburgh over Michigan State
The last time these two teams met was in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, a 65-54 Michigan State win.
Lucas, Summers, Wanamaker, McGhee, and Brown were all freshmen at the time. Lucas was the only contributor in the game, scoring 19 points to help the Spartans advance.
He’ll have to score that and maybe more for Michigan State to win this time. The fact is the Panthers are deeper, more talented, and physically and mentally tougher than the Spartans.
Izzo has won 10 consecutive games against Big East teams in the tournament, an impressive run that will stop here. Dixon, one of the finest and most upstanding coaches in college basketball finally gets his due.
Pittsburgh joins Kansas, Texas, and Kentucky in Houston hoping to win the first basketball championship in school history.
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