South RegionLoaded with talent at the guard position, the South Region promises to have some exciting up-tempo games. If the bracket shakes out and the top two seeds face off in the regional final, it will pit Memphis against Texas. Memphis has lost in the Elite Eight in the last two years, and things will not be any easier for them this time around if they have to face the Longhorns: The game would be played in Houston.

Final Four Contenders:

emphis

At 16-0 in Conference USA and 33-1 overall, the Memphis Tigers are the only team to enter the NCAA Tournament with 30 or more wins in three straight years. The 2005-06 and 2006-07 Tiger teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, and this season, the top-seeded Tigers look forward to making the team’s first appearance in the Final Four since 1985.

emphis was nearly perfect this season, dropping only a single game, a 66-62 loss to Tennessee on Feb. 23, as they ran the table in the Conference USA regular season and tournament. Despite a lackluster conference slate, Memphis owns key wins over Connecticut, Georgetown, Oklahoma, USC, Arizona and Gonzaga. In a competitive and deep South Region, Memphis will rely on the ability of freshman guard Derrick Rose to penetrate and create opportunities for his teammates to score. Junior 6-foot-7 guard Chris Douglas-Roberts complements Rose nicely to form a potent backcourt for the top seed. Douglas-Roberts averages 17.2 points and 4.1 rebounds a game. At 6-foot-9 and 265 pounds, senior Joey Dorsey is the team’s enforcer inside. The Baltimore, Md., product averages 9.6 rebounds a game but frequently battles trouble with fouls. Memphis will be tested early on in a difficult second-round matchup with either Mississippi State or Oregon, and a possible Sweet 16 bout with Michigan State or Pittsburgh.

Texas

It was not expected that after freshman phenom Kevin Durant departed last season the Longhorns would be much better. But the emergence of a lights-out backcourt and a competent post game helped propel the Longhorns to a school-record 26 victories in the regular season and a share of the Big 12 championship. The Longhorns got off to an impressive 11-0 start this season with early wins over top-flight teams like Tennessee and UCLA, and after a slight rough patch at the beginning of the conference slate, Texas rebounded to take 10 of its last 11 in the regular season.

At 28-6 overall and 13-3 in the Big 12, the Big 12 tournament runner-up is led by all-everything sophomore guard D.J. Augustin, who leads the team in scoring (19.8) and assists (5.7). Junior guard A.J. Abrams is a deadly shooter who connected on 89 threes this season, and sophomore forward Damion James provides some muscle in the paint, averaging a double-double at 12.9 points per game and 10.7 rebounds. Texas should find little trouble in advancing to the Sweet 16 with a first-round cupcake in Austin Peay and a likely second-round tussle with Miami (Fla.).

Pittsburgh

The Panthers are flying high as they enter the postseason after capturing four games in four days to win the Big East tournament over Georgetown. A team as resilient as any in this field, the Panthers were left for dead after losing senior forward Mike Cook for the season and junior guard Levance Fields until mid February, but Pitt managed to stay afloat by winning seven of its next 13.

It was thought that the return of Fields would aid the Panthers, but the opposite occurred and Pittsburgh spiraled downward, dropping five out of their last eight before the Big East tournament. But, in the Big Apple, Pitt rode the strong play of tournament MVP Sam Young, who totaled 80 points and 28 rebounds over the course of the tournament, to capture the title. Pitt will rely heavily on Young and freshman forward DeJuan Blair, who averages 11.1 points per game and 9.1 rebounds if the team hopes to emerge out of the South. A possible second round matchup with Michigan State would provide a tough early test.

Sleeper:

ichigan State

The preseason Big Ten favorite takes its place in the tournament as a No. 5 seed with a first round matchup against Atlantic 10 Tournament champion Temple. The Spartans returned all five starters this season, including senior leader Drew Neitzel. MSU got off to a blazing 19-2 beginning and rose to a No. 7 national ranking before a rough February hit and the team dropped four of seven contests. The Spartans lost five of their last six road contests, but MSU played well in the Big Ten tournament before bowing out to eventual champion Wisconsin, 65-63. Coach Tom Izzo has a history of having his team prepared for the tournament, and it would not be surprising to see the Spartans fulfill preseason hype when the money is on the line.

Top Five Players:

1. Chris Douglas-Roberts, G, Memphis – The junior guard is an exceptional rebounder and the emotional leader of the top-seeded Tigers.

2. D.J. Augustin, G, Texas – Augustin is perhaps the most valuable player in the region to his team. Texas runs its offense through the sophomore, and Augustin, who has no true backup, has become the floor leader for the second-seeded Horns.

3. Brook Lopez, C, Stanford – The sophomore seven-footer who was suspended until mid-December is a redwood in the middle for the third-seeded Cardinals. Lopez averages nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds a game.

4. Dionte Christmas, G, Temple – The junior guard was the leading scorer in the A-10 at 20.2 points per game, and Christmas has had his best games against the finest competition (23 against Xavier, 32 against Florida and 23 against Duke).

5. Drew Neitzel, G, Michigan State – The senior led the Big Ten in assist to turnover ratio (3.07) and ranked seventh in scoring (13.4 points per game). Neitzel made six three-pointers en route to a 67-60 win over Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

West Region

The West is headlined by two of the most storied programs in college basketball history: top-seeded UCLA and second-seeded Duke. This is a bracket that also includes unpredictable teams from the nation’s major conferences (Xavier, Connecticut, Purdue), bubble teams that many believe should not even be in the tournament (Arizona, Baylor), a team that won as many games in its conference tournament as it did during its conference season (Georgia) and an unlikely group that is heading to the dance for the first time since the Nixon administration (Drake). On the surface, it appears that UCLA has a relatively clear road to the Final Four in San Antonio, with Duke being labeled as the worst of the No. 2 seeds and Xavier and UConn struggling of late.

Final Four Contenders:

UCLA

The Bruins enter the tournament looking to become the first team to advance to three consecutive final fours since Michigan State accomplished the feat from 1998-2000. Although they are on a 10-game winning streak, UCLA has won four of its past six games by three points or less, including controversial narrow escapes against California and Stanford.

Led by a couple of all-Americans, double-double machine Kevin Love and junior guard Darren Collison, the Bruins have the necessary combination of a dominating post presence and a battle-tested ball-handler to reach the Alamo Dome. Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook provide additional double-digit scoring averages and athleticism, while the team boasts the nation’s 10th-best scoring defense. Free-throw shooting, an extremely important factor in March, is also one of the Bruins’ strengths.

Duke

After a first-round exit from last year’s tournament, the Blue Devils now have their chance to regain their usual March magic. They enter the dance as the West’s two seed, although they are 5-4 in their last nine games, including a loss to Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. Duke is capable of shooting from all spots on the floor, with DeMarcus Nelson, Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer all shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc. Like UCLA, the Blue Devils have received a favorable half of the bracket from the selection committee, and they should be favored to reach the regional final.

Coupled with Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s trademark defensive intensity, Duke’s offensive fire power allows them to have the chance to beat most teams on a given night. One notable weakness for the Blue Devils is their lack of a true post player, a deficiency that could cost them should they see Kevin Love and the Bruins or Hasheem Thabeet and UConn down the road.

Sleeper:

Baylor

The Bears were the last team announced in the field of 65 and they will be making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1988. Following NCAA sanctions in 2003 and the murder of Patrick Dennehy, the Baylor basketball program was in complete shambles. This year’s tournament berth is especially sweet for the Bears and the university community.

Curtis Jerrells, LaceDarius Dunn, Henry Dugat and Tweety Carter lead a perimeter attack that was tops in the Big 12 in three-point field goals made per game and free-throw percentage. They lost to Texas twice only by a combined 13 points and defeated the likes of Notre Dame, Kansas State and USC. Though they have no inside presence to speak of, neither Purdue, their first-round opponent, nor Xavier, their likely second-round opponent, dominate inside. The benefits of a “feel good” story, a favorable draw as a No. 11 seed in the weak West Region and superior guard play could very well carry Baylor into the Sweet 16.

Top Five Players

1. Kevin Love, C, UCLA – A certifiable player of the year candidate as a freshman, he averaged 17.1 points and 10.6 rebounds for a Bruin team that has reached the Final Four in each of the past two years. Can Love, an athletic post player who can shoot the three, be the x-factor for UCLA’s title run?

2. Darren Collison, G, UCLA – After dealing with an injury during the early part of the season, this second-team all-American is back to full strength and will provide the Bruins with a go-to guy down the stretch. His 15.2 points per game was second on the team only to Love.

3. Joe Alexander, F, West Virginia – The junior burst onto the scene late in the season during a four-game stretch in which he averaged over 30 points per game. He led the Mountaineers in scoring and rebounding and engineered an upset of Connecticut in the Big East tournament. If he remains hot, Alexander could lead West Virginia past Duke in a potential second-round clash.

4. DeMarcus Nelson, G/F, Duke – Nelson has been an impact player for the Blue Devils in all four of his years in Durham and is the unquestioned floor leader for Coach K’s team. He is Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder as well as a skilled three-point shooter. Nelson will need to have a huge tournament for Duke to emerge from the West.

5. Jerryd Bayless, G, Arizona – Arizona’s leading scorer (20.0 points per game) is another of the nation’s extremely talented freshmen. Of the four games Bayless missed due to injury, the Wildcats lost three. Bayless, along with Chase Budinger, will be crucial if Arizona is to prove why the selection committee put the team in the tournament field.

East Region

The East is the trickiest bracket this year. Aside from the three juggernauts with the top three seeds – North Carolina, Tennessee and Louisville – there is a considerable drop off in the rest of the bracket.

Final Four Contenders:

North Carolina

The Tar Heels, winners of the ACC regular season and tournament titles, were given the number one seed in the entire tournament, but there are a few roadblocks standing in the way of yet another Final Four appearance. North Carolina (32-2), whose only losses came at home versus Duke and Maryland, have an easy first round game against the winner of the Coppin State-Mount St. Mary’s play-in game before a potential matchup against an extremely talented, though easily distracted, eighth-seeded Indiana in the second round.

Should they make it to the second weekend however, they could potentially be forced to deal with Notre Dame or Washington State and then Louisville or Tennessee, two of the tournament’s most dangerous teams.

The Tar Heels have all the weapons needed to win the championship and have showed poise in many late game situations this season. With two-time ACC player of the year candidate Tyler Hansbrough down low and sharp-shooting sophomore Wayne Ellington outside, North Carolina has the versality that will make them a dangerous opponent in the tournament. Sophomore guard Ty Lawson, who has a 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio this season, is back from an ankle injury and will run the Tar Heel offense. With all this talent, expect to see Coach Roy Williams’ team in the East Regional once again this year.

Louisville

Louisville (24-6) may have been upset by eventual Big East Tournament champion Pittsburgh, but the Cardinals will be a tough out in the tournament. Their season has been a roller coaster ride after a preseason No. 6 ranking was tarnished by injuries that dropped Louisville out of the polls before they rallied, winning nine of their last 10 regular season games to finish second in the Big East. Led by senior center David Padgett, the Cardinals are one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, holding their opponents to an average 51 points per game this season. Louisville is deep, talented and balanced, with four players averaging in double figures. Between Padgett, junior Terrence Williams and sophomore Earl Clark, the Cards’ frontcourt is averaging 11.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this season. Louisville should have no trouble getting to the Sweet 16 before a possible date with Tennessee could end Rick Pitino’s team’s run.

Tennessee

The Volunteers (29-4) have been one of the most consistent teams this season. With the toughest strength of schedule and the second highest RPI, Bruce Pearl’s team is easily one of the best teams in the country. Led by three-point specialist Chris Lofton, a senior who is the all-time SEC three-point leader, the Vols have a legitimate chance to win the entire tournament. Non-conference wins over Xavier and Memphis should have prepared them for the rigors of the NCAA Tournament.

An early exit in the SEC tournament is the only reason the Vols were given a two seed by the selection committee, but with one of the best young coaches in the game, in chest-painting linebacker-like Bruce Pearl, and a core group of veterans in Lofton and fellow senior JaJuan Smith, Tennessee has all the makings of a Final Four team. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville will be the first challenge for the Vols, followed by what could be the most exciting game of the tournament between them and North Carolina. If those teams face off in the regional final, both teams could score into triple digits, and don’t be surprised if the Volunteers come out on top.

Sleeper:

The biggest chance for an upset in the East region is between fifth-seeded Notre Dame and 12th-seeded George Mason. Not that George Mason is anything truly spectacular, but Notre Dame is not that great of a five seed. Luke Harangody was recently crowned Big East player of the year, but the Irish rely too heavily on their outside shooting and their defense is suspect at times. If McAlarney gets hot from outside they could end up pulling this one out, but the Patriots still have two players left from that Final Four team two years ago. Don’t be surprised if the CAA champions pull of the upset.

Top Five Players

Chris Lofton, G, Tennessee – The senior guard is the all-time SEC three-point leader and is shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc this season.

Eric Gordon, G, Indiana – The freshman phenom is averaging an astounding 21.3 points per game this season and makes the Hoosiers a dangerous team in the tournament.

David Padgett, C, Louisville – Injuries have hampered Padgett his entire career, but since returning from injury he is averaging 11.7 points this season.

Luke Harangody, C, Notre Dame – Harangody, the Big East player of the year, is averaging a double-double this season with 20.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

Tyler Hansbrough, C, North Carolina – The two-time ACC player of the year and probable National Player of the Year has dominated all season, averaging 23 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

idwest Region

The Midwest region has several teams with national championship potential, but with no clear-cut favorite like the other regions, it looks to be the most wide open region in the tournament. Georgetown is one of the Final Four contenders in this region, but since the majority of this section is devoted to the Hoyas, here are a few of the other contenders:

Final Four Contenders

Clemson

While knocking off Duke and giving North Carolina all it could handle three times over, Clemson proved it can play with anyone. With five players who average in double figures and a swarming defense, its only knock as a team is a free-throw percentage that hovers around 60 percent. The Tigers have also played in four overtime games, going 2-2, so in the clutch time of the tournament games they will be in familiar territory. Their road to the Final Four won’t be easy, with a first-round game against an underachieving, but always dangerous, Villanova team followed by a potential matchup with SEC powerhouse Vanderbilt. If there is one team that has shown it has the depth and athleticism to beat Kansas, it’s Clemson. If these two teams get matched up in the regional semifinals, look for the Clemson upset.

Kansas

Kansas’ win over Texas this past Sunday showed that the Jayhawks are playing at their best. With a balanced and deep offensive attack, Kansas is determined to end its recent tournament woes and reach the Final Four. All season long the Jayhawks have been looked at as one of the best teams in the country, and they have not disappointed, staying near the top of the poll all season. The key to their success? Depth and experience. Kansas can go eight or nine deep and has four players averaging in double figures.

The Jayhawks have struggled in the tournament in recent years, but the team’s youth was the main cause of their early exits. With Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush returning for their junior seasons, Kansas has the experience to finally get coach Bill Self to the Final Four. Kansas should have an easy road to the Sweet 16 before a potential matchup with Clemson. If they can get past the Tigers, don’t be surprised to see Self and his team cutting down the nets in Detroit.

Wisconsin

If “defense wins championships” then the Wisconsin Badgers are definitely contenders for a trip to San Antonio. Holding opponents to a nation-low 54.3 points per game during the regular season, Bo Ryan’s fundamentally strong team is riding a 10-game win streak, winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships. The Badgers are anything but flashy, but after the departure of 2006-2007 Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker, they have exceeded everyone’s expectations. The Badgers have won 13 of their last 14 games thanks to a team effort highlighted by Brian Butch’s 12.5 points per game, along with Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes, both of whom are averaging 11.3 points per game. Wisconsin isn’t the most athletic team out there, but with their methodical style of play they can certainly cause problems for teams, especially if they only have one day to prepare for the Badgers. A second-round matchup against either O.J. Mayo-led USC or Michael Beasley’s Kansas State will be tough, but a win in that round could give the Badgers the momentum needed to get to the final weekend.

Sleeper:

Davidson

With the nation’s longest winning streak (22 games) and essentially home games in Raleigh, the Wildcats are a serious threat. Not impressed by SoCon perfection? Three of their six losses came in tight games with North Carolina, Duke and UCLA. Led by sensational sophomore Stephen Curry, son of former NBA player Dale Curry, the Wildcats put a scare into Maryland before bowing out 82-70 in the first round. This year Curry is averaging a gaudy 25.1 points per game and was recently named a second team All-American by the Sporting News. Davidson has not lost since the beginning of the year, winning 22 games in a row. The Southern Conference may not be the intimidating out there, but with three close losses against top-10 teams and a dangerous player like Curry, the Wildcats have the ability to shake up people’s brackets.

Top Five Players:

ichael Beasley, G, Kansas State – A near lock at number one pick in the NBA draft, the freshman sensation averaged 26.5 ppg, 12.4 rebounds per game and collected 26 double-doubles for the Wildcats.

O.J. Mayo, G, USC – While inconsistent at times, the potential NBA lottery pick still averaged more than 20.8 ppg, shot greater than 40 percent from behind the arc and could carry the Trojans into April.

Stephen Curry, G, Davidson – While he doesn’t have the high profile of Mayo or Beasley, the Davidson sophomore shoots 90 percent from the stripe, 44 percent from behind the arc and scores 25 points a game.

Arthur Darrell, F, Kansas – The sophomore from Dallas averages 13.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, shooting 53 percent from the field to lead the Jayhawks who have the top seed in the region.

K.C. Rivers, G, Clemson – Rivers has flown under the radar for most of the season, but his 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game are a main reason the Tigers could be a Final Four contender.

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