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A Deeper Look at the East Region: Can anyone stop the Kentucky Kids?

The East Bracket sets up with a nice Biblical analogy. On the two mountaintops sit the Goliaths of Kentucky and West Virginia (a team deserving of a #1) both calling out a challenge to the field: “Are there any warriors great enough to match us in single combat?” And the answer is yes, there are quite a few David’s out there: quiet, unassuming teams with accurate 3-point-shooting slings ready to take them down.

Kentucky seems to be wearing the Team of Destiny mantle rather well at the moment. But they are a very young team who faces, with all due respect to Kansas, the most potential pitfalls of any #1. Seeing the way the Deacons laid down at the end of the season, I expect Texas to win the matchup of under-whelmingness. But that is a tough second round game even given the Longhorn’s late season collapse. The victor of 5/12 vs Wisconsin game will also be the kind of team that the Hollywood execs would write up to slay the Cats: low-turnover rates, deliberate, defensively strong, size to compete, and most importantly full of quiet confidence that they can win.

The bottom half seems like it is the Mountaineers to loose. For all of Bob Huggins’ moaning about why they weren’t a #1 seed (and just which team did you think shouldn’t have gotten one Bob????) there are not many teams one would single out as particularly dangerous in his half of the draw. Both Marquette and New Mexico have a similar size profile to W. Va to match-up with them, but the Mountaineers are a great rebounding team and have won a ton of close games this year.

The easiest team to root for in the bracket though, is Cornell. They have a ton of experience. They shoot a ton of threes and make a ton of them. (Kinda like William and Mary last night but Cornell actually has some size to go with it) And there is something compelling to me (a smart, kind-of nerdy white kid) about rooting for a bunch of smart kind-of nerdy white kids. I realize that is a gross oversimplification and a totally racist, classist and class-less thing to say. But whatever dude. It just seems funny to me when the Ivy League schools are such underdogs in this tournament. The question will be can they assume the David role fully, or will the fans of the powerhouse Widcats continue to see their K-Y jelly roll. (a bad pun granted, but I couldn’t resist)

Best First Round Matchup: It’s tempting to say Texas/Wake here, but those two teams have under achieved so mightily that I can’t go there. So I’m going with Temple/Cornell in the ever popular 5/12 spot. Jay Bilas is a pretty smart guy, and after watching and reading a lot of preview stuff I have to say his conviction about Cornell is some of the most convincing out there. Seems like it will come down to who can impose their will: Temple is a great defensive team who allows only 28.7% from beyond the arc and Cornell makes and takes a ton of threes (about 10 per game at a very impressive 43.4%). It’s a shame that these two teams, by majority accent, were badly under-seeded and have to play one another in the first round. Indeed looking at their resumes it seems more like it should be a second round matchup.

Dark Horse: For all the talk of the difficulty of Kentucky’s path to Indy, it’s pretty hard to make a case for any team besides them or West Virginia to represent this region. No one beyond the 6 seed scares you (though Bilas almost has me sold on Cornell) and both Temple and Wisconsin represent the kind of team you would want to beat a young Kentucky team. But my pick here is New Mexico. Everyone seems to be kind of giving West Va the bottom half of the bracket – but the Lobos match-up very favorably with the Mountaineers. Both teams are filled with good length but no single player who can dominate the paint. But New Mexico shoots the ball well from the outside and W. Va. just doesn’t shoot the ball well at all – not from the field and not from the free throw line. Also I secretly rejoice when bad things happen to Bob “Don’t call me Grumpy Bear” Huggins.

The All-Atlas Squad (guys who can carry their teams):  Da’Sean Butler – West Virginia (anyone watch the Big East tourney??); John Wall & DeMarcus Cousins – Kentucky; Lavoy Allen – Temple; Darington Hobson – New Mexico; Damion James - Texas

Upset Special: Washington over Marquette. The Pac Ten deservedly got no respect this season, but the Huskies are playing well at the right time. They won their conference tournament and are 9th in the nation in scoring almost 81 points per game. Their lack of size is less of an issue against a Marquette team that plays 3 guards and 2 wings. And Washington rebounds the ball well for a small team – that may well be the difference.  

Best Potential Second Round Game: Wisconsin vs Temple/Cornell. I am hedging a bit on this match-up obviously but whichever team wins the 5/12 game will make for good theater against the Badgers. Any combination is going to have 2 very good, very disciplined, very experienced teams – and the winner is going to push Kentucky hard in the Sweet Sixteen.

Best Mascot: If I weren’t already an ACC guy it would be tempting to go with the Demon Deacons here. But Wake is too well known of a program to get the nod. I literally had to flip a coin to decide between the Wofford Terriers and the Buccaneers of East Tennessee St. But for sheer dichotomy I am glad ETSU won. Their logo is totally badass. Forget those jolly looking pirates, this guy is the real Dread Pirate Roberts. The mascot however is horrible. I guess some more scowling eyebrows don’t play well for the kids. Special note: ETSU has the country’s only master’s degree in Storytelling – perhaps their players can go back to school for that, so they can properly embellish the tale of how they once clashed broadsides with the scurvy Kittens of their neighbors to the north. Arrrrgh!

All-Digger Phelps Team (names most likely to be mispronounced): Alexis Wangmene - Texas, Al-Farouq Aminu – Wake, Youssoupha Mbao – Marquette, Deniz Kilicli – W. Va.

God Shammgod Award (best name): Too many to choose from: I just love the sound of Cameron Rundles and Corey Godzinki from Wofford. And how many times do you think Quincy Pondexter had to correct teachers calling the role: “Um… its not Poindexter. Sheesh that would make my name sound nerdy.” But the name most ready for fun in-game calls is Juan Fernandez: “Another big three, for ‘Juan’!” “This Temple team is determined not to be Juan and done” etc.

Home Cookin’ Award (best geographical placement): Goes hand in hand with my upset pick – Washington getting to play just down the coast a bit in San Jose as Marquette has to join them from the heartland (“I believe the name comes from the Algonquin words Millea Waukea – meaning the good land”).

Coach Most Likely to Play a Mob Enforcer in a Movie: Lil’ Jonny Calipari has a good ring to it but this one is a no-contest, don’t-even-send-the-ballots runaway winner: Bob Huggins. You would be hard pressed to convince me Huggins is not already an enforcer, and then you listen to him talk, or rather mumble and growl his way through interviews. He’s practically Vito already.

The CincyWakePittBigTenTeam Award for Perennial Underperformer to Avoid Picking for a Deep Run: Obviously Wake would be a candidate here as the award carries their name. But I don’t know anyone, including people in Winston Salem, who actually expect them to do anything other than fall meekly to a Texas team that trumps them in the disappointing department. I am going with my heart on this pick and taking West Virginia. They are not ready to match up with Duke’s recent flame out history, but the last two times Huggins has been on the 1 or 2 line – he’s been bounced in the second round.  I know they won the Big East tourney – but it took some miracle shots to do it. One school of thought says that gives them confidence and intangibles. But it makes me wonder if they used their nine lives too soon.