BY NEAL MALONE
Now over to the East region, which houses several dangerous teams. The top two seeds in this region, Kentucky and West Virginia, come into the tournament red hot. West Virginia impressively took home the Big East Tournament crown behind some clutch shooting from guard Da’Sean Butler. Despite a top-notch effort from Mississippi St., Kentucky did what was expected of them and wrapped up the SEC Tournament title.
While Kentucky and West Virginia are the obvious favorites to emerge from this region, there are plenty of formidable obstacles in their way. Let’s start with the 8-9 matchup between Texas and Wake Forest. When you hear those two names, you wonder why they ended up seeded so low. Normally, you would expect these two programs to have a little bit more success. The fact is, each team was very inconsistent throughout the year, reaching the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Texas struggled down the stretch, but don’t sleep on them. Dexter Pittman has the ability to be dominant down low and Damion James can do it all ranging from being a dominant rebounder to a solid outside shooter. On the Wake side, their size and depth down low is frightening for an opponent. If they can find their early season form, this team could be dangerous. They have limped into the tourney, though, losing 5 of their last 6 games.
Each team is very capable of winning this game, and if they find their stride, Kentucky better watch out in the 2nd round. The Wildcats have made a living squeaking by in close games this year. If they aren’t careful, Texas or Wake Forest could put a swift end to a very successful season.
The 5-12 matchup between Temple and Cornell is possibly one of the toughest games to call in the entire tournament. You have the Atlantic-10 regular season champions in Temple against the Ivy League regular season and tournament champions in Cornell. Temple has had better conference competition, but Cornell only lost 4 times all year!
One thing I really like to look at sometimes is mutual opponents. These two teams have one major one…#1 overall seed Kansas. Cornell went on the road to Lawrence and nearly broke Kansas’ epic home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse, losing 71-66. Temple welcomed Kansas to Philly a few days before that and got absolutely embarrassed at home, losing by 32 points. Don’t underestimate Cornell just because they play in the Ivy League…they’re for real. This game is ultimately a toss up, though, because Temple eventually found their stride in conference play.
For the #3 seed, New Mexico, this is a chance to prove their worth. Many believe giving them such a high seed was wrong, so they’ll be on trial in the first few rounds. I believe they’ll have no problem getting by Montana in the first round, but they are in store for a tough matchup in round 2. If the hard-nosed Golden Eagles of Marquette can get by Pac-10 Tournament champs, Washington, I think New Mexico will be in for a rude awakening. Marquette’s tough defense and experience playing in the Big East could be tough for the Lobos to overcome.
The team I believe benefits most from their draw in the East region is West Virginia. Sure, maybe Bob Huggins believes his team should have gotten a #1 seed, but oh well. I actually think his team has a better draw then #1 seed Kentucky. West Virginia gets to play close to home in Buffalo and Syracuse, NY for practically the entire duration of the tournament, with the exception of the Final Four in Indianapolis (if they reach it). Minimal travel and easy access for fans should help them a lot. They also caught a break being put in a region with arguably the weakest #3 seed in New Mexico. In the Midwest, Ohio St. will eventually have to face #3 Georgetown if they advance to the Sweet 16…this makes the Lobos look pretty attractive as an opponent in my opinion.
I truly believe West Virginia will win this region. They are coming off a tournament championship in the nation’s top conference and as I stated above, I really believe they have the most favorable draw in the group. Look for Kentucky to struggle, whether it would be in the 2nd round against Texas/Wake Forest or the 3rd round against someone like Cornell, Temple, or Wisconsin. I’m not saying they will lose right away, but I don’t see them being able to successfully escape many more close games.