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BY Dick Weiss , Sean Brennan , Roger Rubin , Jesse Spector And Matt Gagne
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITERS
Coach: Rick Pitino
Strengths: The Cardinals are a true ensemble cast, returning four starters from a team that nearly reached the Final Four last season. They shoot well on the perimeter, work well together and do all the small things that add up to wins. Small forward Terrence Williams is the catalyst, able to hurt you with his speed on the break or his ability to find the open man.
Weaknesses: For as much talent as the Cardinals have, they sometimes struggle to score. In the games where they come up shy, there usually is a scoring drought. Edgar Sosa comes off the bench at guard and can either be a lethal scorer or a bad decision-maker, depending on the game.
Player to watch: Center David Padgett was the Cards' top passer last year. Since his graduation, the 6-6 Williams has become the team's top playmaker. He likes dishing an assist as much as dunking at the end of the break. He's a lottery pick.
2. Michigan State
Coach: Tom Izzo
Strengths: This season's Spartans are a vintage Izzo team. They have a Big Ten Player of the Year in point guard Kalin Lucas , lengthy athletic wing players such as Raymar Morgan and a powerhouse center in Goran Suton . They also have the tenacity that is a trademark of Izzo's better teams. MSU is athletic and deep enough to go with a nine-man rotation.
Weaknesses: As good as the parts of this team are, how they look on paper doesn't always translate. Despite losing to Penn State and Northwestern, the Spartans finished at the top of the conference in the regular season. Their younger players sometimes get flummoxed and lose focus.
Player to watch: Lucas is the rare point guard who is just as dangerous scoring or setting the table for a teammate. He has a high basketball IQ and great athleticism, and with one of the nation's best assist-to-turnover ratios, he is also very reliable when he handles the ball.
Coach: Bill Self
Strengths: Think Jayhawk fans are happy Self turned down that lucrative offer to leave Lawrence for Oklahoma State last spring? Self, who coached Kansas to the 2008 national championship, is performing another miracle, transforming a team that lost all five starters - including three who left early for the draft - into the Big 12 regular-season champion. Of course, having 6-11 sophomore center Cole Aldrich and junior point guard Sherron Collins , two future NBA players, helps, but Self is the catalyst.
Weaknesses: The Jayhawks start two freshmen - forward Marcus Morris and guard Tyshawn Taylor - and play two more extensively, could suffer from the growing pains of youth during the second weekend.
Player to Watch: Collins. He survived growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood of Chicago and plays like he has no fear, emerging as an explosive scorer and the best guard in the Big 12. He is as quick going north to south with the ball as anyone in the country, including Ty Lawson of North Carolina .
4. Wake Forest
Coach: Dino Gaudio
Strengths: Wake is the one team in the ACC with the athletes to match North Carolina. The Demon Deacons have three players - sophomore point guard Jeff Teague , versatile 6-9 sophomore wing James Johnson and 6-9 freshman Al-Farouq Aminu - who have NBA first-round potential. The Deacs can be huge when they play 7-0 Chas McFarland , Aminu and 6-11 freshman Tony Woods up front and move the aggressive Johnson to big guard. If Teague gets hot from the outside, the Deacs could be really dangerous.
Weaknesses: Wake is heavily dependent on Teague to ignite its perimeter game. If he has an off night, they do not have another knock-down shooter.
Player to Watch: Teague, an under-publicized prospect from Indianapolis who wears the number “0” on the back of his jersey as a reminder to all the people in his hometown who thought he wasn't good enough to play at this level, has been a revelation since switching to the point last fall and could be a second version of his idol Chris Paul .
Coach: Jim Boylen
Strengths: If you like great shooting, Utah is your team. It makes almost 50% from the floor and 38% on three-pointers, not bad for a crew whose defensive rebounding is its other strength. Shaun Green , a 6-8 senior forward, personifies the Utes: he is their top defensive rebounder and shoots 40% from three. Center Luke Nevill is a force inside.
Weaknesses: The Utes' biggest problem is that they undo their good shooting and rebounding by not taking care of the ball. Averaging 14 turnovers a game, Utah is one of the Mountain West's sloppiest teams. Depth, too, is an issue, with five players in a six-man rotation averaging 29 or more minutes.
Player to watch: Nevill, the 7-2 senior from Australia , was the conference's player of the year and defensive player of year. He topped the Mountain West in rebounding and blocked shots. He may not have a polished inside game, but was good at getting to the free throw line.
6. West Virginia
Coach: Bob Huggins
Strengths: Huggins has taken a program known for its precision offense and gotten it to play his trademark tenacious, lock-down defense. The Mountaineers allowed fewer points per game than any Big East club. Forward Da'Sean Butler can score from the wing or on the drive. Forward Alex Ruoff plays smart and is a strong three-point shooter. Freshman Devin Ebanks is a rebounding machine. This team does not beat itself with turnovers.
Weaknesses: The Mountaineers' biggest problems this season have been occasional mental lapses and scoring droughts, probably byproducts of relying on freshmen. In most of their losses those were a fault, but there's been less of that late in the season.
Player to watch: Butler has blossomed into one of the best players in the Big East and a go-to scorer for WVU. He needs the smallest opening to get off his shot and is quick enough to get one most of the time.
7. Boston College
Coach: Al Skinner
Strengths: The Eagles may be undersized, but senior guard Tyrese Rice is a confident shooter and a prolific scorer who has over 2,000 career points. Powerful 6-5, 225-pound sophomore guard Rakim Sanders and 6-8 sophomore Joe Trapani , a transfer from Vermont who is the team's leading rebounder, can both shoot the three and provide matchup problems in Skinner's flex offense.
Weaknesses: Despite the fact the Eagles won games and had a winning record in the ACC, they can be painfully inconsistent. BC has wins over both Duke and North Carolina, but also has losses to St. Louis and Harvard . Rebounding is always an issue.
Player to Watch: Rice has been Carolina's worst nightmare the last two years, going off for 46 and 25 points as the Eagles upset the Tar Heels twice. When he's hot, he has unlimited range.
8. Ohio State
Coach: Thad Matta
Strengths: When it comes to offense, the Buckeyes have an arsenal. Sophomore Evan Turner can slash or shoot from the wing. Jon Diebler is the best of a good group of outside shooters. B.J. Mullens is a 7-foot center who has shown glimpses that he could become a dominant player. And William Buford , a 6-5 guard, is talented enough to play in the NBA.
Weaknesses: Like many Big Ten teams, Ohio State 's best players are young, which occasionally means error-prone play. The Buckeyes play a zone defense that is susceptible to opponents that drive. Also, OSU has a question mark in 6-5 swingman David Lighty . Lighty has been out with a broken foot and, if he returns, there's no telling how he'll play.
Player to watch: Turner is incredibly versatile, averaging nearly 17 points and four assists and 41% three-point shooting. He could decide to leave for the NBA after the NCAA Tournament.
Coach: Fran McCaffrey
Strengths: The Saints are not your typical mid-major in that they don't rely on just one or two players to carry them across the finish line. The Saints are deep and talented and feature just one senior - Kenny Hasbrouck - along with an extremely talented junior class in Alex Franklin , Edwin Ubiles and point guard Ronald Moore . Also keep an eye on sophomore forward Ryan Rossiter , who elevated his play a couple of notches this season.
Weaknesses: The Saints aren't the greatest free throw shooting team and they have a tendency to start throwing the ball around a little. And despite their 26 wins, they didn't fare well when they took on big-name schools such as Pittsburgh , Tennessee and Kansas.
Player to watch: Hasbrouck is the Saints' leader. The senior averaged more than 16 points a game, was named the MAAC Player of the Year and took over Siena 's MAAC title game win over Niagara by scoring 17 of his 19 points in the second half.
10. Southern Cal
Coach: Tim Floyd
Strengths: Brooklyn product Taj Gibson , who started his high school career at Telecommunications before moving to California , is one of the best shot-blockers in the tournament (witness his bid-clinching stuff of Arizona State star James Harden on Saturday), as well as USC 's top scorer. And Floyd has his usual crop of freshman talent, with forwards DeMar DeRozan and Leonard Washington .
Weaknesses: The Trojans wouldn't be here had they not won the Pac-10 tournament, beating UCLA and Arizona State on Friday and Saturday, respectively. This is a team that lost six of seven at one point in February, and backcourt defense is a definite concern.
Player to watch: DeRozan's stock has slipped among NBA scouts, but this is his opportunity to rebuild himself as a lottery prospect. He's a dangerous scorer and rebounder, but averages 2.2 turnovers per game - far too high a total for a 6-7 forward.
Coach: Brian Gregory
Strengths: Gregory has successfully emulated the tough defense he learned as an
assistant to Tom Izzo at Michigan State and brought it to the Atlantic 10 . He
has a very athletic team, with 6-6 sophomore Chris Wright and junior guard
Marcus Johnson , that plays and defends as hard as any mid-major team.
Weaknesses: The Flyers have problems scoring in the halfcourt if opposing
teams slow them down and force them into a halfcourt game. Team has been plagued
by poor foul shooting in the last two weeks of the season.
Player to Watch: London Warren . Known as “The Jacksonville Jet,” the
Flyers' 6-0 junior point guard moved into the lineup after starter Rob
Lowery was injured and leads the team in steals for a second straight year and
was selected to the A-10's All Defensive team.
Coach: Russ Pennell
Strengths: They are not the Wildcats of the past, when under Lute Olson they
regularly lived in the top 10 and piled up 20-plus wins. But this season they
did manage 19 regular-season wins and have four players who landed various
All-Pac 10 accolades, including junior Chase Budinger and freshman guard Kyle
Weaknesses: When Olson retired suddenly in October, it set the Wildcats back
for a while as they stumbled out of the gate to a 10-7 record and just a 2-5
mark in the Pac-10. So you can't be all that comfortable with how they may
respond with interim coach Russ Pennell making his first foray in the
tournament as a head coach.
Player to watch: Budinger, a 6-7 junior forward, may be one of the best players
those on the East Coast rarely get to see. He was among the Pac-10 leaders in
scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and free throw percentage and had 14 20-point
13. Cleveland State
Coach: Gary Waters
Strengths: Former Rutgers coach Gary Waters knows what it takes to pull off
an upset - the Vikings beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in December, and
then upended Horizon League regular-season champion Butler on the Bulldogs
' home court in the conference tournament. CSU has three seniors in the
Weaknesses: It's something of an out-of-nowhere bid for Cleveland State ,
which lost 21 games last season and is in the NCAA field for the first time
since 1986. Making it this far was the Vikings' goal - will they just be
happy to be here?
Player to watch: Senior forward J'Nathan Bullock averages a team-high
seven rebounds a game despite being only 6-5. The Vikings' leading scorer
also isn't afraid to pop out beyond the arc, where he averages one make on
three attempts per game.
14. North Dakota St.
Coach: Saul Phillips
Strengths: Few teams are hotter - the Bison has won seven in a row and 18 of
its last 19 games, including an ESPN BracketBuster against Wisconsin- Milwaukee
. North Dakota State also has a four-point loss at Southern Cal on its resume,
so even though the Bison is in the field of 65 in their first year of
eligibility after a reclassification period from Division II, they can't be
Weaknesses: You've got to wonder about the boys from Fargo being in over
their heads here. And it takes a strong bench to be able to compete against more
talented competition - something the Bison don't have.
Player to watch: Ben Woodside , the Summit League player of the year, scores
22.8 points a game and shoots 43% from three-point range; he had 60 points in a
triple-overtime loss to tourney-bound Stephen F. Austin . And he's no
ball-hog - Woodside averages 6.3 assists per game, often finding forward Brett
Winkelman (18.7 ppg).
16. Robert Morris
Coach: Mike Rice
Strengths: The Colonials are stocked with experienced players as eight of the
12 members are either juniors or seniors, including all the major contributors.
Tops among them are Jeremy Chappell (almost 17 points a game), Rob Robinson
and Jimmy Langhurst , who are also double-figure scorers. The Colonials also
posted 10 wins in 18 road games.
Weaknesses: None of the current Colonials has played in the NCAA Tournament as
their last trip came in 1992. So you can expect the Colonials - out of the
Northeast Conference - to have some major jitters. Morris played just two teams
in the NCAA field ( Xavier and Pittsburgh) and lost handily to both.
Player to watch: NEC Player of the Year Chappell can score in droves. He
poured in a career-best tying 25-point outing in the NEC semifinals against
Quinnipiac and averaged 16.9 points a game in the regular season. He led the
Colonials in three-point shooting and is an 86% free throw shooter.
16. Morehead State
Coach: Donnie Tyndall
Strengths: Eagles were top rebounding team in the OVC , averaging 42.1 per game
and controlling the glass at both ends of the floor. They averaged 25.1
defensive rebounds and 13.8 offensive boards and were also second in the
conference with four blocks per game. Morehead was fairly consistent from the
foul line, hitting 72% of free throws.
Weaknesses: Could be overwhelmed considering the school hasn't played in
NCAA Tournament since making back-to-back appearances in 1983 and '84. Lost
to Louisville by 38 in November, and likely used up one shining moment when
freshman Steve Peterson lifted fourth-seeded Eagles to conference championship
with last-second shot in double OT.
Player to watch: Sophomore Kenneth Faried, a forward/center from Newark , has
23 double-doubles and was named OVC Defensive Player of the Year.
Dick Weiss breaks down the region
BEST FIRST ROUND MATCHUP: Ohio State (8) vs. Siena (9) at Dayton. A veteran
Siena team, which won the MAAC and will be well prepared by Fran McCaffery, has
a shot against inconsistent Ohio State, although the Buckeyes should have huge
UPSET SPECIAL: Cleveland State (13) over Wake Forest (4) in Miami. Former
Rutgers coach Gary Waters, who won the Horizon League and beat Syracuse and
Butler on their home courts, could see his Vikings stun a talented Wake Forest
POTENTIAL SECOND-ROUND MATCHUP: Kansas (3) vs. West Virginia (6) in
Minneapolis. Two young, well-coached teams that played demanding schedules
throughout the year may provide as entertaining a game as the tournament gives
us this year.
DARK HORSE: Kansas (3) has two future pros — 6-10 rebounding machine Cole
Aldrich and point guard Sherron Collins — and has the benefit of being coached
by Bill Self, who led the Jayhawks to the title last year.
LOCAL ANGLE: Versatile 6-10 junior forward Earl Clark from Plainfield
initially went to Louisville as part of a package deal with Derrick Caracter.
Caracter left last year, transferring to UTEP. Clark, who toyed with the idea of
declaring for the NBA draft, stayed around and has become a lottery pick under
SURVIVOR: Louisville (1). The Cardinals will have the luxury of playing in
front of close to 50,000 at nearby Indianapolis, but may have their hands full
in the second round with the horde of Ohio State fans who will make the hour
trip from Columbus to Dayton