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Madness! What to watch in each NCAA region

Kemba Walker

Kemba Walker Photo Credit: Getty Images

Once the NCAA tournament opens in earnest Thursday, there will be too many story lines for any one fan (or reporter) to follow. Here is a sampling of what’s in store for March Madness 2011, broken up by each of the tournament bracket’s four regions.

EAST

Players to watch

Jared Sullinger, No. 1 Ohio State, 6-foot-9 forward, freshman
Sullinger is a 280-pound beast of a 19-year old. He averaged a double-double (17.2 ppg and 10.1 rpg), garnering Big Ten Freshman of the Year and conference tournament MVP honors. “Sully” is the rare power player who uses the backboard as his ally.

Rick Jackson, No. 3 Syracuse, 6-foot-9 forward, senior
The Big East leader in rebounds (10.6), blocked shots (2.5) and field-goal percentage (.590), Jackson gives Syracuse the physical presence it needs to compete with the likes of Ohio State and North Carolina in the tournament’s East Region.

Poised for a run

No. 7 Washington (23-10)
For the Huskies, things look similar to last year — they won the Pac-10 tournament as the third seed, then made a surprise Sweet 16 appearance. Don’t count out another such run from this streaky team. Opening-round opponent Georgia will struggle to keep pace with Washington, the nation’s third-highest-scoring school (83.5 ppg). Their likely next foe, North Carolina, will be a taller order, literally — its top three scorers are all 6-foot-8 and up. Despite playing far from home in Charlotte, N.C., look for the Huskies to counter with their deep 10-man rotation and exploit the fact that only two Tar Heels have prior NCAA tournament experience.

WEST

Players to watch

Nolan Smith, No. 1 Duke, 6-foot-2 guard, senior
Smith is the glue that keeps this Duke team together. His team-leading 21.3 ppg and 5.2 apg earned him ACC Player of the Year honors. Smith doesn’t shy away from tough competition either; he totaled 84 points in three contests against North Carolina this season.

Kemba Walker, No. 3 Connecticut , 6-foot-1 guard, junior
Walker’s high-arcing buzzer-beater versus Pitt were just two of his record-shattering 130 points during last week’s Big East Tournament. He averages an astonishing 37.5 minutes per game — does he have enough left in the tank for a deep tournament run?

Poised for a run

No. 6 Cincinnati (25-8)
Cincinnati rode a light schedule to a 15-0 start, then went through an adjustment period during Big East play before closing out the regular season strong, winning five of their last six. The Bearcats play a slow-paced, defensive style and will exploit Missouri’s inability to corral rebounds in their opening round. That won’t be the case should Cincy next face conference foe Connecticut, as the Huskies have the size advantage. But after playing five games in five nights during the Big East tournament, Connecticut will not have the energy to break the Bearcats’ stifling defense (59.2 ppg allowed).

SOUTHEAST

Players to watch

Jimmer Fredette, No. 3 BYU, 6-foot-2 guard, senior
The nation’s leading scorer (28.5 ppg) has become a household name. Fredette shoots with accuracy from beyond the arc (.404) and the foul line (89.1), but also involves his teammates with 4.2 apg. The Cougars will rely on the Glens Falls, N.Y., native even more with forward Brandon Davies suspended for the tournament.

Noah Dahlman, No. 14 Wofford, 6-foot-6 forward, senior
Fans tuning in to watch Fredette in the first round may be surprised to see a high scorer wearing Wofford black and gold. Known as “Mr. D” for being a student teacher, Dahlman scores his 20 ppg from close range and with efficiency (.612 FG pct), which could cause trouble for BYU.

Sleeper alert

No. 12 Utah State (30-3)
It’s rare that a team spends the final six weeks of the regular season ranked in the top 25, coasts through its conference tournament and winds up a No. 12 seed. The Aggies may not have played a strong schedule, but they dominated defensively, holding opponents to a paltry .383 field goal percentage. Moreover, this senior-led team can hit shots from anywhere on the floor and controls the boards to nullify opening-round opponent Kansas State’s strength: offensive rebounding. The Aggies were actually ranked higher than the Wildcats in every season-end poll and will be yet another No. 12 seed who makes the Selection Committee look foolish.

SOUTHWEST

Players to watch

JaJuan Johnson, No. 3 Purdue, 6-foot-10 forward/center, senior
This first-team All American can bang inside but also keeps defenders honest by shooting more than the occasional three and converting 81.5 percent of his foul shots. The Boilermakers will count on Johnson’s 20.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg to lead the way as a core group of seniors make their final tournament run.

Kenneth Faried, No. 13 Morehead State, 6-foot-8 forward, senior
There’s nothing this dreadlocked Newark native doesn’t do. Not only is Faried the country’s top rebounder (14.5 rpg), but he also scores 17.6 ppg on .644 shooting and adds 2.4 blocks and 2 steals per game. He could give smallish Louisville fits.

Sleeper alert

No. 12 Richmond (27-7)
The Atlantic 10 landed three teams in this year’s NCAA tournament, and conference tournament champion Richmond is the most underrated of the bunch. Justin Harper, a 6-foot-10 forward, anchors a defense that has the size to defend opening-round foe Vanderbilt, and the Spiders also shoot threes at an efficient .399 clip. Richmond’s resume includes neutral-site wins over Purdue and Temple, whereas Vandy struggles away from home. The Commodores’ weakness is protecting the ball (-1.0 turnover margin), which the Spiders (+1.9 turnover margin) will take advantage of to creep into the second round.

Recent NCAA champions

2001: Duke 82, Arizona 72
2002: Maryland 64, Indiana 52
2003: Syracuse 81, Kansas 78
2004: UConn 82, Ga. Tech 73
2005: UNC 75, Illinois 70
2006: Florida 73, UCLA 57
2007: Florida 84, Ohio State 75
2008: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)
2009: UNC 89, Michigan St., 72
2010: Duke 61, Butler 59

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