It's Kansas' to lose. Not just this region, the whole enchilada.
The Jayhawks are clearly ahead of the pack. Not only because of their talent, which is considerable (at least three future pros), but its diversity. Bill Self can go small, big, fast or have his team win a game playing entirely in the half-court. That's what happened Saturday when Kansas State tried to ugly it up in the Big 12 tournament title game.
Earning the No. 1 seed, Kansas was rewarded with sites close to home. The proximity to Oklahoma City in the first and second rounds and St. Louis in the regional means that KU will be playing with the home court advantage until Indianapolis. Believe me, I've seen them play in both cities in the tournament.
Now consider the draw. Both teams that defeated the Jayhawks -- Tennessee and Oklahoma State -- are in the Midwest. One could possibly emerge to challenge Kansas in the regional final. The harder task might be having to slay Michigan State and Ohio State in back-to-back games in St. Louis to get to Indianapolis.
Kansas is the most talented team in the bracket but it isn't going to be easy.
1. The biggest disappointment in Knoxville since Lane Kiffin left town: Tennessee's reward for beating No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky this season was a No. 6 seed and a brutal draw. The Vols get a first-round game against San Diego State. If they win that -- a big if -- they have to beat Greg Monroe and Georgetown to get to the regional. Good luck with all that, Vols.
2. Pedigree: The Midwest is loaded with it. There are eight Final Four coaches. Four of those have won national championships. Eight of the 16 schools have won national championships.
3. Evan Turner: The hottest player in the regional and the national player of the year. Will he stay hot on a team with a great coach (Thad Matta) and all the pieces?
Midwest Regional Picks
Who will win: Kansas. Too tall, too fast, too good. It will take a bad day by at least two McDonald's All-Americans to doom this deep squad.
Dark-horse pick: Maryland. No one is paying attention and we all know Gary Williams can coach. The Terps tied for the ACC regular-season title. The 13 conference wins were their most in eight years. There is not a more inspirational player than guard Greivis Vasquez. This isn't a great team, but it can be with Williams on the bench in March.
Franklin: Getting to know No. 16 Lehigh
Georgia Tech: Under .500 in conference play
|East | West | Midwest | South|
Most likely upset: Oklahoma State over Ohio State in the second round. Everyone knows Evan Turner. No one outside of the Big 12 knows how good James Anderson is for the Cowboys. In a game like this, Anderson will get his 25 while the Buckeyes will completely dismiss student manager, er, guard Keiton Page who looks like Ollie from Hoosiers.
Best mascot: The UC Santa Barbara Gaucho. This spot is annually reserved for mockery. I have a personal distrust and latent fear of all mascots, especially those who look like Antonio Banderas on a tequila bender.
Best point guard: Evan Turner, Ohio State. The thinking man's choice for national player of the year. The point guard seems to do everything well -- shoot, defend, set up his teammates. His combined line in the Big Ten tournament is a warning for the Midwest -- 80 points in three games, 55 percent shooting and 20 assists.
Best post player: Cole Aldrich, Kansas. Perhaps the best overall big man in the country. Bill Self gets on him about being more assertive offensively, but the 6-11, 245-pounder can affect every possession defensively.
Best coach: Tom Izzo, Michigan State. Fresh off the national championship game in '09, Izzo has had to dig deep to get the Spartans this far. They are inconsistent but they will guard you and if you back down, Sparty will eat your face.
Best reputation Kansas. This is the program's eighth No. 1 seed since 1979. It is basketball royalty with the best players, arguably the best coach and a power-broker AD (Lew Perkins) in its entourage. Don't cross these guys.
Five stars on display
1. Sherron Collins, Kansas. The only playing senior on the roster, Collins is as gritty and tough as the Chicago where he grew up. The Big 12 tournament's most outstanding player holds KU's fate in his hands. If he tanks for one game this time of year, the Jayhawks might be sunk.
2. Evan Turner, Ohio State. If a game comes down to needing a 37-footer at the buzzer, he's your guy.
3. Aubrey Coleman, Houston: The nation's leading scorer was suspended as a junior for stepping on Arizona's Chase Budinger. As a senior, he has cleaned up his act and become one of the best guards in the country. The Cougars are back in the dance for the first time since 1992, and looking for their first tournament win since 1984. Note: That bump on Coleman's neck is a keloid, a non-malignant, non-contagious growth.
4. Greivis Vasquez, Maryland: He primps, he preens, then he rips your heart out with that jumper. He's Collins with a big mouth.
5. James Anderson, Oklahoma State: The Big 12 player of the year. A pure scorer who dropped 27 on Kansas and 31 on Baylor.
Six random notes
1. No one at Kansas wants to remember the last time the Jayhawks started the tournament in Oklahoma City. In 2005, No. 14 Bucknell beat No. 3 Kansas in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. How big an upset was it? Bucknell didn't bring its band and bribed the Northern Iowa band to play for the Bison with free T-shirts and pizza. How big an upset was it? Bucknell had only five scholarship players. Coach Pat Flannery had picked up and just gone home at halftime of two games that season because of stress-related issues. How big an upset was it? Kansas lost a first-round game for the first time in 27 years. Five years after that dark day, it's OKC again and it's a Patriot League first-round opponent again. The difference this time is that KU is the overall No. 1 and it is actually 3-1 in Oklahoma City (winning the 2007 Big 12 tournament) since the Bucknell Bummer.
2. Sunflower Showdown in Oklahoma City: Think the NCAA was worried about selling tickets? It put Kansas and Kansas State in the Oklahoma City pod. As of Saturday, plenty of tickets were still available. Oklahoma City is about 5½ hours from each campus.
3. A potential second-round game between Georgia Tech and Ohio State would feature possibly two of the top three picks in the NBA Draft (so says Gary Parrish) -- Turner and Derrick Favors.
4. Four of the top 16 teams in field-goal percentage defense are here -- Kansas, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Tennessee.
5. At the other end of the one-and-done world is Northern Iowa. The Panthers returned all five starters, won 28 games and destroyed the Missouri Valley. They won the league by three games, then backed it up with a conference tournament championship. Don't sleep on Adam Koch.
6. Houston's Tom "Tan Man" Penders is the eighth coach in history to take four teams to the NCAA tournament. (Texas, George Washington, Rhode Island, Houston)