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East: The Buckeyes' prize? A brutal road

by | CBSSports.com
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The East is always a beast. Does the selection committee do it this way on purpose, just so we can trot out that tired rhyme?

This year, the East Regional has the No. 1 overall seed and the nation's No. 1 ranked team in the Ohio State Buckeyes. It also holds two members of the 2,000 win club, Kentucky and North Carolina. There's Jim Boeheim, who has essentially spent his entire adult life at Syracuse University, as a player and coach.

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If Goliath isn't your thing, there's also plucky Xavier, one of the most consistently excellent programs of the past decade-plus, regardless of budget or conference prestige.

We have the team that won the recruiting wars (Kentucky), the player that won an All-America award before ever stepping foot on the floor at North Carolina (Harrison Barnes), and a team that had to add a game to its schedule and hit an unlikely buzzer-beater just to get here (Princeton).

In short, this is a brutal region. We don't have to say the rhyme. Let the TV guys do that. We'll just enjoy all this tasty drama and not worry too much about finding a catchy phrase to attach to it.

Three storylines:

1. For a No. 1 overall, Ohio State has a tough road ahead: George Mason or Villanova in the round of 32. The tough defense of Bob Huggins (West Virginia) or Brad Brownell (Clemson), or the uber-talented youngsters of Kentucky after that. Certainly none of those teams can match the Buckeyes night in and night out, but several of them are capable of pulling a one-time-only upset.

2. North Carolina could cruise to the Elite Eight: The Tar Heels didn't exactly look great on their way to the ACC Championship Game, needing a last-second shot to beat Miami and an overtime to beat Clemson. Then they were easily handled by Duke in the championship throwdown. And yet, the teams they've been given as possible opponents in the round of 32 were huge letdowns in their own conferences. Georgia is one of the teams most often pointed to as a wrongheaded inclusion in the field, and Washington fell to third place in the iffy Pac-10 this season before pulling off the upset OT win in the conference championship game. Xavier, Marquette and Syracuse aren't exactly terrifying, either.

3. Revenge is a dish best served immediately: West Virginia knocked a higher-rated Kentucky team out of the tournament last season and reached the Final Four. This year, it's a potential second-round matchup, with UK as the No. 4 seed and WVU as the No. 5. Release the hounds!

East Regional Picks:

Who will win: Ohio State has a tough road, but will win the East. There may not be a more complete team in the nation, with the heady play of Jared Sullinger around the basket and the rain of jumpers Jon Diebler will lay on anyone who doubles down on the big man. And that's going to be everyone, after all.

Dark-horse pick: Calling Kentucky a dark horse sounds absurd, but it is the four seed here. Based on inconsistent play throughout the season, it would be tough to pick these 'Cats to go any further than they did last year (and boy do they want that rematch with Huggins and the Mountaineers), but the overwhelming talent UK can put on the floor could cook up nicely with the right chef stirring the pot. That's where John Calipari comes in.

Most likely upset: Georgia over Washington. Yes, the committee has taken heat for including the Bulldogs in the field, but that has more to do with who else got left out. Mark Fox definitely has some scary players to work with in Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. The biggest (well, smallest) thing standing in the way of that possibility is 5-foot-9 Huskies point guard Isaiah Thomas, who may strip the ball from Gerald Robinson often enough that neither of the Bulldogs' stars ever gets it.

Best mascot: Big props go out to the Long Island Blackbird and the Indiana State Sycamore. The UAB dragon is pretty nice, too. But West Virginia's Mountaineer will be the only mascot wearing a studly beard and buckskins, and carrying a fully-functioning rifle.

Best point guard: Wow. Not easy. With a nod to the freshmen at North Carolina and Kentucky, this one has to go to Isaiah Thomas at Washington. The junior is quick, smart and all heart. His buzzer-beater to give UW the Pac-10 crown will be on highlight reels for years to come.

Best post player: Oh, thank goodness. An easy one. Jared Sullinger is the man. He shows such incredible poise for a freshman and has an array of moves that would be the envy of most NBA centers. We should be so lucky as to see him and Tyler Zeller meet in the Elite Eight.

Best coach: Have to go with Thad Matta here. Kudos to Roy Williams for getting his troops together late in the season, but Matta had his team on lock from Day 1. Getting upperclassmen to accept a freshman as the leader of the team, teaching his defenders how to avoid fouls like the plague and finding a way to use every ounce of talent he can squeeze out of his roster are just a few of the many things Matta has done to make his Buckeyes terrifying to behold.

Best reputation: Well. When the choices are Syracuse, Kentucky and North Carolina, get out the calipers. Syracuse isn't quite blue blood, so drop them. While both Kentucky and Carolina have had off seasons in recent memory, the Wildcats recovered nicely and won the race to 2,000 victories last season. These days, they have a recruiting edge that cannot be denied, even in Chapel Hill. Kentucky is the choice.

Five stars on display

Jared Sullinger (Ohio State): 17 points, 10 rebounds per game and a 53 percent shooting mark from the floor. Those are the numbers, but to be truly impressed by Sullinger, you must watch him play. The Columbus kid not only had veteran moves from the get-go, but he has showed a veteran's understanding of the game and a cool head.

Brandon Knight (Kentucky): When you're part of an all-everything freshman class like Knight was, it can be tough to stand out. The fact that he had to run the team while learning how to play D-I ball makes his success even more impressive. If that's not enough, consider as well that Knight had to follow in the footsteps of John Wall, one of the most talented and charismatic players in Kentucky history, and was able to please one of the most demanding fan bases in the game. You have to give the kid his due.

Tu Holloway (Xavier): Holloway messed around and got a triple-double against Wake Forest this year. Sure, his 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists came against one of the worst teams in the country, but the 6-0 junior from Hempstead, N.Y., has the all-around game to be in that neighborhood quite often, against any competition.

Isaiah Thomas (Washington): Thomas led his team in scoring (16.8 per game) and assists (6 ppg) and held the backcourt together through Abdul Gaddy's season-ending injury and Venoy Overton's suspension, which left Thomas without his usual runningmate throughout the entire Pac-10 tournament. It was his beautiful arching shot in OT that gave the Huskies a second-straight tournament title, this time over conference No. 1 seed Arizona.

Harrison Barnes (North Carolina): He may have been overhyped to start the season, but Barnes has played through the catcalls with admirable cool. He has become the leading scorer for the Tar Heels despite playing next to experienced hands like Tyler Zeller and John Henson. His nickname is the Black Falcon, and he has been clutch for Roy Williams. 'Nuff said.

Five random notes

1. A quick look at the players chosen as stars above will give you the lay of the land in this region. It's a young man's game. Behind Sullinger, Barnes and Knight is an army of freshman studs like Kendall Marshall at UNC, C.J. Fair and Dion Waiters at Syracuse, and Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox at Washington. The Buckeyes have had great showings from Aaron Craft and DeShaun Thomas in Sullinger's shadow, and the entire Kentucky roster is laden with freshmen of note.

2. The combination of factors that would cause Terrence Ross and Terrence Jones to meet are labyrinthine, but the two high school buddies from Portland, Ore., are at least in the same bracket. They are, in a way, the poster children for the growing Washington/Kentucky recruiting rivalry, which has seen several players jump ship from the Huskies to the Wildcats. Jones threw gasoline on the fire by committing to UW to play with his friend and then publicly changing his mind. The two programs could only meet in the regional final the way the brackets are laid out, and what a game that will be if it comes to pass.

3. A big heart is a good thing. An enlarged heart is a very bad thing. Long Island University player Julian Boyd helped his Blackbirds claim the NEC title, and a trip to the Big Dance, in spite of a life-threatening heart condition called noncompaction cardiomyopathy. He won't be able to play anywhere near 40 minutes, but Boyd will get to step on the floor against the legendary North Carolina Tar Heels this week, and play for the upset. (Read more about Julian Boyd in Matt Norlander's excellent piece here)

4. We can forgive Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing if he looks a bit starry-eyed. The 43-year-old Lansing was handed the reins of the Sycamores program just nine months ago. He posted a record of 20-13 on the season and would probably have been pretty happy with that winning record had that been the end of the story. Then came the epic run through the Missouri Valley tournament and a 14 seed that will match him up against the Syracuse Orange. Tall cotton for a rookie.

5. Marquette's Buzz Williams and Xavier's Chris Mack both like to recruit athletes who don't fit into the obvious molds of the 1-5 positional chart. Look no further than these matchups for some fun images: Jimmy Butler and Tu Holloway; Jamel McLean and Jae Crowder; Dwight Buycks and Mark Lyons; Kenny Frease and Chris Otule. The first-round meeting of these two programs could be the type of freewheeling scorefest that makes the early part of the tournament so memorable year after year.

Final thought You probably have a friend who doesn't understand why you love basketball so much. It's all here in the East Regional; all the pathos of classic literature: revenge, betrayal, coming of age ... you name it. It's an opera in Chuck Taylors.

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