West Regional: Michigan State, other stars crowd Mizzou's Final Four path

by | CBSSports.com Senior College Basketball Blogger
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Normally it's the West that's pegged as the Regional of misfit toys. The afterthoughts and wild cards usually get sent here because college basketball's lacking in really good teams west of Kansas, so it's a hodgepodge of interesting and underwhelming.

In 2012: not necessarily the case. Top-seeded Michigan State has been slated with a gargantuan task. Memphis in the Round of 32? The Tigers were wildly under-seeded, and are really more worthy of meeting MSU in the Sweet 16.

We've got six at-larges involved, including the unprecedented 14-seed first-round game between BYU and Iona. There's a lot to love about this region. In fact, it's probably my favorite due to the combination of unpredictably and legitimate talent. And how about the array of ballers that almost every team can boast? Here are the guys not listed in the "Stars on Display" category below: Jae Crowder, Darius Johnson-Odom, Mike Scott, Brad Beal, Scott Machado, Casper Ware, Peyton Siva and Patric Young. Even a guy like LIU-Brooklyn's Julian Boyd will get a look at the NBA.

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One huge storyline in this Regional is the fact the Missouri Tigers have never been to a Final Four. They're arguably the greatest program to never make it. Is it this cast with this coach that achieves it? We all root for great games, big upsets and as much drama as possible in the NCAA tournament. Within those confines, we're also rooting for good stories. This year's field provides plenty of those, but if we get to New Orleans and Missouri is one of the teams flying in to roll the balls out one or two more times, there won't be many better stories than that.

Five main storylines 1. Can Mizzou make a Final Four? You want to talk about unpredictable years? Nobody tops Frank Haith. This is the guy who coached at Miami, was well under .500 in ACC play and got the Mizzou job at Final Four weekend last year out of nowhere. The hire was mocked. Then came the Yahoo Sports story that took 49 land mines to the Miami athletic department and its football and basketball programs. Haith was named in the report. The case is still ongoing. Meanwhile, Missouri's rolled to a No. 2 seed as Haith has become a prime candidate for Coach of the Year. It's all stunning and one of college basketball's most outstanding stories.

2. Izzo's March: Can you believe that 2012 marked the first time in 11 years that the Michigan State Spartans won the Big Ten tournament? With that, MSU gets a No. 1 seed -- but it's got a bear to go through. Few coaches (any coaches?) have done more in this month than Izzo when you consider the places he's started -- then ended up. Six Final Fours. As a one seed in a very tough region, can he make it seven?

3. How far can Iona go? We've already done some handwringing on the site over Iona's inclusion, but that doesn't matter anymore. What matters is this team is a very dangerous 14 seed. It's the highest-scoring offense (83.3 points per game) and most friendly one, too (19.3 assists per game is nation's best).

4. Racers for real? Murray State cruises under the radar at this point. That undefeated season went kapoof against Tennessee State on Feb. 9, but since then Steve Prohm's team hasn't missed a beat. It opens up against No. 11 Colorado State, a team that hasn't been the same away from home this season. The question is, if Murray State doesn't reach the Sweet 16, will people consider the Racers overhyped?

5. Upset alerts: Memphis can beat Michigan State. No. 7 Florida can beat Missouri. Davidson can beat Louisville. New Mexico looks vulnerable against No. 12 Long Beach State, and we all know the mandatory 12-over-5 rule. This Regional goes beyond the Round of 64 and Round of 32 for upsets. I'd be shocked if Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 are all still alive when we get to the Sweet 16.

West Regional Picks

Who will win: Missouri If for no other reason that this: Six of the past seven national champions (only UConn doesn't jibe) have been rated first or second in KenPom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. So where's Missouri at? No. 1, baby. The Tigers are 124.8 points per 100 possessions. That's obviously fantastic -- and a good sign that, at the very least, this team should get to the Elite Eight with its well-lubed O.

Dark horse pick: Memphis The Tigers are the most under-seeded team in this field. They should've been a six at worst, are probably a five, and if you told me they got to the Final Four in this region with only one close shave, I wouldn't flinch. Josh Pastner's team is awesome this year and is eying New Orleans without a care in the world about the number attached to their name.

Most likely upset: Since Murray State over Marquette isn't a true upset, we'll stick with Memphis and say Tigers over the Spartans in the Round of 32. Memphis is the No. 8 KenPom.com team and has a top-20 offense and top-12 defense. They match up well to the Spartans because Tom Izzo's team isn't as fast or physical.

Best mascot: This isn't a particularly great region for mascots (we have two Spartans with MSU and Norfolk State), but the Billikens of Saint Louis are certainly a top-10 nickname in college hoops.

Best point guard: Oh, man. This is an awesome region for points. I'm going Casper Ware of Long Beach State. He's a future pro and does it all for the 49ers. If you had to whittle down the field of players from teams outside the Big Six conference and made your top five list of players who can steal the show this year, Ware is easily one of them. The guy is electric.

Best post player: Michigan State's Draymond Green, who will finish No. 3 on my writers' Player of the Year ballots. Green is so much more than a post player, but because he's so versatile he's the most dangerous when he sets up shop on the block.

Best coach: Either Izzo or Rick Pitino. They have the same number of national championships, but Izzo has more Final Fours. Pitino's taken three programs to college basketball's grand stage. I'm taking Izzo by the slimmest of margins.

Best reputation: Goodness. The more and more categories I roll through, the more I see myself addressing Michigan State. It has to be the Spartans because of Izzo, the history of reaching Final Fours, Green as a first-team All-America and being the No. 1 seed. Not many programs have had the success over a 12-year period in the NCAAs at any point in history like Michigan State. Also -- Izzo could be the most beloved coach in college basketball.

Five stars on display 1. Draymond Green: We've touched on Green's game, but just to add: he's the most versatile player taller than 6-6 to play for the Spartans since Magic Johnson. That do enough for you?

2. Murray State's Isaiah Canaan: The tough-as-nails guard for the Racers could find himself on some All-America first teams, too. He hits big shots, guards people, is fearless in the lane and was born to sink a buzzer-beater. Beautiful player to watch, and he'll decide how far Murray State goes. If you don't already know the name, now you do.

3. Memphis' Will Barton: The slender sophomore forward has turned his game into something fairly unstoppable. He's a mismatch for so many because he can play the agile wing, pull up from 16 feet or just attack the hoop from any angle. At 6-6, Barton scores 1.16 points per possession and leads the team in defensive rebounding rate.

4. Missouri's Marcus Denmon: This is how I know this region is going to be awesome. Denmon, like the three guys listed above him, is playing like one of the 10 best players in the country. He's Missouri's two-guard, but he can run the show if need be. He turns it over less than 10 percent of the time, which is one of the best rates for his position. He also commits 1.1 fouls per 40 minutes, fourth-lowest rate in the country. He's incredibly valuable and deserves a big moment. Hopefully the senior gets it here.

5. New Mexico's Drew Gordon: I've got to go with another guy from outside the Big Six conferences. Gordon's a senior big man who's pretty much unguardable when he wants to be. He's the fourth-most effective defensive rebounder in the country. Beyond the numbers, he's just a pain in the rear to play against. He's big, has a face made of stone and just disrupts players' existence when he's earning his keep in the paint.

Six random notes

1. Big-time talent everywhere: It was almost impossible to whittle this field down. No other Regional has the West's wide array of talent on each team. A star in almost every game.

2. The 12-over-5 pick: I check my Twitter feed and see Long Beach State is the chic selection this year for this genre. That tells me I should stay away.

3. Louisville in trouble again? Last year, I went to Denver and watched Morehead State beat Louisville in a 13-over-4 game. This year: I go to Portland, where I'll see Louisville again -- where it's a four seed. And it gets Davidson, a school you'll recall made quite the run a few years back. The Wildcats beat Kansas earlier this year. This could be a trendy Round of 64 upset pick.

4. Sticky to my Gator guns: I maintained there was no way I would take Florida to get to the Elite Eight this season, and I'm standing by that. Wonder how popular picking UF over Missouri will become?

5. Iona can be this year's VCU -- to an extent: The Gaels get BYU Tuesday in the first-round game that genuinely gets me excited. This team can reach the Sweet 16 because of its offense. The committee clearly went with the eye test in some cases (like this one) and not others (South Florida). Gaels are a ball to watch. They've been given a chance; let's see if they capitalize like VCU did when it was a First Four team.

6. Missouri as a surprise: Every other year or so we get a team that hops up into a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and we're not sure how to feel. You remember Auburn in 2000, Wisconsin in 2007, San Diego State last season. There have been others, too. Most of these "surprise" teams don't reach the Final Four. Does Missouri buck the trend? What if the Tigers lose in the Round of 32 or the Sweet 16? Wouldn't that be something? Now, I'm not rooting for it, but after this fantastic season, what if the coach who was known for being unable to win when it mattered had that reputation catch him again? It's been great so far for Missouri, but anything less than Elite Eight could stick to Haith, fair or not.

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