My favorite time of the year is the one hour when the brackets are announced (only on CBS!). It allows me to focus on a number of my favorite things, such as which teams out there might pull an upset, who will make the Final Four and why Clark Kellogg refuses to look into the camera while he is talking. But after that fun hour, the focus has to shift to the brackets themselves and the matchups and storylines that will fill the month of March. For in that month, CBS shifts from multiple shows starring Mark Harmon to nights with multiple appearances by Ian Eagle. And as the ladies surely know, that marks an improvement that we can all get behind.
With that, my job today is to take an in-depth look at the East Region, a region that is headlines by the crazy Wildcats from Lexington and completed by the best school ever to come out of Johnson City, Tennessee. There are storylines aplenty, and we dont want to miss any, so lets get to it:
The favorite to cut down the nets and head to Indianapolis is surely the Kentucky Wildcats, who have transformed from an NIT team led by a coach whose favorite hangout was the local rehab facility to the slickest coach in America, John Calipari. Whether its his hairgel, quick wit or ability to wear the same plaid tie to every game, Calipari has captivated the Commonwealth and college basketball in his first year in Lexington. A big part of that success has been due to his dynamic Freshmen, John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, who figure to be 2 of the 3 top players selected in next year's NBA Draft. Kentucky comes into the Tournament 32-2 and are arguably the most talented team in America. But they are also inconsistent and have been fortunate to win virtually every close game they have been faced with this season. If they hit three pointers, they are unguardable and can win the title. If they are missing, they are vulnerable from the second round on.
When you think about West Virginia, what comes to mind? If the answer was a coach in a tracksuit with slick hair and a poor graduation rate, then you are a college basketball fan. West Virginia is the #2 seed and are the trendy pick to make the Final Four. The Mountaineers have arguably the most clutch player in college basketball in Da'sean Butler who has game winning shots against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Marquette and Hickory High, just to name a few. When the game is close, Butler has it and chances are he will either make it or he will miss it (actually he will almost always make it, I just wanted to channel my inner Digger Phelps for an inane comment). West Virginia is tough, physical and when they are hot, have the potential to beat anyone in the Tournament. A UK vs WVU final would be an instant classic and the first "Battle of Appalachia" in the Big Dance.
The great debate in America this season has been "Is Glenn Beck clinically insane?" However the second best debate has been "Who is Player of the Year, John Wall or Evan Turner?" While the consensus seems to have shifted towards the man from Columbus, John Wall is without question the best in this region. It has been a long time since college basketball has seen a Point Guard that is this athletic and can get to the rim so easily in big game situations. Down the stretch, Wall has made big play after big play and he even created his own dance that has people in Kentucky making fools of themselves on a daily basis. In short, he is a superstar and clearly the focus of the East Region.
BEST OF THE REST
Darrington Hobson - New Mexico --- The best player on the best team you have never seen play (seriously does New Mexico play on any television, anywhere? Is there a channel I can only get in the Virgin Islands to see them play? I have tried to find them on television, but it is like trying to catch a falling star...thanks Jamie Walters and "The Heights"), Hobson has the potential to make a lot of noise in March. He was the MWC Player of the Year and averages nearly 17 points a game. Plus his name is Darrington, which is really preppy and makes me wonder if he was a member of Bushwood in Caddyshack.
Da'sean Butler - West Virginia --- You know him for the clutch shots, but dont forget about the way he takes people off the dribble and controls the defensive side of the ball as well. When West Virginia needs a bucket, they go to Butler. But chances are when they need a big stop on defense or an important rebound, he is in the mix as well. The heart and soul of a Mountaineer team that is as tough as anyone in America.
Damion James - Texas --- Texas is a trainwreck of the highest order. Eleven players on their roster are probably good enough to start for all but a handful of teams in the tournament. Yet they finished 7-9 and were humiliated most of the last two months of the season. The lone bright spot is Damion James, a skywalker who can dunk on your face and then tell you about it for the next week. Texas wont make much noise but James has the ability to give you one highlight that will make "One Shining Moment."
Ryan Wittman - Cornell --- Quick tell me what you know about Cornell. Chances are that if you are under 35, it was either (a) something about "Road Trip" or (b) Andy Bernard from "The Office." But they also play some basketball there this year and the Big Red (which is also a very underrated soda by the way) are looking to make some noise with two winnable games over Temple and Wisconsin. Ryan Wittman is the offensive star of the team, scoring 18 points a game and shooting a tremendous 42% from three-point land. If Cornell is in tight games that will have Greg Gumbel shifting you off the end of your game to catch their game, you will see Wittman hit at least one bomb.
Anthony Johnson - Montana --- The start of Championship Week is trying to channel his inner Harold "The Show" Arceneaux to become the latest Big Sky player to make NCAA Tournament magic. Johnson was brilliant in the Big Sky title game, bringing back his Montana team from 20 points down with 34 points in the second half, a performance that rates as one of the best I have personally ever seen. He draws New Mexico and since I have never seen them play without an antenna and tin foil stuck to my roof, I will say that Johnson can make them cry in "The Pit." When you go to work tomorrow and someone says, "what about that tournament", just say, "do you know Anthony Johnson, well you should." You will seem smart and ladies will flock.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO PULL AN UPSET
Everyone is picking Cornell over Temple, so its cliche and I wont fall for it. I will go with Wofford to shock the world against Wisconsin. The reason most low-ranked teams cant pull an upset in the NCAA Tournament is that the differential in athleticism is so great that they simply cant guard the top seed they play. Not so with Wisconsin. The same style that keeps Bo Ryan's club in every game they play, also makes them vulnerable to upsets in too many games as well. Wofford has beaten Georgia, played South Carolina to the wire and played the last two months of the season as well as any small conference team in America. The Terriers make a shock in their first trip to the Big Dance.
MOMENT THAT WILL MAKE GUS JOHNSON YELL:
I expect a wild game in the second rounder between Missouri and West Virginia. To me, the Mountaineers have the classic makeup of a team that gets shocked in Round Two. They won their conference tournament and thus everyone has forgotten their weaknesses. They were on Desean Butler miss from losing to #11 seed Cincinnati in the first round and Huggins team is vulnerable when forced to put high point totals on the board. Mike Anderson is known for his ability to shock in the second round, coaching UAB to a second round win over overall #1 seed Kentucky in 2004. Put Gus Johnson on this game, it will go to Overtime and the Tigers can shock the Mountaineers, sending Bob Huggins back to "I have only made one Final Four" land.
GAME TO SKIP
I cant imagine any reason I would watch Marquette vs Washington. I am sure it will be close and I know that it will be one that announcers say is "gritty." But close doesnt equal good. Both teams will play physical, but the foul at all costs basketball is not the brand I prefer. Skip it and get something to eat instead. You need the rest.
IMPORTANT RANDOM TIDBITS ON EACH TEAM:
--- Kentucky players like to give each other nicknames. Demarcus Cousins goes by "Boogie", Patrick Patterson is "Black Kool-Aid", Josh Harrellson is "Jorts" and Perry Stevenson is "The Prairie Dog." That would be a great lineup for a 1970s disco group.
--- East Tennessee State's most famous alumni is Kenny Chesney, but it should be Keith "Mr." Jennings, who in 1989 almost shocked the world as he nearly helped #16 seed ETSU knock out #1 seed Oklahoma
--- Texas has Rick Barnes as its head coach. You may have forgotten that since it has looked like the Longhorns have had no coaching all season.
--- Wake Forest is the worst team at-large in the Tournament according to Jay Bilas. My friend Trevor agreed but you dont know him so I didnt think you would care.
--- Temple has their highest tournament seed since John Chaney left the program and ended the best "coach who looks like the team's mascot" comparison in America.
--- Cornell has a player named Mark Coury who started 30 games for Kentucky in his Sophomore year, averaging five minutes a game. Now he rarely plays for Cornell. Odd.
--- Wisconsin is officially the most boring basketball team in America year in and year out. (Source Everyone who has ever had to wait for a Big Ten Game to Finish before the game they care about started)
--- Wofford is located in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I have never been there but I hear it specializes in old antiques and "Its Beer-Thirty" t-shirts.
--- Marquette started the tradition of the big "Fatheads" being held up at college basketball games. That is why they are now being kicked out of the NCAA.
--- Washington has a player named Isaiah Thomas on its team and he is really good. Why did his parents do that to him AND intentionally spell his name wrong? I dont understand.
--- New Mexico is coached by Steve Alford, who famously had a testy relationship with his mentor, Bobby Knight. But unlike John Edward's mentee, he has kept the Bobby Knight sex tape private.
--- Montana won the Big Sky conference over lots of other teams from the Dakotas, Utah, Oregon and Montana. At the end of the tournament, instead of all the players circling for a team prayer, they gather around to tell stories about all the crazy white people that hate the government who live in their states.
--- Clemson starts every season 17-0 and then implodes. Except this season, when they were just mediocre throughout. That means they are dangerous.
--- Missouri is still reeling from the Quinn Snyder years. Does anyone know what happened to him? Is he still alive?
--- West Virginia officially requests that Michigan stop stealing its coaches and turning them mediocre. Thank you.
--- Morgan State is widely considered the most fun campus in the East region. But I guarantee you dont know what state it is in...and I am not going to tell you either. You should read a book once and a while.
So there you go, the East Region. I have Kentucky winning it, with Temple, Marquette and Missouri making the Final Four in the region and the Cats beating Marquette to go to Indianapolis.