And here we are, with the last region of the tournament! If you want to read about the South, West, or East, feel free to follow the links.
Best Player: Thomas Robinson, Kansas/Doug McDermott, Creighton - These are two surefire first-team All-Americans, but we already covered McDermott on Monday. Robinson has gone from role player as a sophomore to total stud as a junior, a near-automatic double-double (18 and 12) who plays hard on both ends of the floor. At 6'9" and 237 pounds, Robinson is both strong and quick, able to score from anywhere inside the arc (53%), and has even canned six of his thirteen three-point attempts this season. He is just an average free-throw shooter (68%), but gets himself to the line often, wearing down opposing big men. He certainly won't face anyone who can handle him until the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, and maybe not at all. Robinson is a very entertaining player to watch, and given all the tragedy he went through last season, an easy one to root for also.
Most Important Player: Kendall Marshall, North Carolina - No player is as important to their team's success as Marshall is to the Tar Heels. Roy Williams' teams are only as good as their point guards, and fortunately for him, he has one of the best in the country in Marshall, who's second in the nation with 9.6 assists a game. While he lacks the elite end-to-end speed of predecessors Ty Lawson and Ray Felton (and in fact, lacks much of any speed at all), Marshall still pushes the pace well by throwing perfect half-court passes that lead to easy Carolina baskets. The knock on him for much of the past two years has been his defense (below-average even by Roy's let's-just-outscore-'em standards) and his lack of a jump shot (34% from downtown on the year). But watch out; in Carolina's last four games, starting with the Duke rematch, Marshall has shown some signs of being a scorer, totaling 60 points on 28-45 shooting from the floor, while still dishing out 41 assists. If Marshall can continue to be an effective option when looking for his own shot, it will be extremely difficult to beat the Heels this March.
Most Interesting Player: Robbie Hummel, Purdue - Once one of the celebrated "Baby Boilers" of Matt Painter's first major recruiting class (with JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, both current members of the Boston Celtics), and after making some noise in the Big Ten and in the NCAA tournament as freshmen and sophomores, they were expected to perhaps unleash a Final Four run in 2010. But late in the season, Hummel tore his ACL, pushing the Boilermakers down to a 4-seed, where they lost to eventual champion Duke in the Sweet 16. The trio all decided to come back for their senior seasons (shades of Florida, perhaps?), but Hummel promptly re-tore his ACL in one of their first practices, and Purdue was never the same potentially dominant team. Now Hummel is back alone as a fifth-year senior, trying to make another run, but it will be tough sledding against a strong Saint Mary's team, and if the Boilermakers get past that, a likely date with Kansas.
Most to Prove to the Scouts: C. J. Leslie, North Carolina State - Leslie is an explosive athlete who plays power forward in college, but at 6'8" and 210 pounds will have to transition to the perimeter in the NBA. He has gotten better in his sophomore season, averaging just over 14 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while shooting 53% from the floor. But his shooting touch away from the basket remains a work in progress, highlighted by his rather ugly 60% mark from the free throw line. The Wolf Pack got a decent draw as an 11-seed in this region, and there's a decent chance that Leslie could have two or even three games to show his skills off.
Most Exciting Unknown Player: Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's/Ray McCallum, Detroit - Dellavedova is not completely unknown; he was the point guard for Saint Mary's back when Oman Samhan led them to the Sweet 16 a couple of years ago, and you may remember him as the homely, bedheaded Aussie with an absolutely enormous mouthguard. He's now the star for the Gaels, a big (6'4", 190) guard who can score (15.6) and pass (6.4). He's certainly not incredibly athletic or flashy, but he is very efficient for Randy Bennett's team. McCallum was a McDonald's All-American two years ago who passed up plenty of offers from big schools in order to stay home and play for his dad at Detroit. A very good athlete at 6'2" and 188 pounds, McCallum is the Titans' primary scorer, although his three-point shooting has been pretty poor this year (25%). Still, it's rare for a 15-seed to have a player of his caliber, and there is certainly a chance that he could single-handedly put a scare into a Kansas team that has a history of losing earlier than they should (with the notable exception of 2008).
Coach With the Best Chance at a Bigger Job: Rick Byrd, Belmont - Byrd has been the coach at Belmont forever, since 1986 when they were still an NAIA school. The Bruins moved to Division I in 1996 and toiled as an independent for five years before joining the Atlantic Sun Conference. Since that move (starting in 2001-2002), Belmont has made the postseason seven times, including five NCAA tournament trips, although they have yet to win a game there. Still, this is a dangerous team, one that took Duke down to the wire in their season opener, in Cameron Indoor Stadium no less (they also lost a close one to Duke in the first round of the 2008 tournament). The Bruins have been knocking at the door for some time, and their first opponent this year will be Georgetown, a team that has lost consecutive NCAA tournament openers and due to their style of play is particularly vulnerable when they fall behind. If Byrd can coach his team past Georgetown and maybe into the second weekend, athletic directors will be lining up to talk to him.
Second Round Selections
1 UNC over 16 Vermont - Alas, T. J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath are no longer around to lead the Catamounts to big-time upsets (Gus Johnson on the call).
8 Creighton over 9 Alabama - Anthony Grant's Tide will not be able to slow down McDermott and the Bluejays.
5 Temple over 12 South Florida - Both teams play tough defense, but Fran Dunphy's team can score some points as well with their trio of excellent guards.
4 Michigan over 13 Ohio - John Beilein is typically excellent at game preparation with this much advance notice, and it will be no different here.
11 NC State over 6 San Diego State - The Pack have turned things around since suffering three brutal losses in February, and after their run to the ACC semis, they believe in themselves.
3 Georgetown over 14 Belmont - Belmont needs to can its threes to win, and Georgetown only allows opponents to shoot 27% from deep.
7 Saint Mary's over 10 Purdue - The Aussies, er, Gaels can not only score, they have the size to match up with a Big Ten team, and will stifle the Boilermakers on defense.
2 Kansas over 15 Detroit - Detroit may have McCallum, but they won't have an answer for both Robinson and Jeff Withey inside.
Third Round Selections
1 UNC over 8 Creighton - McDermott is good, but he will be guarded by John Henson, whose length will frustrate him enough to slow down the entire Creighton offense.
5 Temple over 4 Michigan - Juan Fernandez, Khalif Wyatt, and Ramone Moore are just as good as the Wolverines' Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., and the Owls' D will make the difference.
11 NC State over 3 Georgetown - Leslie and Richard Howell, together with the resurgent Lorenzo Brown, put the Hoyas in a hole that they are unable to climb out of.
2 Kansas over 7 Saint Mary's - The Gaels have size, and have beaten Gonzaga twice with their big frontcourt, but Robinson and Withey are bigger and tougher than the Zags, as Saint Mary's will find.
Sweet 16 Selections
1 UNC over 5 Temple - The Tar Heels' giant front line will make scoring in the paint extremely hard for the Owls.
2 Kansas over 11 NC State - Robinson overpowers Leslie inside and Tyshawn Taylor outperforms Brown on the perimeter.
Elite 8 Selection
2 Kansas over 1 UNC - The Jayhawks are the rare team that has size to counter the Heels, and Robinson is strong and athletic enough to bully Henson. The Jayhawks win when they force the Heels to try and beat them with their suspect outside shooting.
Enjoy the games today!