Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NCAA Tournament: West Region

For a look at the South Region, click here.

WEST REGION

Best Player: Draymond Green, Michigan State - Green is one of the most versatile players in the entire nation, a nearly automatic double-double (16.5 ppg and 10.5 rpg) who can also run the Spartans' offense (3.5 apg) and shoot from outside (40%).  In addition to filling a stat sheet, the Dancing Bear is a vocal leader who has guided Michigan State particularly well this season after chemistry issues dogged them last year en route to an early exit in the tournament.  Because of the schedule that they play every year, the Spartans are rarely a top seed, and Green is a big part of why they claimed the fourth 1-seed this spring.  His coach says he's the best leader that the school has ever had outside of Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, and Green will be itching to match those two point guards with a championship of his own this year.

Most Important Player: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State - The subtitle should say "besides Draymond Green."  Other than Green, no player in this region may be more important to his team's success than Canaan, the 6'0", 190-pound point guard for the one-loss Racers. Basically, Canaan makes Murray State go.  As good as they've been this year, they can't hope for a run to the second weekend unless he's having big games.  Canaan can score (19.7 ppg), dish (3.7 apg) and shoot (47% from behind the arc), and if Murray State wins its opener against Colorado State, he will have an excellent opportunity to show his talents off against a strong, perimeter-oriented Marquette team.  An extra mention here goes to Canaan's teammate Ed Daniel, who has the best hair in the tournament; he's sporting a Ben Wallace afro that has its own Twitter account (@ed_hair).

Most Interesting Player: Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri - About the only actual forward who plays any serious minutes for the Tigers, Ratliffe has managed to be extaordinarily productive despite being undersized for a major-conference center (6'8", 240).  Ratliffe scores more than thirteen points a game by cleaning up his teammates' rare misses and never taking a bad shot; he leads the NCAA with an absurd 71% shooting percentage from the floor, a rate that is actually better than what he shoots from the charity stripe (69%).  He's a good-but-not-great rebounder, averaging 7.5 a game.  It will be interesting to see how far he can carry the Tigers, although luck is on their side, as Mizzou could very well get all the way to the Elite 8 without facing a true big man (Patric Young and Ivan Aska are similarly sized, and Jae Crowder is smaller).

Most to Prove to the Scouts: Jae Crowder, Marquette - The question is, can he legitimately play in the NBA?  Crowder won the Big East MVP this season by helping lead the Golden Eagles to a surprise second-place finish in the league, averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds along the way.  Those are great numbers for the power forward-center, but at 6'6" and 235 pounds, Crowder will have to play on the perimeter at the next level.  To be fair, he is a capable long-range shooter (35%) and has quick hands on defense (2.4 steals), but he is not a super-explosive athlete, and needs to prove he can guard big athletes on the perimeter.  Should Iona win tonight, he'll get a chance Thursday against the Gaels' Mike Glover in what should be an exciting matchup.

Most Exciting Unknown Player: Scott Machado, Iona/Casper Ware, Long Beach State/Will Barton, Memphis - I will spare you additional coverage of Machado and Ware, and just talk about Barton.  Now that John Calipari has upgraded to Kentucky, Memphis doesn't spend as much time on national television, but coach Josh Pastner (a walk-on on Arizona's 1997 title team) has kept the Tigers at the top of Conference USA.  Barton is his best player, a string-bean shooting guard (6'6", 175) who is an excellent scorer (18.1) and, shockingly, also the Tigers' best rebounder (8.1).  Barton may be an iffy shooter from outside (34%), but is very effective from anywhere inside the arc (56%), as well as at the line (75%).  He will have great opportunities to prove his toughness against Rick Majerus' Saint Louis team and possibly Michigan State.

Coach With the Best Chance to Land a Bigger Job: Steve Prohm, Murray State - I am sure that the Murray State athletic director's phone has already been ringing for most of the week, since some schools have already decided to move on (Illinois, Nebraska, Tulsa).  Prohm has been incredibly successful in his first season as a head coach, leading the Racers to a 30-1 overall record that includes two wins over top-20 teams (Memphis and Saint Mary's) spaced two months apart.  Prohm might want to be cautious about accepting a bigger offer, as he is only one year removed from the assistant's chair, and might find the astronomically higher expectations hard to deal with at a higher-profile school.  But Prohm is devoted to coaching (he gave up a basketball playing career at the Division III level as a freshman to be a student assistant coach at Alabama), and the guess here is that he'll be fine wherever he lands.

Second Round Selections
1 Michigan State over 16 Long Island - Tom Izzo, a master of March, certainly isn't going to lose in the first round.

8 Memphis over 9 Saint Louis - Pastner's speedy Tigers, led by Barton, will outrun Rick Majerus' Billikens in a close game.

5 New Mexico over 12 Long Beach State - I wanted to go with the 49ers, but Larry Anderson's knee injury leaves them with a big question mark against Drew Gordon and the Lobos.

13 Davidson over 4 Louisville - The Cardinals have had a lot of trouble scoring points this year, which is hard to believe from a Rick Pitino team.  The Wildcats, on the other hand, can score quickly.

6 Murray State over 11 Colorado State - This will effectively be a home game for the Racers in Louisville, and their disciplined defense and excellent transition offense will overwhelm the Rams.

3 Marquette over 14 Iona - This will be a very close game, but Iona, even with Optimus Prime, doesn't have the overwhelming size that is generally necessary to beat the Golden Eagles.

7 Florida over 10 Virginia - This is an "offense vs. defense" matchup, but the Gators will knock down their threes and take advantage of Virginia's shallow bench.

2 Missouri over 15 Norfolk State - The Tigers' offensive machine keeps on rolling in their first tournament game.

Third Round Selections
1 Michigan State over 8 Memphis - The skinny Tigers will find rebounds extremely hard to come by against Green and the Spartans.

5 New Mexico over 13 Davidson - The Lobos will force the Wildcats to try and beat them from deep, where they are not as good as you would expect from a Bob McKillop team.

3 Marquette over 6 Murray State - DJO and Crowder can match up very well with Canaan and Ivan Aska, the Racers' primary offensive threats from inside and out.

2 Missouri over 7 Florida - The Gators are essentially a poor man's version of Mizzou, who will outshoot Florida on their way to the second weekend.

Sweet 16 Selections
1 Michigan State over 5 New Mexico - While the individual matchup between Green and Gordon should be fantastic, Green's leadership will provide the difference here.

2 Missouri over 3 Marquette - The Tigers roll on against another team that can't quite overwhelm their shooters or shut down Ratliffe inside.

Elite 8 Selection
2 Missouri over 1 Michigan State - Nobody is better at cleaning up the defensive glass than the Spartans, but the Tigers make more than enough shots to negate that advantage, and here the loss of Branden Dawson finally hurts Michigan State when they need to run with Mizzou.