Commentary

West Region breakdown

Originally Published: March 14, 2011
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

Ten first impressions

1. Duke got shipped West in exchange for getting a No. 1 seed, and while the road to the Final Four is very doable, it won't be easy. Potential Elite Eight matchups include No. 2 seed San Diego State in Southern California and No. 3 seed Connecticut and Kemba Walker. The Blue Devils must hope Kyle Singler regains his shooting touch, and while Kyrie Irving's availability is unlikely, look for Nolan Smith to continue his player of the year-type season. First comes Hampton, led by former Virginia Tech signee Darrion Pellum, who averages 17.7 points per game.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego State
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireSan Diego State received a favorable draw in that the Aztecs will play close to home all the way through the West Region.

2. San Diego State should be happy getting a No. 2 seed and being able to stay out west in Tucson and Anaheim since the fan support should help. For a program that has yet to win a single NCAA tournament game, it's really one game at a time, and Northern Colorado is no pushover, with Devon Beitzel (21.4 ppg) leading the Bears. Potential matchups with Temple and Connecticut wouldn't be easy either, so the Aztecs will need continued solid play from Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay and Billy White. James Rahon will have to knock down 3-pointers against teams that zone San Diego State.

3. The whole five wins in five days adventure clearly vaulted Kemba Walker and Connecticut into the national conversation, and in some ways, the NCAA tournament might be an easier road than the Big East tournament. Does that momentum guarantee success in the tournament? No, but what team is going to beat Walker in a last-shot scenario? Walker is a game-changer, and Jim Calhoun is one of the country's best coaches; his year began with NCAA accusations and ended most recently with a Big East tournament title. Opening-round opponent Bucknell has had surprise tournament success in the past, but the Huskies go into the tournament with a ton of confidence.

4. Texas hoped for a better seed and easier path to the Final Four, but didn't get it. An opening-round game against an Oakland team that features an NBA-caliber player in Keith Benson will be interesting, and a potential matchup against future lottery pick Derrick Williams and Arizona isn't desirable. But for a team that still has the horses in Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson and was battle-tested in the Big 12, the Longhorns won't be an easy out. The nation's No. 1 team at one point, Texas has what it takes to surprise with a run to the Final Four.

5. After Pac-10 regular-season champion Arizona gets over the sting of losing the conference championship game on an Isaiah Thomas buzzer-beater, it should get plenty fired up over taking on opening-round opponent Memphis and coach Josh Pastner, a former Arizona player and assistant coach. Luckily for the Wildcats, they can match the Tigers' athleticism with Derrick Williams and hope Lamont Jones can continue his solid play into the NCAA tournament. The game will test the maturity of a young team that is only a little more experienced than Memphis. Win this one, and a potential matchup against Texas would be a fun one to watch.

6. Cincinnati is likely one of the teams to be picked to be upset in the opening round; the Bearcats face a Missouri team that probably deserved better than a No. 11 seed. Cincinnati appears vulnerable coming off a 38-point loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament. At the same time, there will be plenty of emotion for a veteran group that has experienced the lean years in a program that has been rebuilt by coach Mick Cronin. Win against Missouri, and Cincinnati is looking at a potential game against familiar Big East opponent Connecticut.

7. Temple shouldn't look past Talor Battle and Penn State, but if the Owls get a date with San Diego State, it could get interesting. The Owls have experienced players with Ramone Moore and Lavoy Allen and are good on defense with Fran Dunphy coaching. Even though they didn't win the A-10 regular season or tournament titles, they won 11 of 12 games heading into the conference tournament. Temple could be a surprise team.

8. Michigan and Tennessee have taken their lumps this season, with the Wolverines losing 13 games and the Volunteers 14. Both teams finished .500 in conference play. But aside from the inconsistencies, the tournament offers a chance to showcase Michigan's Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. against Tennessee's Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris. The Volunteers haven't had a winning streak since Feb. 3 and had to deal with the suspension of coach Bruce Pearl. At one point, Michigan had a six-game losing streak. With a win, a lot of the tough times will be left in the past.

9. No, Missouri isn't playing well going into the tournament, having lost four of five, but Marcus Denmon can change the Tigers' fortunes. The junior guard is doing his best to carry the team, and the Tigers can run with Cincinnati and possibly Connecticut. Mike Anderson might have to spend his time at the tournament addressing coaching openings, but he got a decent matchup against the Bearcats even if the seeding could have been better than No. 11. It'll also be interesting to see how the Tigers do since they have struggled mightily away from home.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesCan Kemba Walker and UConn carry their momentum from the Big East tournament into the West Region?

10. Memphis' young team went from being nationally ranked to a dud, but rallied to win the Conference USA tournament and has plenty of talent to pull an upset. With freshmen Will Barton, Joe Jackson and Tarik Black leading the way, the product on the court has been inconsistent but full of potential for coach Josh Pastner. Does it all pay off in the NCAA tournament? If it does, look out for this No. 12 seed.

Five players to watch

1. Kemba Walker, Connecticut. He's a national player of the year candidate with the proven ability to hit the big shot, so what's not to like? The nation's fourth-leading scorer averages 23.5 points per game and plays with a New York flair that is easy on the eyes. He's a pure joy to watch and the biggest reason for the Huskies' surprising season.

2. Nolan Smith, Duke. He already has a national championship ring from last year, but this season has been his best work. Kyrie Irving has been out with a toe injury, so Smith took on more of the load and rallied the team. Smith's smile and background story made national headlines last season, and now he's back for more.

3. Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State. If you get a chance, look at the size of his hands. There's a reason why many consider him to be the Mountain West Conference's best NBA prospect, with his versatility and ability to rack up rebounds and average a double-double. If the Aztecs continue their historic season with a deep run, Leonard will be right in the middle of it.

4. Derrick Williams, Arizona. He's the main reason for the Wildcats' revival, and this expected future lottery pick is tremendously athletic. Aside from the dunks and leaping ability, Williams has the smarts to get to the line and leads the nation in free throw attempts. He's a matchup nightmare who has a knack for coming up big in late-game situations.

5. Keith Benson, Oakland. He's a mid-major star who didn't enter last year's NBA draft only because of injury. Now he has a chance to become a legend by adding NCAA tournament success to his consecutive Summit League Player of the Year awards. The 6-foot-11 center could be one of the tournament's breakout stars if the Golden Grizzlies can advance.

Three second-round games to watch

1. Arizona-Memphis. If the NCAA selection committee had an eye for storylines, it hit on this one with Memphis coach Josh Pastner taking on the school where he was a player and assistant coach. Pastner was once the Wildcats' top recruiter and now gets to take on an Arizona team on the upswing. The battle between Memphis' freshman talent and Arizona's sophomore talent should be a sight to see.

[+] EnlargeKeith Benson
Don McPeak/US PresswireLed by Keith Benson, Oakland is a trendy upset pick against Texas.

2. Texas-Oakland. Oakland's Keith Benson will be a load for Texas to handle, and the Golden Grizzlies will be looked upon as a possible upset pick. But the Longhorns can counter with freshman forward Tristan Thompson. It's your classic tricky 4 versus 13 matchup.

3. Cincinnati-Missouri. How will Cincinnati handle Missouri's up-and-down style? It will be interesting to see against a Tigers team that appears to be better than its No. 11 seed would suggest. It's one of those games where a Missouri win would barely qualify as an upset.

Possible future matchups

1. Duke-San Diego State. This potential matchup in the Elite Eight would be amazing with the storyline of the blue blood versus a program making its first deep NCAA tournament run. San Diego State would in no way be overmatched athletically or experience-wise. The Aztecs would also be playing about two hours from campus in Anaheim, getting a shot against the defending champs.

2. Texas-Arizona. A possible matchup between bright young stars Derrick Williams and Tristan Thompson for the right to go to the Sweet 16 would be fun to watch. Also, two proud programs playing at a time when Arizona is trying to get back to the top would create added intrigue.

3. Connecticut-Cincinnati. Big East teams going at it for the right to go to the Sweet 16? Sure, why not? Kemba Walker led the Huskies to an eight-point win in a hostile environment in their only meeting this season. That Huskies win stopped a two-game losing streak, and a win here would get them into the second week of the NCAAs.

Possible Cinderella

Oakland: The Golden Grizzlies simply know how to win, as they've lost only one game in the calendar year. They have NCAA tournament experience from last season in a game against Pittsburgh. And they have a mid-major star in center Keith Benson. Can they get to the second week? There's a chance, especially if they upset Texas and Memphis takes out Arizona.

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.