- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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Ten first impressions
1. As draws go, Kansas could have done worse. No disrespect to Notre Dame, Purdue, Louisville or Vanderbilt, but the Jayhawks look like the overwhelming favorite to win the Southwest, and not only because that's what the chalk is telling us. It's also because the matchups say so. Kansas, with its bevy of experienced guards and its balanced and versatile frontcourt, has the chops to handle any team in this region, especially on its side of the bracket. Compare that to Ohio State, which might face Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and either Syracuse or North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Or Duke, which could play Tennessee in the second round and Texas -- one of the most underseeded teams in the field -- five days later. Kansas isn't without legitimate challengers (Louisville will be a very tough out in this tournament; Notre Dame and Purdue are obvious threats at the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds), but of the No. 1 seeds, perhaps only Pitt has a more favorable route to Houston.
2. What do we make of Georgetown? Hoyas guard Chris Wright was cleared to play in the NCAA tournament late Sunday night. His health will be crucial to the Hoyas. With Wright at full strength, Georgetown was racing through the Big East schedule and looking like a Final Four-ready team. After Wright broke his hand, the Hoyas averaged 53 points per game in three straight losses. Will Wright be wearing a cast? Will he be at full strength? How limited will his game be? The answers could be the difference between a deep tournament run and a likely struggle to get past the winner of the USC-VCU first-four matchup.
3. Richmond at a No. 12 seed? Really? The committee's work on this bracket drew confused complaints from all corners Sunday night, and one such example is Richmond's spot on the No. 12 line. A No. 12 seed denotes some sort of bubble trouble, but the Spiders were never (or at least shouldn't have been) at risk of missing the tournament whether or not they won their conference's automatic bid Sunday. They did win that tournament, and they toppled Temple and capped off a 27-7 season in doing so. For their trouble, they got the same spot as Memphis, which arguably needed to win its conference tournament just to get into the tournament. The only explanation here is nonconference strength of schedule; Richmond, like several of the spurned bubble teams (including Colorado) didn't have much on its nonconference résumé. But the Spiders don't deserve to be this low. Which brings us to No. 4
4. Vanderbilt caught a tough draw. I have no problem with the Commodores' getting a No. 5 seed. But because the committee pushed Richmond all the way down to the No. 12 line, whatever benefit Kevin Stallings' team might have derived from its solid regular season now goes out the window. Richmond is a dangerous team, and Vanderbilt won't have the same first-round odds as, say, fellow No. 5 seed the West Virginia Mountaineers, whose résumé was arguably inferior and who get to play the winner of the UAB/Clemson first-four game.
5. No, I don't believe the NCAA seeds the field based on storylines. You shouldn't, either. The committee has a tough-enough time trying to make sure all the teams are seeded appropriately; it genuinely doesn't have time to weigh PR considerations in the process. But for those who will go on stubbornly believing such conspiracy tales, Illinois' placement in the bracket -- in which former Illinois coach Lon Kruger will take on his former program in the first round, followed by a possible matchup with another former Illinois coach in Bill Self -- won't do much to dissuade the conspiracy theorists.
6. Texas A&M-Florida State is the platonic No. 7 versus No. 10 ideal. How so? Because 7/10 games almost always feature decent-but-not-great teams from high-major conferences, teams that have their share of successes throughout the season but aren't much of a threat to make deep NCAA tournament runs. The gut feeling from most fans is that No. 7 versus No. 10 matchups are, well, boring. And no offense to either the Aggies or the Seminoles, both of whom are capable, talented squads, but combine these plodding styles of play into one game and, well, yeah. This could be a bit of a yawner.
7. The Boilermakers could have been a No. 2 seed, but late losses to Iowa and Michigan State caused them to drop to the No. 3 line. But the bad news ends there. JaJuan Johnson & Co. got the benefit of the Chicago pod, where they will be greeted by thousands of raucous Purdue alumni and trailed by just as many excited Indiana natives who will happily take the two-hour drive up I-65. The same goes for Notre Dame, which lost out on a No. 1 seed but will be just as pleased as Matt Painter's team with its first-round location. Notre Dame may be disappointed to miss on a No. 1 seed, but which would the Irish prefer: The No. 1 seed in Anaheim? Or the No. 2 seed in Chicago? I wouldn't be surprised if Mike Brey chose the latter. Sweet home Chicago, indeed.
8. That said, the quirks of NCAA tournament travel are such that if seeds hold at the bottom of the Southwest, both Purdue and Notre Dame would meet in the Sweet 16 in San Antonio. This is a little disappointing, because imagine how awesome it would have been to see a United Center crowd split 50-50 between Purdue and Notre Dame fans? The answer: very awesome. Instead, two schools separated by 110 miles would travel 1,303 miles to play each other. Given this bear of a winter in the Chicago area, something tells me neither team would mind the southbound journey.
9. If Georgetown is the biggest question mark in this bracket, Illinois might come in at No. 2. It's the same story Illini fans have been hearing (and seeing) all season: Illinois has enough talent to beat anyone in the country. Rarely, if ever, have the Illini harnessed that talent for a full 40 minutes. The best guess is that this team will play as it's played throughout January, February and March, which is to say: not well. But if Demetri McCamey can put something together, and this team can manage its shot selection and drain a few 3s hey, you never know.
10. Keep an eye on Dayton this week. I'm not sure VCU deserves to be in the tournament based on its accomplishments but that doesn't mean the Rams aren't a threat. VCU could beat USC in the first-four format Wednesday and give Georgetown a serious run for its money; the Rams' up-tempo style is the kind of off-kilter offense that can rattle opponents in a single-elimination format. For that matter, keep an eye on USC, too. The Trojans sneaked in on the bubble, but they've been playing their best basketball down the stretch and have proved capable of beating elite teams throughout the season. Georgetown had better hope it's at full strength, because whoever wins this first-four matchup could prove to be a very a tough out.
Five players to watch
1. Kenneth Faried, Morehead State. Thankfully, Morehead State won its conference tournament's automatic bid. This way, the national college hoops viewing public will get to see Faried -- who passed Tim Duncan for the all-time Division I rebounding record this season -- in all his hyperactive, physically dominating, rebound-gathering glory. Louisville will have to be careful in the first round: If Faried dominates the undersized Cardinals on the glass, Morehead can make this a game.
2. Marcus Morris, Kansas. No surprise here: Morris is arguably the Big 12's best player. He's certainly one of its most entertaining. Morris still does all the things that got him into Kansas' starting lineup alongside Cole Aldrich last season, but he's expanded his game by leaps and bounds this season. Morris can get you from anywhere on the court; he's an excellent passer and a solid perimeter shooter, and he can face up on the elbow or bang in the block with the best big men in the country. He plays within Kansas' swing-motion system, but this half of the Morrii is a treat for viewers in and of himself.
3. Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame. The Irish have turned into a hyperefficient offensive machine this season, and Ben Hansbrough is the main reason. Thanks to intelligent point guard play, a knockdown jumper and some good old-fashioned Hansbroughian intensity, the ND's leading scorer transformed himself from an afterthought transfer to the Big East Player of the Year in the matter of two seasons.
4. JaJuan Johnson, Purdue. JaJuan Johnson, Purdue: When Purdue announced that star forward Robbie Hummel was set to miss his entire senior season with a torn ACL -- the same injury that cost Hummel and Purdue a title shot in 2010 -- forward JaJuan Johnson said it was incumbent on himself to make up for Hummel's loss. He hasn't let the Boilermakers down. Johnson is having a first-team All-America-type year as he and senior guard E'Twaun Moore lead the surprising and resilient Boilers into the duo's last chance at a national title. If it wasn't for Johnson's unique blend of outside-in forward play, coupled with his knack for rebounding and interior defense, that "chance" wouldn't exist.
5. John Jenkins, Vanderbilt. Had Florida small forward Chandler Parsons not received the "best player on the best team" benefit in the SEC Player of the Year voting, Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins would have been an excellent selection. Jenkins is one of the most efficient sharpshooters in the country. He's excellent at finding open spots around the perimeter, and his quick release makes it difficult for defenders to rotate and close out in time to shut him down. Vanderbilt isn't a great defensive team, so the Commodores have to score efficiently to advance in this bracket. If that happens, Jenkins is likely to be the reason.
Three second-round games to watch
1. No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Morehead State: Thanks to a brilliant coaching job by Rick Pitino and some surprising star turns by Preston Knowles, Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric, Louisville has been overachieving against bigger, stronger and more talented teams all season long. But the Cardinals won't be the underdog here. They will, however, have a bear of a time dealing with the best rebounder in the country, Morehead State forward Kenneth Faried. Faried could dominate Louisville's smallish forwards on the offensive and defensive glass, and the Cardinals -- who can't seem to step on the floor without somehow making the game thrillingly close -- could find themselves in a dogfight Thursday.
2. No. 5 Vanderbilt vs. No. 12 Richmond: The No. 5 versus No. 12 matchup is always a good one to watch -- veteran tournament viewers know all about the high rate of upset in these games -- but the real draws here are the teams themselves. Vandy has the offensive firepower to go deep into the tournament, but the Commodores aren't great on the defensive end, and with the exception of bruising big man Festus Ezeli, they don't have high-major size in the frontcourt. The underseeded Spiders have their own star guard in Kevin Anderson, who almost single-handedly beat Purdue in Hoffman Estates, Ill., back in November. They also have forward Justin Harper, one of the most efficient scorers in the country and a potential March star in the making. We should see plenty of offense, plenty of guard play and plenty of intrigue when these two take the floor.
3. No. 6 Georgetown vs. No. 11 USC/VCU: Georgetown may have expected a drop on the seed line thanks to its recent Chris Wright-bereft woes, but they may have breathed a sigh of relief at the good fortune of this seed. After all, getting the winner of a play-in game at the No. 6 spot isn't too shabby. Other No. 6 seeds weren't so lucky. That said, USC and VCU are both imminent dangers; whichever team emerges from the first four in Dayton will be capable of not only beating the Hoyas but of challenging likely third-round opponent Purdue, too.
Possible future matchups
1. No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Notre Dame, Elite Eight: OK, so this isn't the most original pick. But it is the one I'd most want to see. My view is probably shared by pass-first hoops purists; few teams in the country work the ball around the perimeter as seamlessly as these two, and few teams in the country use that ball movement to get -- and make -- so many open looks from the perimeter. Notre Dame could have some trouble with Kansas' interior trio, but the Irish have been able to slow games to a crawl (or, as Mike Brey terms it, a "burn") when the matchups call for it. It isn't creative, but this No. 1 versus No. 2 would be a fantastic way to crown this region's winner.
2. No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Purdue, Sweet 16: As mentioned above, this game would be all the better if it took place in front of a divided partisan crowd at the United Center in Chicago. Instead, if these two teams advance out of the first weekend, they'll meet in San Antonio, and that location doesn't dampen the interest here at all. JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore are two of the best players in the country, but will the supporting contributions of Ryne Smith, D.J. Byrd and Lewis Jackson be enough to get the Boilers past Hansbrough and the rest of ND's ruthlessly efficient offense? Or can Purdue's defense, one of the best man-to-man units in the country, force the Irish into an uncharacteristic offensive lull? With an Elite Eight spot on the line, these two Indiana rivals and their loyal fans will be champing at the bit to find out.
3. No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 5 Vanderbilt. It's entirely possible this game won't happen. After all, both of these teams are likely to face tough challenges from Morehead State and Richmond, respectively, in the first round. But if both do manage to advance, this one should be on any hoops observer's must-see short list. Both teams thrive on four-guard styles, both love to shoot the 3, both play at a frenetic pace and both have been in their fair share of close games throughout the season. The NCAA tournament doesn't come with quality guarantees, but it'd be a shocker if this game wasn't one of the Dance's most exciting.
Sorry, Boston U. No offense, Akron. Best of luck, St. Peter's. No, the No. 16, No. 15 and No. 14 seeds aren't likely to make waves in this region; their matchups are full of talent and experience, which is a vital combination in avoiding any unforeseen first-round upsets.
But there are a couple of Cinderella candidates here, and one in particular -- Morehead State -- that's worth watching. If past tournaments have taught us anything, it's that sometimes one transcendent player is enough to help Cinderella stay after the clock strikes midnight. Morehead's Kenneth Faried can be that player. The Louisville-Vanderbilt combo at No. 4/No. 5 is a tough one, but it's also a beatable one.
Cinderellas are always a surprise -- that's why they're Cinderellas -- but if you had to pick one in this region, the Eagles fit the bill.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.
Eamonn Brennan breaks down the Southwest Region, identifying the matchups and players to watch as well as possible upset picks.