Ohio State is the No. 1 overall seed in the Tournament and, by almost every projection, the team most likely to cut down the nets in Houston. The Buckeyes combine deadly three-point shooting with Jared Sullinger’s inside presence and a fascinating ability to force turnovers without committing fouls. Some may worry about their depth (their rotation is really eight deep at most), but that did not hurt them in their march to the Big Ten Title.
The No. 2 seed in the region, North Carolina, has made a remarkable mid-season turnaround that matches up fairly well with freshman Kendall Marshall’s ascension to the role of starting point guard. Harrison Barnes, the “disappointing” star freshman, has grown into his position on the team very well over the course of the season and exploded for 40 points in an ACC Tournament win over Clemson. He has become the go-to guy when the Tarheels need a bucket late. UNC is still very young and struggles to shoot from three—and could face a very tough second-round opponent in Washington.
Very quietly, Syracuse has been rounding into postseason form. The Orange, the No. 3 seed, have been playing much better defense of late. Even Fab Melo, the enigmatic freshman 7-footer, has begun to contribute. Syracuse has not been flashy or particularly stylish, but it appears to be rounding into form at precisely the right time.
Kentucky finished the season in style, overcoming its road/neutral woes with a tight win at Vanderbilt and a dominating run through the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats have been computer darlings all year because of their blowout wins and close losses, and it seems that their win-loss performance is finally starting to line up with their tempo-free perception. An Ohio State-Kentucky Sweet Sixteen matchup would be a must-watch.
What to say about Washington? A lot has been made of its road/neutral struggles and personnel problems (from Abdul Gaddy’s injury to Venoy Overton’s Pac-10 Tournament suspension), but the Huskies have the firepower to make a deep run. Their ceiling on offense is one of the highest in the field, and if they come close to it against Georgia and UNC, they will have a great shot to make the Sweet Sixteen.
It’s not often that I’d recommend watching a 2-15 game before it happens (most of the time, we only flip over if they are close), but if you are a fan of aesthetic, fast-paced basketball, check out Long Island against UNC. LIU has a very balanced attack led by Sophomore wing Jamel Oluwasere and post player Julian Boyd. Its offense relies heavily on transition and three-pointers, and it is one of the top teams in the nation in getting to the free-throw line. LIU probably will not beat North Carolina, but you will enjoy watching the Blackbirds try.
Princeton broke Harvard’s hearts at the buzzer in a pulsating one-game playoff to win the Ivy League, and the sum of its reward was a matchup against Kentucky. Make no mistake: These are not the physically overmatched Tigers of 15 years ago that win games 47-43. These Tigers, led by seniors Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides, have the talent and toughness to play with anyone. While Princeton has sped up its pace dramatically this year (up nearly 10 percent over last year), do not be surprised if the Tigers try to slow it down a bit against Kentucky.