The field of 68 teams has been reduced to just 16 after a wild, upset-filled first weekend. Here’s what to watch for and keep an eye on for the regional semifinals and finals beginning tomorrow (Thursday).
South Region Preview
Number one overall seed Florida looks to be operating on all cylinders after disposing of the Pittsburgh Panthers in the third round. Florida’s biggest obstacle to the Final Four may be their Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA. The fourth seeded Bruins reached the Sweet 16 after knocking off the 12 and 13 seeds with relative ease. I expect the Gators to come on top in this one, but for it to be a competitive game. The other game in this region may be one of the most entertaining games in this round. 11 seed Dayton takes on 10 seed Stanford in a battle of double-digit seeds looking to reach the Elite 8. Both teams scored big upsets in the second and third rounds, with Dayton knocking off Ohio State and Syracuse, and Stanford defeating New Mexico and Kansas. Whoever wins this game will have the right to be beaten by Florida en route to a Final Four appearance for the Gators.
East Region Preview
The East Region features of pair of excellent matchups in Madison Square Garden. Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies matchup against Deandre Kane and the Iowa State Cyclones in what figures to be a great battle. Iowa State barely escaped UNC in the third round and looked impressive offensively, despite the loss of Georges Niang to a foot injury. Meanwhile Shabazz Napier has put up 49 points combined in victories over #10 St. Josephs and #2 Villanova. The Cyclones are a popular Final Four pick, but this UConn team has the potential to replicate 2011’s championship run, with Shabazz Napier doing his best Kemba Walker imitation. The second game in this region features top seeded Virginia against #4 Michigan State. Now that the Spartans are healthy, many people (including the President and all ESPN analysts), have Michigan State not only making the Final Four but winning the whole championship. A veteran team with a veteran head coach in Tom Izzo, experience will be on the side of MSU as they take on a Virginia team with little tournament experience. The Cavaliers were impressive in winning the ACC regular season and tournament title, but will play their toughest opponent to date for a berth in the Elite 8. I predict Michigan State will defeat UConn to reach the Final Four.
West Region Preview
The first game in this region features #2 Wisconsin against #6 Baylor. Baylor has looked impressive throughout the tournament, easily beating Nebraska in the second round and blowing out #3 Creighton and Doug McDermott by 30 points in the third round. After midseason struggles, the Bears have hit their stride and are a serious threat to make the Final Four. Meanwhile, Wisconsin squeaked by #7 Oregon after a shaky first half, and has a good chance as any to land a spot in North Texas. I think the key to this game will be the first half. Wisconsin has started slow in both of its first games, and cannot afford to do so with Baylor’s offense rolling on all cylinders. The winner of that game will face the winner of #1 Arizona vs. #4 San Diego State. This should be a good matchup, featuring two teams that were both ranked in the AP top 10 for a good portion of the season. Arizona will be looking to validate its #1 seed while San Diego State will look for the upset. Key players to watch are Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon from Arizona, and Xavier Thames from SDSU. I am going to stick with my bracket picks in this one, and predict the Badgers to defeat the Aztecs to reach the Final Four.
Midwest Region Preview
The Midwest region features the game I am most looking forward to this weekend by far: A bitter rivalry featuring the last two national champions squaring off in Indianapolis. #8 Kentucky and Julius Randle are coming off an upset of #1 Wichita State to take on Russ Smith and the defending champion Louisville Cardinals. Emotions will be running high with the rivalry between these two teams, and although Louisville is expected to be favored, Kentucky has shown that talented youth is capable of beating experienced veterans. Two legendary coaches, John Calipari and Rick Pitino, will both be looking for a return to the Final Four. In order to do, they must also get through the winner of #2 Michigan and #11 Tennessee. Tennessee has won three tournament games so far, looking very impressive in their dismantling of Mercer and UMass. The again, the defending national finalist Wolverines have been just as impressive on their end and look to follow in the path of last year’s team. I like Michigan to win this region, defeating Louisville in the process.
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