Tampa Tribune college sports writer breaks down the NCAA tournament regions.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Florida, No. 5 VCU, No. 7 New Mexico, No. 3 Syracuse
MARQUEE MAN: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
He entered this season as one of the most acclaimed freshmen in recent history. Wiggins, son of former Florida State University star and NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, will need to be all that and more if the Jayhawks hope to mount a serious Final Four run. KU has wobbled due to a late-season injury to 7-foot, 250-pound center Joel Embiid.
SHOOTING STAR: C.J. Fair, Syracuse
If the Orange rights the ship after a late-season slide, it likely will be due to Fair's leadership. He's a nice inside-out option who was the ACC's preseason player of the year. Fair's SU teams have gone 117-26, but he knows there's a gap in his resume. Fair said anything short of a Final Four would be a disappointment.
MYSTERY GUEST: Danny Manning, Tulsa coach
He's one of the greatest players in NCAA basketball history, having led the 1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks to an improbable national championship. Now Manning, once the NBA draft's first overall pick, has made his mark as the Golden Hurricane's coach. After a 17-16 debut, Manning guided Tulsa to a 21-12 mark and the Conference USA tournament championship.
THE SKINNY: The Florida Gators, with their second overall No. 1 seed (also 2007), were nicely protected with early-round games in Orlando. But the region overall produced close-to-home destinations for No. 2 Kansas (St. Louis), No. 3 Syracuse (Buffalo, N.Y.) and No. 4 UCLA (San Diego). If nothing else, the South Region has the makings of an excellent team with players-turned-coaches in Billy Donovan (Florida), Steve Alford (UCLA), Danny Manning (Tulsa) and Johnny Dawkins (Stanford).
UPSET SPECIAL, No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 Ohio State: The Buckeyes began 15-0, but are 10-9 since then. “If we get into one of those funks that we got into a few times this season, our season will be over,'' Buckeyes junior forward Sam Thompson said. Dayton, the sixth Atlantic 10 Conference team in the NCAA field, is highly capable of sending the Buckeyes to only their second first-round defeat in Thad Matta's Ohio State tenure, after a 74-72 double overtime loss to Siena in 2009. Dayton's leading scorer, junior guard Jordan Sibert, is an Ohio State transfer.
LOOKING AHEAD: No. 4 UCLA is riding high after upsetting Arizona to win the Pac-12 tournament, but the Bruins open against Tulsa — 20 years after Tubby Smith's Golden Hurricane thrashed UCLA in a first-rounder — then likely face a formidable VCU team. Meanwhile, No. 2 Kansas might play without its dominant big man and No. 3 Syracuse has slumped to a 2-5 finish after a 25-0 start. Expect No. 7 New Mexico to be a dangerous floater. Translation: Florida is looking awfully good for making the fifth Final Four in program history, a nice turnaround from three consecutive losses in the region final.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 8 Memphis, No. 4 Michigan State, No.7 UConn, No. 6 North Carolina
MARQUEE MAN: Shabazz Napier, UConn
He has become one of the most dynamic guards in UConn history, joining the likes of Kemba Walker, Khalid El-Amin, Ricky Moore, Tate George and his head coach, Kevin Ollier. Napier, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, averages 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists and shoots 85.9 percent from the free-throw line. He's also responsible for Florida's last loss this season after he scrambled to toss in a buzzer-beating jumper in December.
SHOOTING STAR: Bryce Cotton, Providence
He's one of the nation's most underrated players, averaging 21.4 points per game. He has 24 games this season with at least 20 points. He's also an iron man, averaging 39.9 minutes per game. The Friars, Big East tournament champions for the first time since 1994, have a difficult first-round draw with North Carolina. But Cotton is the type of player who can carry a team.
MYSTERY GUEST: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's coach
His team captured the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament to earn the Hawks' first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. No doubt he's elated. But he might be happier for his son, Phil Martelli Jr., a University of Delaware assistant coach, who is celebrating the Blue Hens' first NCAA tournament appearance since 1999.
THE SKINNY: The Virginia Cavaliers, after winning their first ACC tournament since 1976, have their first NCAA tournament No. 1 seed since the Ralph Sampson era, when they were No. 1 three straight years from 1981-83. It sounds like a formidable regional with five other schools that have won national titles (Cincinnati, Michigan State, Villanova, Connecticut and North Carolina), but it shapes up as a wide-open, highly competitive, hard-to-predict grouping.
UPSET SPECIAL, No. 12 Harvard over No. 5 Cincinnati: The Crimson registered the program's first-ever NCAA tournament victory last season with an upset of New Mexico. Look for Tommy Amaker's program to make more history. The Bearcats had a fine season in the American Athletic Conference with do-everything player Sean Kilpatrick, but Harvard is a difficult first-round matchup.
LOOKING AHEAD: New York's Madison Square Garden could be host to the NCAA tournament's most unpredictable region. We like No. 8-seeded Memphis to realize its upside and knock out Virginia. Michigan State looks like it's back to being Michigan State. Meanwhile, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 7 Connecticut can play pressure-free and are two teams no one wants to face. Fun, fun, fun.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Arizona, No. 4 San Diego State, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 3 Creighton
MARQUEE MAN: Doug McDermott, Creighton
He's Doug McBuckets, one of the most productive college basketball players of his generation — or any generation. He averages 26.9 points per game, shoots 52.5 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from 3-point range. He has 3,105 career points, good for fifth all-time. Still hard to believe that Iowa State wasn't interested in this Ames, Iowa, kid and his only real scholarship options were Creighton, Northern Illinois and UCF.
SHOOTING STAR: Xavier Thames, San Diego St.
Aztecs coach Steve Fisher likes to say that Thames does the little things that coaches appreciate — such as helping on defense, sliding off screens and getting to the free throw line. He also does a lot of the big things, such as scoring 16.8 points per game, collecting 3.2 assists and shooting 82.7 percent from the free-throw line.
MYSTERY GUEST: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma coach
It's the 20-year anniversary of Lon Kruger's 1994 Final Four team with the University of Florida. Kruger is still doing big things, having guided the Oklahoma Sooners to the second straight NCAA tournament bid on his watch. Kruger, 61, last season became the first coach to take five different teams to the NCAA tournament – Oklahoma, UNLV, Illinois, Florida and Kansas State. But of Kruger's last 14 NCAA tournament teams, he has lost 11 times in the first or second round, including last season's 70-55 defeat against San Diego State.
THE SKINNY: The Arizona Wildcats, ranked No. 1 nationally for eight weeks this season, didn't have the finish they wanted, but still earned a top seed. It's the first time for Arizona to be No. 1 in a region since 2003, when Lute Olson was still the coach. In order for Arizona to live up to its seed, it has a number of difficult tests, beginning with its potential second game, facing the Gonzaga-Oklahoma State winner.
UPSET SPECIAL, No. 11 Nebraska over No. 6 Baylor: Sounds like a decent football game, right? Actually, the Cornhuskers have their best basketball team in years, having earned the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 1998. Baylor has peaked at the right time with a Big 12 Conference tournament title. But Nebraska, picked for 12th in its league during the preseason, proved itself in the Big Ten, beating Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Cornhuskers swingman Terran Pettaway, who averages 18.1 points per game, is extraordinarily underrated.
LOOKING AHEAD: There are seemingly a half-dozen teams in this region with the capability of making a Final Four run. Wouldn't it be interesting to see Doug McDermott take his Creighton Bluejays to Dallas? Creighton against Nebraska in the third round would be fascinating. Wouldn't it be a sign of rewarded patience if Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers play at their highest level? Wisconsin against Oregon would be a danger-zone matchup.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 8 Kentucky, No. 4 Louisville, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Duke
MARQUEE MAN: Jabari Parker, Duke
The Blue Devils have made the Final Four just twice in their past 10 NCAA tournament appearances, despite being seeded No. 1 or No. 2 on eight occasions. Parker is a key reason why Duke has high aspirations this season. Parker led Duke in scoring (19.2 points) and rebounding (8.8).
SHOOTING STAR: Julius Randle, Kentucky
He might not be long for the college basketball world, but Randle, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman, has made his mark after being considered the No. 2 high-school prospect behind Andrew Wiggins, who went to Kansas. Randle averaged 15.3 points and 10.6 rebounds for the Wildcats (24-10), who lost three times against No. 1-ranked Florida.
MYSTERY GUEST: Louisville Cardinals
The defending national champions, who won the American Athletic Conference Tournament title, were relegated to a No. 4 seed after some thought they might pull the final No. 1 seed. And they were sent to Orlando, site of first-round NCAA tournament defeats in 1999 and 2004.
THE SKINNY: No. 1 Wichita State is 34-0, trying to reach its second consecutive Final Four and become the first undefeated national champion since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. Um, good luck with that. The Shockers face a potential third-round game against No. 8 Kentucky. After that, No. 4 defending national champion Louisville could await. And if Wichita State somehow gets to the Elite Eight, it could face either No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Duke. Yikes!
UPSET SPECIAL: We see a First Four participant going on a longer-than-expected ride. Whether it's Iowa (20-12) or Tennessee (21-12) advancing from Dayton, we expect the Hawkeyes or Volunteers to bump off Massachusetts, which is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.
LOOKING AHEAD: To say the least, this is a rugged-looking region. Three of last season's Final Four teams are slotted for Indianapolis, making for treacherous terrain. Wasn't preseason No. 1 Kentucky supposed to go 40-0? That didn't happen. But the Wildcats could very well subdue Kansas State, then upset Wichita State in the third round. That would mean a potential Sweet 16 meeting with Louisville — anyone have any extra tickets? — at Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan and Duke are solid choices to meet in the region semifinals.