WEST REGION ANALYSIS By John Feinstein
Don't Count on an Early Exit This Year for Jayhawks
This bracket has everything: great teams, great story lines, upsets waiting to happen and some serious angst to be played out along the way.
Let's start with the No. 1 seed, Kansas. When you think Jayhawks, you have to think Bucknell and you have to think Bradley. Those were the low seeds, a 14 and a 13, that sent the Jayhawks flying out of the first round the past two years. This year's candidate for Cinderella slipper is the winner of the dreaded play-in game between Niagara and Florida A&M. (Note to committee: Niagara won 11 in a row down the stretch! Are you anti-Calvin Murphy or something? Further note to committee: If you guys had any guts at all you would have had Illinois play Purdue in this game. Strong memo to follow.)
Kansas isn't losing this year's first-round game. It won't lose to Kentucky or Villanova ( great all-Wildcats first-round game) either. These Jayhawks play serious defense, perhaps the best in the country. In fact, Kansas should cruise to the region final. Virginia Tech got a great first-round matchup in Illinois. If the Hokies don't win that game, it will be a sad ending to the school's first tournament appearance in 11 years. The committee gave Seth Greenberg and company a gift with that first-round matchup and even gave them a winnable second-round game: the Southern Illinois-Holy Cross winner. The Salukis ought to win that game, but Holy Cross Coach Ralph Willard is as dangerous as anyone with four full days to prepare.
None of those teams is beating Kansas in the round of 16. Book the Jayhawks for the final.
In the bottom half, UCLA, which might be the second-best defensive team in the country, also should have little trouble reaching the round of 16. It will handle Weber State and then the winner of Indiana-Gonzaga. In almost any other year, Gonzaga would be an easy choice to beat Indiana, but Mark Few's team has had so much off-court trauma and trouble that it will be a difficult game. Whoever survives goes home two days later.
The committee showed a little sense of humor by putting Pittsburgh in the same bracket as UCLA. Not only did UCLA Coach Ben Howland build the program at Pittsburgh, he put Panthers Coach Jamie Dixon in position to succeed him four years ago. The problem is getting both teams through the first weekend. UCLA won't have any trouble, but Pitt could struggle against the Duke-Virginia Commonwealth winner.
How in the world Duke got a No. 6 seed for any reason other than the fact that Mike Krzyzewski will appear in three of every five commercials during the tournament is a mystery. But the committee did the Blue Devils no favors with a matchup against VCU. The Rams are just the kind of quick, up-tempo team Duke struggles against, and Eric Maynor might steal the ball from Greg Paulus about 47 times. Still, the Duke aura and Krzyzewski make it silly to count out Duke.
The dream final is Kansas-UCLA because both are so good on the defensive end of the floor. Bill Self has been to the region final with three schools: Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. This could be -- should be -- his year to take the next step.