This was the year the NCAA tournament killed Cinderella.
This was the year the NCAA Selection Committee finally declared parity to have arrived in full in college basketball, and it stamped that declaration on the West Region.
America’s favorite Cinderella story, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, are underdogs no more. But the Zags taking the top seed was only the beginning. This is the region in which a Mountain West team (New Mexico) is seeded third and a 26-8 team that finished second in the SEC and won the conference tournament (Ole Miss) is seeded 12th.
Whether that was intentional or accidental, the West now looks something like an experiment. It is the only region with no teams that have won national championships this millennium. It is where, if the seeding holds up, Gonzaga and New Mexico would meet with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It is where Arizona beating New Mexico would be considered an upset.
Or would it? So long, Cinderella. Best second-round matchup: Kansas State vs. Wisconsin. This game would have a real chance to set a record for fewest possessions in the shot-clock era, but more importantly it would be an intriguing matchup between coaches Bruce Weber (Kansas State) and Bo Ryan (Wisconsin), who coached against each other in the Big Ten for the previous nine years.
Early upset: No. 10 seed Iowa State over No. 7 seed Notre Dame. Nobody in the region, maybe the tournament, is more willing to spend the whole game bombing away at the 3-point line than the Cyclones, who aren’t afraid to run, either. This is a tough matchup for Notre Dame even if the Cyclones aren’t scorching hot. Cinderella story: Ole Miss. Ole Miss is plenty good enough to beat Wisconsin, Kansas State and Gonzaga to reach the Elite Eight. You rarely run into a 12-seed that won a major conference tournament and has the kind of firepower the Rebels have. Wisconsin and Kansas State, especially, will just have to hope Marshall Henderson misses, because neither is likely to score many points of their own.
Best player: Deshaun Thomas, 6-foot-7, Jr., F, Ohio State. Thomas is one of the few “just throw it to him and watch him work” forwards in the country. He makes traditional power forwards nervous with his range and quickness, but he’s great in the post if you guard him with somebody smaller. Best player you don’t know: Shane Southwell, 6-foot-6, Jr., guard, Kansas State. Southwell could be Kansas State’s best player next year; you get the feeling he’s just waiting his turn. After two seasons buried in former coach Frank Martin’s rotation, Southwell has flourished under first-year K-State coach Bruce Weber, averaging eight points, four rebounds and shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line.
Most underrated coach: Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss. Know how many times Ole Miss had been to the NCAA Tournament before it hired Kennedy in 2007? Six. In history. Kennedy pushed it up to seven with a hot-shooting hothead (Marshall Henderson) and a disciplined, mature team that belies Henderson’s bluster. Fact only we can give you: Ole Miss’ first NCAA Tournament appearance came in 1981. The point guard on that team? Sean Tuohy, the restauranteur best known as the man who took in a homeless teenager named Michael Oher, inspiring Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Headed to Atlanta: Ohio State. The second-seeded Buckeyes are the best team in this relatively weak region. A potential second-round matchup with an Iowa State team that lives on the 3-point line is scary, but the Buckeyes won’t face anybody that can match their talent unless they hit No. 6-seed Arizona in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Gonzaga is going to have its hands full with Wisconsin, Ole Miss or Kansas State.