West: Duke has a few roadblocks

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Duke’s road isn’t nearly as easy as some believe.

In fact, the Blue Devils drew arguably the most difficult Sweet 16 game in the entire tournament if they wind up facing No. 4 Texas.

The Longhorns have struggled of late, but this is a team that was playing as well as anyone in the nation – and their athleticism could really give Duke some difficulty.

San Diego State earned a No. 2 seed and much of the nation doesn’t know  a lot about the Aztecs, but if Steve Fisher’s team is making shots from the perimeter, it can be tough to beat. If not, the Aztecs could be knocked out quickly – maybe in the second round against one of the most underrated coaches in the nation in Temple’s Fran Dunphy.

UConn is as hot as anyone and has its swagger back – and could see another Big East team in the second round in Cincinnati, or a Missouri team that has struggled down the stretch.

How about Arizona, which features one of the best players in America in Derrick Williams, having to get past Memphis and then Texas to get to the Sweet 16?

Best first-round matchup: No. 5 Arizona vs. No. 12 Memphis – The Wildcats are led by sophomore forward Derrick Williams, whereas Memphis is loaded with freshman – including Will Barton and a resurging Joe Jackson.

Best potential matchup: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Texas – This would be a fantastic Sweet 16 game. At one time, not all that long ago, you could make a case that these were the top two teams in the nation. I’d love to see Texas’ Dogus Balbay, one of the top perimeter defenders in the country, guarding Player of the Year candidate Nolan Smith.

Upset special: No. 11 Missouri vs. No. 6 Cincinnati – Mike Anderson’s Tigers haven’t lived up to expectations, but they still have more talent than the Bearcats – and have experience in the Big Dance.

Cinderella? No. 11 Missouri – I’m not sure what’s gone wrong with the Tigers, but I still have faith in them – especially when they play in the Big Dance and go up against teams that haven’t seen anything like them and their relentless style. I think Mizzou could run all the way to the Elite Eight – as it did in 2009.

My pick: No. 4 Texas – I’m going out on a limb here and going with the Longhorns – even though I’m worried about the reliability of Jordan Hamilton. If Hamilton buys in and is just adequate defensively, I love how this team guards. Hamilton is tough to contain on the offensive end, and Duke’s defense can be exploited.

Story Lines:

  • Is there any shot that Duke freshman Kyrie Irving returns in the Big Dance? Remember, Irving went down with a toe injury on Dec. 4 and hasn’t played since. It appears unlikely he comes back, but no one has completely closed the door on it, either.
  • Is San Diego State for real? The Aztecs earned a No. 2 overall seed and will need to make shots from the perimeter in order to make a deep run.
  • Memphis coach Josh Pastner gets his first NCAA tournament bid as a head coach and opens up against his alma mater. The Tigers are extremely young, but have more overall talent than Arizona.
  • How will UConn respond to its Big East tournament run in which the Huskies won five games in five days. Kemba Walker & Co. will play Saturday in Washington, D.C.
  • Could this be the last hurrah for Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl? The Vols’ head coach is the focal point of an NCAA investigation and this could be his swan song in Knoxville. He opens up against Michigan and John Beilein – the head of the ethics committee – in the first round.

6 Players to Watch: Nolan Smith, 6-2, 185, G, Sr., Duke

  • Derrick Williams, 6-8, 230, F, Soph., Arizona
  • Jordan Hamilton, 6-7, 220, F, Soph., Texas
  • Kemba Walker, 6-0, 175, G, Jr., UConn
  • Kawhi Leonard, 6-7, 225, F, Soph., San Diego State
  • Tobias Harris, 6-8, 220, F, Fr., Tennessee

Best Player You’ve Never Heard of: Keith Benson, 6-11, 230, C, Sr., Oakland

Overrated: No. 6 Cincinnati

Underrated: No. 11 Missouri