Syracuse and Ohio State are the beasts out East, but Vanderbilt is hot at the right time.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Syracuse (1), Ohio State (2)
The Syracuse Orange (31–2, 17–1 Big East) are a No. 1 seed for the third time in program history. Coach Jim Boeheim has a deep and talented roster capable of locking down the opposition on defense, with the Orange’s signature stingy 2-3 zone. Brazilian big man Fab Melo (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 bpg) patrols the paint with authority, blocking and altering shots near the rim. Syracuse is a different team with a focused Melo on the floor, but the 7-footer has a tendency to lose his cool and will need to avoid foul trouble if he hopes to follow in the footsteps of the original Melo, Carmelo Anthony, who led SU to its only national title in 2003. Offensively, 6’7” senior Kris Joseph (13.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and sophomore guard Dion Waiters (12.6 ppg) reliably carry the bulk of the scoring load; junior Brandon Triche (9.3 ppg), 6’8” sophomore C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg, 5.5 apg) and senior point guard Scoop Jardine (8.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) are each capable of turning in big numbers on any given night.
The Ohio State Buckeyes (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) lost a hard-fought Big Ten title game to Michigan State but enter the Big Dance with a team capable of making a run to New Orleans. The Buckeyes orbit around sophomore center Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), a physical force on both ends of the floor. “Big Sully” is playing his best ball when it matters most, averaging 24 points, nine boards and two blocked shots per game during the Big Ten Tourney. Sullinger is flanked by a pair of sweet-shooting, versatile forwards in sophomore Deshaun Thomas (15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior William Buford (14.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), while sophomore Aaron Craft (8.6 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.4 spg) competently mans the point. Coach Thad Matta has led OSU to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances; yet despite bringing some of the nation’s top talent to Columbus, Matta has only one Final Four berth — as national runners-up with Greg Oden in 2007 — since taking over in 2004.
Player to Watch – Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin (4)
The success of coach Bo Ryan’s deliberate tempo is predicated on his senior point guard’s ability to make plays with the shot clock winding down. Taylor (14.7 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.7 rpg) is a tough-as-nails floor general who personifies the Badgers’ brand of ball. Wisconsin lacks the athleticism to run with the majority of the field of 68, but few teams have the caliber of coach on the floor that Taylor provides UW.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Vanderbilt (5)
Can a team that started the year ranked in the top 10 nationally and ended the season by beating Kentucky in the SEC title game even be considered a Sweet 16 sleeper? Vanderbilt has NBA-caliber, veteran talent on every level — with junior sharpshooter John Jenkins (20.0 ppg, 45.3 3PT%), senior lockdown defender Jeffery Taylor (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6’11” senior center Festus Ezeli (9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg). But coach Kevin Stallings’ squad is also on a three-Tourney run of first-round losses and fresh off an emotional SEC Tournament title — VU’s first since 1951.
Upset Pick – West Virginia (10) over Gonzaga (7)
Say what you will about the man’s personality, but Bob Huggins is a proven NCAA Tournament tactician. “Huggy Bear” has only missed the Big Dance twice (2007 at Kansas State and 2006, when he was not coaching) and failed to advance to the second round just once (2009 at West Virginia) since Cincinnati joined Conference USA in 1995; Huggins is 13–1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament during that time. Senior forward Kevin Jones (20.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and senior guard Truck Bryant (17.2 ppg) don’t want to end their careers as outliers in Huggins’ math madness of March.