Michigan State and Missouri are the teams to beat, but Murray State could rise in Phoenix.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Michigan State (1), Missouri (2)
The Michigan State Spartans (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) locked up the fourth No. 1 seed by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game — after sharing the conference’s regular season crown with the Buckeyes. Coach Tom Izzo seems to be in the Iz-zone in March; MSU’s main man has led the Spartans to six Final Four appearances, and is aiming for his third trip in four years. Senior “dancing bear” point forward Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) does it all for Sparty, presenting a 6’7”, 230-plus-pound matchup nightmare for opponents due to his rare combination of interior size and perimeter skills. Sophomore sensation Keith Appling (11.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) and senior Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood (8.3 ppg) provide steady backcourt play, while junior heavyweight Derrick Nix (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and 6’10” sophomore Adreian Payne (6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) bring the signature toughness of Izzo’s teams to the paint.
The Missouri Tigers (30–4, 14–4 Big 12) are the biggest surprise of the 2011-12 college basketball season. After going 23–11 (8–8 Big 12) and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Mike Anderson’s final year, the Tigers have been on a tear in Frank Haith’s first season on the job — and Mizzou’s final year in the Big 12, before jumping to the SEC next season. The Tigers’ three primary ball-handlers — senior Marcus Denmon (17.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), junior Michael Dixon (13.3 ppg) and sophomore Phil Pressey (10.0 ppg, 6.3 apg) — combined to shoot 85.2 percent (317-of-372) from the free-throw line this year. But Mizzou is undeniably undersized. Wingman Kim English is 6’6” but prefers to hang out downtown (14.9 ppg, 47.3 3PT%). That leaves the onus on 6’8”, 240-pound senior Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and 6’9”, 270-pound senior Steve Moore to do the dirty work.
Player to Watch – Bradley Beal, Florida (7)
The Gators are a guard-heavy, 3-point shooting squad led by diminutive dynamos Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, who combined to shoot UF all the way to the Elite Eight last year. Florida really only has two big men, Patric Young and Erik Murphy. But coach Billy Donovan has Beal, a 6’3” freshman who can score (14.6 ppg), rebound (6.5 rpg) and pass (2.2 apg). If the Gators are able to survive a tough 7-10 draw against Virginia, they match up well against size-challenged Missouri — if Beal can maintain his recent SEC Tournament statline of 18 points, 7.5 boards and five assists per game.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Murray State (6)
The Racers are the Rodney Dangerfield of the bracket, getting no respect from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee despite posting a 30–1 record that included a 23–0 start to the season and wins over Memphis and Saint Mary’s. Underrated junior guard Isaiah Canaan (19.2 ppg) will have his chance on the hardcourt, however. Murray State should be given a home team’s welcome during the opening weekend in Louisville, which is an easy four-hour drive from Murray, Ky.
Upset Pick – Long Beach State (12) over New Mexico (5)
The 49ers started the year with a 4–5 record — following losses to NCAA Tournament competition from North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State and Montana — but ended on a 21–3 run, locking up both the Big West regular season and postseason crowns. Steve Alford’s New Mexico club is everyone’s darling heading into the Dance, but the senior trio of point guard Casper Ware (17.4), wing Larry Anderson (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and big man T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg) will play the role of Cinderella when the clock strikes zero.