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Bodog Life: Tournament Preview

Here come the Chosen Ones.

The NCAA Selection Committee has done its work. The 65 participants in the 2009 NCAA men’s basketball Tournament have been announced; here’s the rundown of the teams that are going into this year’s bracket and their first-round matchups.

Midwest

Dayton (Friday, March 20)
No. 1 Louisville Cardinals vs. No. 16 Alabama State Hornets or Morehead State Eagles
No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 9 Siena Saints
 
Miami (Friday, March 20)
No. 5 Utah Utes vs. No. 12 Arizona Wildcats
No. 4 Wake Forest Demon Deacons vs. No. 13 Cleveland State Vikings

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Minneapolis (Friday, March 20)
No. 6 West Virginia Mountaineers vs. No. 11 Dayton Flyers
No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 14 North Dakota State Bison

Minneapolis (Friday, March 20)
No. 7 Boston College Eagles vs. No. 10 USC Trojans
No. 2 Michigan State Spartans vs. No. 15 Robert Morris Colonials

West

Philadelphia (Thursday, March 19)
No. 1 Connecticut Huskies vs. No. 16 Chattanooga Mocs
No. 8 BYU Cougars vs. No. 9 Texas A&M Aggies

Portland (Thursday, March 19)
No. 5 Purdue Boilermakers vs. No. 12 Northern Iowa Panthers
No. 4 Washington Huskies vs. No. 13 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Boise (Friday, March 20)
No. 6 Marquette Golden Eagles vs. No. 11 Utah State Aggies
No. 3 Missouri Tigers vs. No. 14 Cornell Big Red

Kansas City (Thursday, March 19)
No. 7 California Golden Bears vs. No. 10 Maryland Terrapins
No. 2 Memphis Tigers vs. No. 15 Cal State-Northridge Matadors

East

Dayton (Friday, March 20)
No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers vs. No. 16 East Tennessee State Buccaneers
No. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys vs. No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers

Boise (Friday, March 20)
No. 5 Florida State Seminoles vs. No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers
No. 4 Xavier Musketeers vs. No. 13 Portland State Vikings

Philadelphia (Thursday, March 19)
No. 6 UCLA Bruins vs. No. 11 VCU Rams
No. 3 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 14 American Eagles

Greensboro (Thursday, March 19)
No. 7 Texas Longhorns vs. No. 10 Minnesota Golden Gophers
No. 2 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 15 Binghamton Bearcats

South

Greensboro (Thursday, March 19)
No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 16 Radford Highlanders
No. 8 LSU Tigers vs. No. 9 Butler Bulldogs

Portland (Thursday, March 19)
No. 5 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. No. 13 Akron Zips

Miami (Friday, March 20)
No. 6 Arizona State Sun Devils vs. No. 11 Temple Owls
No. 3 Syracuse Orange vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

Kansas City (Thursday, March 19)
No. 7 Clemson Tigers vs. No. 10 Michigan Wolverines
No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 15 Morgan State Bears

The Big East was given three No. 1 seeds this year, with conference champion Louisville getting a shot against the winner of Tuesday’s play-in game in Dayton. Pittsburgh and Connecticut held onto their top regional seeds despite losing their opening games in the Big East tournament. Memphis was snubbed with a No. 2 seed, setting up a likely confrontation with UConn in the West Region.

Only four teams from outside the six major conferences received at-large bids this year; as a result, there aren’t as many obvious upset candidates in the infamous 3-14, 4-13 and 5-12 matchups to plug into your brackets. It’s futile to call it unfair, but Arizona (19-13 SU, 18-13 ATS) got into the Big Dance with a No. 62 RPI ahead of No. 35 San Diego State, among other presumably deserving candidates.

We’ll let the usual rabble-rousers argue about who got hosed. It’s another chalk-heavy bracket this year, so let’s shift our focus to the Top 15 teams in the Tournament and gauge their chances of advancing. Because we’re sharp, we’re going with Ken Pomeroy’s advanced efficiency rankings to determine who makes the list.

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1. Memphis (31-3 SU, 22-11 ATS)

Last year’s finalists have once again plowed undefeated through the rest of Conference USA and into the Tournament. This is the top defensive team in the nation in terms of efficiency, with an under record of 22-10. They can score plenty as well, although not so much from the perimeter – the one flaw in coach John Calipari’s Memphis Attack this year. Point guard Tyreke Evans is only 29.8 percent from behind the arc, so any team that can prevent Evans from driving the lane has a shot at downing the Tigers. That won’t be the Matadors in their first-ever encounter with Memphis; UConn, however, has a brick wall of an interior defense.

2. North Carolina (28-4 SU, 11-19 ATS)Sports Betting at the Sportsbook

UNC has emptied wallets nationwide after going 24-12 ATS last year. Blame huge expectations and a deep ACC, where the Tar Heels lost to Florida State (+9) in the tournament semifinals. But also point a fickle finger at the Heels defense. They’re ranked No. 35 in the nation in efficiency and are particularly vulnerable from behind the arc, where they allow 35.0 percent of trey attempts to find the bottom of the basket. The Big South champions from Radford aren’t much of a threat to keep up with UNC’s top-ranked offense, but Gonzaga (39.9 percent) can certainly light it up from long range. North Carolina is 1-7 ATS in its last eight games with the over going 5-3 to improve to 18-12 on the season.

3. Connecticut (27-4 SU, 11-14 ATS)

The Huskies lost in six overtimes to Syracuse (+5.5) in the Big East quarterfinals to go into March Madness on a 1-6 ATS skid. They’ve also lost two games to Pitt in the past month. But there’s no doubt UConn is one of the best teams in Division I. The Husky defense is especially good at just about everything except generating steals – their forte is in the paint, where you’ve been hearing plenty about 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet and his 4.6 blocks per game. UConn should chew up Chattanooga in the first round; after that, BYU’s outside shooting (38.0 percent) could be problematic.

4. Louisville (28-5 SU, 21-12 ATS)

Louisville earned the top seed in the Tournament by winning its last 10 games in a row at 8-2 ATS, taking the Big East championship in the process. Rick Pitino’s team is brilliant defensively, ranked just behind Memphis, but there are enough concerns on offense to question whether the Cardinals will make the Final Four in Detroit. They don’t get to the line very often, and when they do, they shoot just 64.3 percent. And they didn’t have to worry about UConn or Pitt during their winning streak. West Virginia could be a threat  in the tough Midwest Region – the Mountaineers had two close losses to Louisville during the regular season.

5. Gonzaga (26-5 SU, 15-13 ATS)

The West Coast champs had an excellent season despite hitting a speed bump in December that included an overtime loss to UConn (+3). The ‘Zags finished strong with nine straight wins at 5-2 ATS, albeit against what we could charitably call mid-major competition – Ken Pomeroy has the WCC ranked No. 13 among the conferences, behind the Horizon League and the WAC. Akron has top-shelf perimeter defense and a good shot at a cover in the first round. The dreaded WKU Hilltoppers could also play Cinderella again before what appears to be a head-on collision with North Carolina.

6. Pittsburgh (28-4 SU, 16-9-1 ATS)

There’s a lot of buzz on the Panthers to win it all. They have the No. 2 offense, led by the exquisite Levance Fields, but there are some bugaboos with this team. Free-throw shooting is an issue at 67.3 percent. So is stopping the 3-point shot, as the Panthers found out in losses to Villanova (6-for-15) and Providence (5-for-12). This isn’t a very good outside shooting team either at 35.7 percent, which is troubling for such a small roster. Pitt is 3-3 ATS in its last six; the A-Sun champs from ETSU shouldn’t do much damage in the first round, but there’s Villanova again waiting in the wings, not to mention the very tough inside defense of Florida State.

7. Duke (28-6 SU, 16-16-1 ATS)

The Blue Devils got their due by winning the ACC tourney after North Carolina crashed and burned. But they had to scrape by Boston College (+10) and Maryland (+9) in the first two rounds and sit at 5-4 ATS since installing Jon Scheyer at point guard. Defending the 3-point shot has been difficult for Duke this year; moving 6-foot-4 freshman Elliot Williams into the starting backcourt alongside the 6-foot-5 Scheyer helps immensely. Binghamton won the American East to get here, but doesn’t have the outside shooting to rattle Duke. Villanova does.

8. West Virginia (23-11 SU, 15-16 ATS)

The Mountaineers are the wild cards on this list. Their offense relies heavily on creating turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds, so consistency is an obvious problem – WVU is ranked No. 325 in that category, which looks at the variation in winning and losing margins. West Virginia shuts the door on defense from behind the arc, so the key to victory is playing small teams. Dayton is not one of these teams, although the Flyers offense is not good enough to keep up with many clubs. A second-round loss to Kansas is very likely.

9. UCLA (25-8 SU, 16-15-1 ATS)

CBS analyst Seth Davis contends that the Bruins will lose to VCU in the first round. It could happen; the Rams have something of a home-court advantage playing in Philadelphia, and UCLA’s defense isn’t close to what it was last year. The Rams are also reasonably good at protecting the ball, which is where the Bruins remain dangerous on D. Coach Ben Howland will use Davis’ remarks as bulletin board material – a necessary motivator after UCLA got bumped out of the Pac-10 tourney by USC (+6.5) to break a 4-0 ATS streak. If the Bruins escape VCU, guess who? Yup, Villanova, playing at home.

10. Missouri (28-6 SU, 17-10 ATS)

The Tigers have been overshadowed in the Big 12 by Kansas and Oklahoma. Then they didn’t have to face either team on the way to winning the conference title. But handicappers know that Mizzou is a money machine at 11-2 SU and 10-3 ATS since the end of January. The Tigers excel at both ends of the court, although free-throw shooting is again a liability at 66.8 percent. They should mow through the Ivy League’s Big Red and an injured Marquette squad before what promises to be a barnburner against the “other” Tigers from Memphis

11. Kansas (25-7 SU, 18-7-1 ATS)

The defending champions took a header in the Big 12 tourney by losing their first game to Baylor (+8), one week after an ugly defeat in Lubbock against Texas Tech (+10). Too bad, because this has been one of the most profitable teams in Division I. Hanging onto the ball and defending the three have been problems with freshman Tyshawn Taylor running the point where once there was Mario Chalmers. Kansas lost 75-62 to potential Sweet 16 opponent Michigan State (-6) in non-con action.

12. Arizona State (24-9 SU, 18-11 ATS)

The Sun Devils are one of the hottest shooting teams in the nation, most notably inside with senior center Jeff Pendergraph (69.4 true shooting percentage, No. 3 in Division I). But Pendergraph is just 6-foot-6, and ASU’s interior defense can be taken to the cleaners – although perhaps not by the Owls, who do their best work from outside. Blake Griffin and the Sooners should crush the Sun Devils (cooling off at 3-3 ATS in their last six) if both teams make it to the Sweet 16.

13. Michigan State (26-6 SU, 16-12-1 ATS)

The Spartans are a very young team that’s having some trouble learning Tom Izzo’s motion offense, as we saw in MSU’s loss to Ohio State (+8) in the Big Ten tourney. The vaunted Spartans defense isn’t all that, either, requiring the rebounding services of Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton to keep opponents at bay. Robert Morris is a fantastic shooting club (53.7 effective field goal percentage) that has a puncher’s chance, even as a No. 15 seed.

14. Purdue (25-9 SU, 14-16 ATS)

The Boilers are your Big Ten champions – they didn’t have to face Michigan State, but after splitting a pair home and away against MSU during the regular season, that’s no slight against Purdue. Going 5-8 ATS since February is another matter. The Boilers are very much reliant upon their defense to get the job done, starting in the paint with Robbie Hummel and emerging 6-foot-10 superstar JaJuan Johnson. They have the right stuff to match up against NIU and could even give the UConn Huskies a run for their money.

15. Syracuse (26-9 SU, 17-14 ATS)

It took a sudden 7-0 SU and ATS winning streak, three of those victories in overtime, to get Syracuse into the Tournament picture. Louisville (-7.5) stopped the insanity in the Big East final. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense will cause you fits if you try to bust it with 3-point shots. But if you can get inside, the Orange are soft and pulpy. The Orange are awful from the line at 64.0 percent, spoiling some of the offense center Arinze Onuaku provides in the post. Watch out for the Stephen F. Austin defense in the first round; if Syracuse survives, the South Region is a minefield with bruising North Carolina ready to dish out some punishment.

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Last, but not least, here are the first-round matchups we figure will be the most exciting to watch this year. These eight games will make or break your bracket – we hope yours will remain intact into the second round.

Midwest

No. 2 MSU vs. No. 15 Robert Morris
No. 6 West Virginia vs. No. 10 Dayton

West

No. 8 BYU vs. No. 9 Texas A&M

East

No. 6 UCLA vs. No. 10 VCU

South

No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin
No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 Akron
No. 5 Illinois vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky
No. 6 Arizona State vs. No. 10 Temple

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