We have made it all the way across the country now. While the West may not have the star power of the other regions, it's the hardest one of all for me to figure out.
Part of that stems from not being familiar with a number of the teams in the region, most notably BYU and Vanderbilt.
But more than anything else, the outcome of the West hinges on one body part: Syracuse forward Arinze Onuaku's right quadriceps.
Onuaku injured the quad in a collision with Georgetown center Greg Monroe during the Syracuse-Georgetown Big East Tournament game last week. Orange coach Jim Boeheim told ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" on Monday that Onuaku won't play Friday, and that "there's a possibility he might play a little at the end of the week - we just don't think that right now."
"We don't drop off the map" without Onuaku, Boeheim told Messrs. Kornheiser and Wilbon. But there's a very real chance that Syracuse will be sent packing much earlier without Onuaku than they would be with him.
Boeheim is very good at his job, as we all know, and that includes his public speaking skills. I am not quite willing to assume that Onuaku will be back to full health in time for the Sweet 16. And given the path Syracuse has been given in this bracket... well, let's take a look at my projection and see where the Orange end up.
1. Syracuse over 16. Vermont
Gus Johnson will be calling the game, and former Catamounts star T.J. Sorrentine will be in the house at HSBC Arena if Brown coach Jesse Agel lets him go. But there won't be any miracle shots from the parking lot this time around.
That has more to do with Vermont than it does with Syracuse. The Catamounts won in 2005 because they hit a storm of threes over the Orange's famed 2-3 zone defense. This Vermont squad is ranked 258th in three-point shooting. Its best player, Marques Blakely, is an interior threat who's only 1-for-15 from beyond the arc this season.
8. Gonzaga over 9. Florida State
For a team that already knew it was going dancing, the WAC championship game had as high stakes as you could imagine for Gonzaga. A win in that game could have allowed the Zags to play the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in their home town, Spokane. But Gonzaga lost to Saint Mary's, and was punished with a trip all the way across the country to face the most efficient defense in the nation.
I still think Gonzaga pulls out the win. Florida State's offense ranks an abysmal 335th in turnover percentage given up, and 298th in free throw percentage. Gonzaga isn't much better from the charity stripe, ranked 250th. But the Bulldogs are ranked ninth in their ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts, which says they get to the line a lot. The Seminoles lost in the first round last year and hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament prior to that since 1998. I'll take Gonzaga, which is making its 11th consecutive Tournament appearance.
5. Butler over 12. Texas-El Paso
A lot of people see UTEP as a fashionable upset pick. I think people are seriously overlooking the Bulldogs, who have wins over Ohio State and Xavier and haven't lost since December 22. Both of these teams are ranked in the top 20 in defensive efficiency, but the Miners are 226th in free throw shooting and Butler is 21st. If this is a low-scoring game, the foul line becomes even more important.
4. Vanderbilt over 13. Murray State
Here's another game that's a trendy upset pick. Murray State has some really gaudy numbers, such as a No. 9 rank in offensive efficiency and a No. 4 rank in two-point shooting and two-point defense.
But 16 of the Racers' 30 wins this season were over teams ranked below 250 in Pomeroy. The only team in the top 100 Murray State beat was No. 97 Morehead State, once at home and once on a neutral floor in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The Commodores are just a bit better than that.
6. Xavier over 11. Minnesota
If I told you that the winner of an NCAA Tournament game between a BCS team and a non-BCS team could be decided by a couple of ridiculously hot three-point shooters, which team would you expect to win the game? I bet you'd say the non-BCS team. But in this case, it would be Minnesota, and the shooters would be Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook.
Minnesota as a whole is the eighth-best three-point shooting team in the country at 40.4 percent, but Xavier holds its opponents to 29.4 percent from beyond the arc - the 11th-lowest rate in the country. The Musketeers' worst loss by Pomeroy this season was at No. 51 Wake Forest; Minnesota lost at Miami (Fla.), Indiana and Northwestern.
3. Pittsburgh over 14. Oakland
Oakland is 259th in the country in three-point shooting, 250th in two-point defense and 212th in overall defensive efficiency. Pittsburgh's starless roster figured out how to win at Syracuse and Marquette. I would not cast this game as a likely upset possibility.
7. Brigham Young over 10. Florida
I am not as sold on BYU as others are, but the Cougars are really good at scoring. They're 10th in offensive efficiency, third in three-point shooting and the best team in the nation at the free throw line. Florida is 282nd in three-point shooting and has lost four of its last five.
(Yeah, I know. I saw it as soon as I wrote it. But it's true, so I'm leaving it there.)
2. Kansas State over 15. North Texas
It's less than a three-hour drive from the North Texas campus in Denton to the Oklahoma City. So it's more than likely that some of the 30,874 students enrolled at the school will drive up Interstate 35 to watch the Mean Green's third NCAA Tournament game in program history.
Unfortunately, they won't see an upset. North Texas is a middling 157th in offensive efficiency and a lowly 220th in three-point shooting. Kansas State is fifth in offensive rebounding percentage and 17th in defensive efficiency.
1. Syracuse over 8. Gonzaga
This will be a game where Onuaku's abscence matters, but it will also be a game where the venue matters even more. The Orange will have a huge home-court advantage in Buffalo, where secondary-market ticket prices are rising quickly.
Gonzaga has plenty of good wins this season, but I really can't see Syracuse losing in Buffalo. This game could be close, but the Orange will prevail in the end.
5. Butler over 4. Vanderbilt
I see two key stats in this game. Butler plays at 4.5 possessions per game slower than Vanderbilt, and their defense is 12th in the nation in lowest offensive rebounding percentage given up. Vanderbilt's offense is 190th in offensive rebounding percentage gained.
Butler forwarwd Gordon Hayward will have to match 6-11 Commodores center A.J. Ogilvy. If he does, the Bulldogs will be able to win this game. I don't think Vanderbilt has a good enough backcourt to spread the Bulldogs' defense out.
3. Pittsburgh over 6. Xavier
For the second year in a row, no less - and not all that far from Cincinnati. When two teams have a big difference in tempo, I generally take the slower team, and Pittsburgh averages almost nine fewer possessions per game than Xavier.
The Panthers also love playing before revved-up crowds, and the Bradley Center should be rocking on Sunday. Consider that the four teams I have playing in the second round in Milwaukee are Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Xavier. You wonder who will be rooting for whom.
7. Brigham Young over 2. Kansas State
While I can't really dispute Kansas State's seed, I haven't been sold on them this season either. That stems mainly from the Wildcats' three losses to Kansas, but I also look at K-State's 123rd-ranked three-point defense and think Jimmer Fredette and Jonathan Tavernari could light it up for the Cougars.
Add in that BYU will be playing to get to Salt Lake City for the Sweet 16, and I think the Cougars win.
5. Butler over 1. Syracuse
This is where Arinze Onuaku's injury decides the region. I've talked to some people who follow Syracuse closely and they aren't convinced he'll be at full strength for this game. Salt Lake City is also a Thursday-Saturday site, so the Orange will be on short rest after playing in Buffalo on Friday and Sunday. If Onuaku is out, I think Butler's forwards can get Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph in foul trouble.
The other thing to watch for is Syracuse's offensive rebounding. The Orange lost to Georgetown at the Garden in part because they couldn't hit even the easiest layups down the stretch. Butler's defense is 12th in the country in lowest offensive rebounding percentage given up. Add to that the fact that Syracuse will lose its home-court advantage traveling across the country, and I think Butler can do this.
3. Pittsburgh over 7. Brigham Young
As I wrote on Tuesday, I voted for Jamie Dixon as national coach of the year because of how much he's done with so little star power on his roster.
It would be nice to see BYU win one for the home fans, but Pittsburgh has won in the Carrier Dome and the Bradley Center this season. So the atmosphere won't rattle them.
I also look at the Cougars' schedule and see that their best win of the season by Pomeroy was at No. 33 UTEP on January 9. It's been a very good year for the Mountain West, but Pittsburgh has taken down Syracuse, West Virginia, Marquette and Villanova. Combine that with an 11-possession-per-game difference in tempo, and I think the Panthers slow the game down and grind out a win.
3. Pittsburgh over 5. Butler
The three stupidest things you can do when filling out a bracket, as far as I can tell, are: Pick a 16 to beat a 1; pick Maryland to beat a hot mid-major with a high-scoring guard; and pick Pittsburgh to make the Final Four. I've now done two of the three.
But maybe it's good to take the plunge in a season when Pittsburgh has flown under the radar almost since November. The Panthers were picked to finish ninth in the Big East preseason poll and finished with the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
This game will be slow, and probably close at the end. Both teams have strong three-point defenses, but Pittsburgh's two-point defense ranks 29th to Butler's 114. I'll go with that, and send three Big East teams to the Final Four.